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Trump hits campaign trail with pitch to evangelicals

  • Published at 04:23 pm January 3rd, 2020
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US President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, US December 21, 2019 Reuters

So the Republican incumbent is beginning the election year with a pitch to seal up the backing of the religious right

US President Donald Trump benefited from the fierce support of evangelicals in 2016 and cannot afford to lose those voters if he wants to win a second term in November.

So the Republican incumbent is beginning the election year with a pitch to seal up the backing of the religious right.

On Friday, he will go on the attack by launching the "Evangelicals for Trump" coalition at a megachurch in Miami, Florida -- his new "home" state where he has just spent two weeks of vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

For the time being, the real estate mogul-turned-president has little to fear. According to a recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 77% of white evangelical Republicans approve of the job Trump is doing at the White House.

A crushing 98 majority of them are opposed to his impeachment and removal from office.

"We have not really seen throughout Trump's presidency any discernible cracks," PRRI chief executive Robert P. Jones told AFP.

"Our polling shows that they have been largely unfazed by the impeachment proceedings," said Jones, the author of "The End of White Christian America."

'Profoundly immoral'

Friday's event at the King Jesus International Ministry, also known as El Rey Jesus, is aimed at ensuring support for Trump does not erode among the key demographic. 

Any attrition -- especially in battleground states like Florida -- could doom his chances of re-election.

In 2016, winning several crucial swing states helped Trump to victory in the electoral college, despite trailing Hillary Clinton by nearly three million ballots in the popular vote.

Team Trump was a bit frayed when evangelical magazine Christianity Today published a scathing editorial before Christmas in favor of the president's removal from office.

"The facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president's political opponents," wrote the magazine's editor-in-chief, Mark Galli.

"That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral."

Of course, Trump quickly fired back -- with a series of tweets.

"The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!" he said, calling Christianity Today a "far left" publication.

Several top figures in the religious movement lined up to support Trump.

Franklin Graham -- one of the sons of the celebrated late pastor Billy Graham, who popularized televangelism in the 1950s and founded Christianity Today -- lent his support.

Graham said his father "would be very disappointed" with the magazine's editorial, adding: "My father knew Donald Trump, he believed in Donald Trump, and he voted for Donald Trump."

Tony Perkins, president of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council, said the editorial represented an "isolated voice" and added he was not at all worried that it would drain evangelical support away from Trump.

"I see the support just as strong now as it was in 2016, if not stronger," Perkins said in an interview.

One of every four Americans identifies as evangelical, according to the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Evangelicalism is the primary form of Protestantism in America, and the main religious group in the country, ahead of Catholics and traditional Protestants.

'Holding back big changes'

For Jones, the Christianity Today editorial reflects divisions among evangelical leaders, which were there before, and not discontent among the rank-and-file.

In 2016, "Trump really did not rely so much on evangelical leaders -- he relied on direct appeals to evangelicals who rallied around him early on in the campaign," Jones explained.

Trump, who has not exactly worked hard to attract new voters, must secure support from all those who voted for him in 2016 if he wants to remain in the Oval Office for another four years.

Given that 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for him four years ago, his campaign clearly sees the task ahead.

The Republican billionaire, who has been married three times and is not known for being particularly devout, nevertheless knew how to calibrate his message in 2016 for the religious right.

First, he chose Mike Pence -- who described himself as "Christian, conservative and Republican, in that order" -- as his running mate.

Then he promised to nominate only Supreme Court justices and federal judges who were opposed to abortion rights and favorable to lenient gun laws.

But Jones says Trump's appeal among evangelical voters cannot be reduced to a few key policy points -- it rests in his ability to reassure a group that feels increasingly vulnerable in an America that is less white every day.

"He spends all of his time talking about immigrants and the way the country is changing and that he is the person who is going to literally build the wall" on the border with Mexico, Jones said.

According to PRRI data, while America was mainly white and Christian a decade ago, it is now 42% white and Christian.

"His appeal to evangelicals has been much more about holding back big changes in the country that white evangelicals are alarmed about," Jones said.