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Why Trump?

Concerns over America’s future are driving evangelical support for the former president


Donald Trump arrives at a campaign event in Manchester, N.H. Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Why Trump?
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At a Trump campaign stop in Hollis, N.H., on Jan. 23, Gabriela Cernolev stood in the snow outside a vineyard to watch Donald Trump Jr. speak on his father’s behalf. As evidence of her support, she wore a MAGA baseball cap displaying signatures from both Trumps. Her T-shirt sported Trump’s infamous mug shot and the text “Wanted—for president.”

A Romanian immigrant, Cernolev has voted for Donald Trump in every election since she earned American citizenship in 2015. Now she says she enjoys living in New Hampshire where she can be on the front lines of support for the former president.

“He does have Christian values, and everything that he does, I think he is appointed by God to be where he is,” Cernolev said. “Through the Bible, through history, God uses people in different ways. And I think Trump is being used for the greater good.”

Many American evangelicals share similar sentiments. And following Trump’s victories in New Hampshire and Iowa, he appears poised to clinch the Republican presidential nomination for a third time.

Of course, no other presidential candidate has rolled into primary season freighted with federal indictments, so Trump’s legal baggage may yet derail his third White House bid. And yet, despite that baggage—and past moral indiscretions—Trump enjoys broad support from religious conservatives.

Why didn’t such voters coalesce around an alternative Republican candidate, such as former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis? Evangelical Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire will tell you: In interviews, many expressed confidence in Trump’s track record, willingness to overlook his faults, and fear over where the country is headed.

Stephen Scheffler is the president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and the state GOP’s Republican national committeeman. He’s also an elder at Woodland Hills Church of Christ in Pleasant Hill, Iowa. On Jan. 18, Scheffler endorsed Trump, a decision he says was based on his belief that Trump is the only candidate who can beat Biden. He admitted he doesn’t always like the way Trump talks, but emphasized that every ­candidate has flaws. “We’re not looking to elect a priest or a pastor,” he said. “We’re looking to elect somebody that’s got the guts and the tenacity to push back against radical woke socialism.”

Gary Leffler, 62, of West Des Moines, Iowa, praised Trump’s first-term record on religious liberty and pro-life issues: “Never in our lives did my wife and I believe we would see Roe v. Wade overturned.” Leffler attends a nondenominational church and, in local and state parades, drives a 1957 Ford 860 tractor with “John 3:16” painted on the front. In 2016, Leffler’s tractor morphed into the “Trump tractor,” ­decorated with Trump magnets and signs. Leffler admits Trump is rough around the edges. But he argues God uses sinful people—why not Trump?

Gary and Jannell Leffler

Gary and Jannell Leffler Courtesy of Gary Leffler

There’s a whole other wing of evangelicals who stand ready to answer that question, too.

Some well-known Christians still publicly oppose Trump, most notably New York Times columnist David French and former Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, who now heads Christianity Today. They, along with Peter Wehner and the late Michael Gerson, have pointed out that Trump behaves in ways that are antithetical to Christian teaching, and they’ve argued he has duped evangelicals into supporting him by offering a combination of key policy concessions and access to power.

While many nonpublic evangelicals share these views, they were hard to come by in Iowa and New Hampshire. Every evangelical we interviewed was, if not a full-throated Trump supporter, ready to vote for him over Biden.

Shari Reynolds, 77, of Earlham, Iowa, said she sees Trump as the only candidate who could “make right what Biden has messed up.” Reynolds believes the U.S. has lost respect internationally and sees Trump as the candidate who could restore that.

Pepperdine University political science professor Chris Soper believes many white evangelicals support Trump because he represents political attitudes they value—such as distrust of government and isolationist leanings. He noted that some evangelicals who supported Trump on a transactional basis in 2016 now judge his first-term track record—on issues ranging from the economy to immigration—a success.

It’s true that some Americans who self-identify as “evangelical” to pollsters do not actually attend church regularly. Increasingly, the term is used more in a “political, cultural sense than a theological church sense,” said political ­scientist Ryan Burge. He ­predicts these “cultural evangelicals” will make up about 12 percent of Trump’s self-­identified evangelical voters in 2024.

In a Jan. 22 Substack post, Burge compiled data from the 2008-2020 Cooperative Election Study on church-attending Trump supporters. His conclusion: Partisanship, not high or low church attendance, has propelled Trump’s popularity to a “fever pitch.” Burge says that’s because “­religiously active people tend to be more Republican and Republicans tend to vote for Trump.”

As for Trump’s pending legal indictments—charges surrounding his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, mishandling of classified documents, and hush money paid to an adult film star—Patti Arnburg, 72, of Earlham, believes they’re “part of an effort to keep him out of office.”

Certainly, not every evangelical names Trump as their first pick. Grant Brown, the 35-year-old pastor of Crossroad Church in Earlham, said he voted for DeSantis at the Iowa caucuses. But in the general election, Brown said, he’ll support Trump “because I’m looking at my kids.”

—with additional reporting by Christina Grube

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