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Evangelicals dismiss Trump scandals, look to help GOP

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump waited for the arrival of the guests of honor at Tuesday’s state dinner at the White House.
Doug Mills/The New York Times
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump waited for the arrival of the guests of honor at Tuesday’s state dinner at the White House.

WASHINGTON — The conservative Christian coalition that helped usher President Trump into power in 2016 is planning its largest midterm election mobilization ever, with volunteers fanning out from the church pews to the streets to register voters, raise money, and persuade conservatives that they cannot afford to be complacent this year.

But the cumulative weight of scandals in Trump’s private and public life is threatening to overshadow what the religious right sees as its most successful string of policy victories in a generation. And Republicans will be up against not only a resurgent liberal opposition to Trump but also the historical disadvantages that burden any party in full control of Washington, especially in the first off-year congressional elections of a president’s term.

“The midterms are going to be very, very tough for the Republicans,” said Robert Jeffress, who leads the First Baptist Dallas megachurch and is one of Trump’s most loyal evangelical supporters.

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The vast majority of evangelical Christians are digging in for Trump, despite accusations by a pornographic film star and a Playboy playmate that he had separate affairs with them shortly after his wife, Melania Trump, gave birth to their son.

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Those controversies, paired with the multiple women who accused him of groping them before the election and his own boasts of sexual aggressions, have highlighted the unyielding support of a political bloc that once put moral behavior at the center of its political judgment.

“Now even the Christian culture is OK with it,” said Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, one of the nation’s largest evangelical groups. “That’s the sadness,” he added. “The next time a Democrat in the presidency has a moral failure, who’s going to be able to say anything?”

But Christian conservatives say Trump has also more than honored his end of the bargain that brought reluctant members of their ranks along during his presidential campaign. He has begun the process of moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, won the confirmation of numerous judges and a Supreme Court justice who seem likely to advance their antiabortion cause, moved against transgender protections throughout the government, increased the ability of churches to organize politically, and personally supported the March for Life.

“I don’t know of anyone who has worked the evangelical community more effectively than Donald Trump,” said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which this year plans to devote four times the money it spent in the 2014 midterms.

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In essence, many evangelical leaders have decided that airing moral qualms about the president only hurts their cause.

“His family can talk to him about issues of character,” said Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization that is framing the midterm elections to potential donors as a civilizational struggle.

So far, the decision by most conservative evangelical leaders to double down on their support for Trump is playing out like most of the other moments when skeptics of the president believed he had finally undermined himself with his base.

A poll released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute found white evangelical approval for Trump at its highest level ever: 75 percent. Only 22 percent said they had an unfavorable view of the president.

Much as in the 2016 presidential campaign, Christian conservative events are designed to be highly visible and to convey the movement as one united voice. Hundreds of evangelical leaders plan to gather in June at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for a conspicuous show of support for Trump. The event will be part pep rally, part strategy session.