Will Donald Trump be re-elected thanks to evangelical Christians? – Henry McLeish

Evangelical Christians have formed an unholy alliance with Donald Trump despite his lack of piety, writes Henry McLeish
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on 2 March (Picture: Evan Vucci/AP)Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on 2 March (Picture: Evan Vucci/AP)
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on 2 March (Picture: Evan Vucci/AP)

A complex relationship with God is one of the defining features of the trinity of constitutionalism, capitalism, and Christianity that shapes America, its politics, and elections. Donald Trump has used his presidency to establish a remarkable and resilient alliance with white self-identified born-again or evangelical Christian voters. The President knows religion will matter in determining who wins the November election.

Despite his personal behaviour, lack of a moral compass, lack of core beliefs and seemingly being at odds with the basic tenants of Christianity, Trump secured 80 per cent of white evangelical voters in the 2016 election, the largest religious group in America.

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Far-reaching promises he made as a candidate in 2016 have been delivered during his presidency.

Before looking in detail at this “unholy alliance”, it is worth looking at the idea, that, for a developed western country, America is extraordinarily high on religion and God.

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The First Amendment of the US Constitution confirms five basic liberties, including religious freedom in the form of the separation of church and state, saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of”. But the role of religion in politics continues to contradict this ideal.

Adopted in 1791, this amendment was a signature theme of the Founding Fathers. An influx of Puritans and Presbyterians from Britain introduced their brand of religion early in the history of the first 13 colonies and this was sustained over time by waves of immigration from countries with strong religious traditions.

‘In God We Trust’

A remarkable 69 per cent of the US population say religion plays an important part in their daily lives. Figures range from 80 per cent in the southern states to a still-high 50 per cent in more prosperous parts of the country. These figures compare with under 20 per cent in Sweden and Denmark, 24 per cent in Japan and 27 per cent in the UK.

In 2016, a staggering 90 per cent of Americans said they believed in God, but only 28 per cent of people in the UK believed in God or a higher spiritual power, against a background of declining church membership.

In America, there are prolific references to God, with nearly 70 mentions in US codes, covering currency, courts, and ceremonies, including the Pledge of Allegiance. The US Constitution, however, does not mention the words Christian, God, Bible or Jesus Christ. So why does religion exercise so much influence on politics and government policy?

Viewed from a Western European perspective, there are few outward signs of profound US religiosity, although “In God We Trust” is printed on every dollar bill. The words were first added to US coins during the beginning of the Civil War. The song “God Bless America” was written by Irving Berlin in 1918 and a poll in 2015 suggested that 53 per cent of Americans thought God had a special relationship with the US. Many Americans believe Trump was chosen by God!

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Attempts were made in the US Congress in the 1860s and 1950s to add specific references to Christianity in the form of amendments to the US Constitution. Promoted by the National Reform Association, one suggestion was to add the words “devoutly recognise the law of Jesus Christ, Saviour and Ruler of Nations”. It never came out of committee to be voted on.

Aggressively intolerant

Religion, embedded in the everyday lives of Americans, has become a significant part of political life. The Republicans are seen by some as ‘God’s party’ and despite the constitutional separation of church and state, all levels of politics invoke religion.

Mainstream religions in America operate in a similar way to their counterparts in the UK and Europe. But the cultural or spiritual drive of the religious right in the US is narrow, divisive, and intensely partisan. Their political agenda is preoccupied with abortion, LGBT+ rights and hostility towards Islam. These tensions are heightened as America becomes less white and more culturally diverse.

Mainstream faiths in America feel less secure, as they witness traditional beliefs and teachings being drowned out by an aggressively intolerant strain of evangelical Christianity. Trump has not eased their concerns.

In February of each year, a uniquely American event, the National Prayer Meeting takes place in Washington. Created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, this was known as the Presidential Prayer Breakfast. Intended to provide a celebration of faith and a forum for a discussion of the role of religion in politics, Trump has turned this into a platform for religious conservatives, aimed at stoking the flames of division between faiths and further politicising religion.

Early in his presidency, Trump outlined his partisan intentions – for a multi-faith and multi-religion America – when he ended the “Ecumenical Faith Advisory Council”, set up by Barack Obama and replaced it with an “Evangelical Advisory Board”. This transactional, deal-making, and confirmed Presbyterian President had quickly decided that Catholics, mainstream Protestants, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh people, along with other traditions, had no place in Trump’s re-election plans and were out of his inner circle. Only white evangelicals would have the ear of the President.

US laws to be influenced by Bible?

Recent polling, by the Pew Research Centre, illustrates the impact of religion in America and the importance of the Bible. Half of all Americans polled said that the Bible should influence US laws, including 28 per cent who favour the Bible over the will of the people. The Bible, remember, is not mentioned in the US Constitution.

This sense of religious fundamentalism and theocratic governance represents a curious development within American society and demonstrates how a well-organised white Christian evangelical movement can break bread with a President not known for his spiritual or religious beliefs and exert so much influence on US policy.

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The special relationship between the President and white evangelicals is key to an understanding of how Trump could be re-elected. Promises made in 2016 have been delivered by the “dealmaker in chief”, who now expects massive electoral support from them in November.

For Trump, this is strictly a transactional electoral arrangement. White evangelicals defend supping with the “devil” with comments such as “he may not be a good person, but he is a good President”, and that they are not “looking for a pastor in chief” and “only judge politicians by their policies, rather than their personal piety”.

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