ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Anyone wondering why evangelical voters have stuck by Donald Trump will find answers here, amid the clasped hands and murmured prayers of a religious rally in Maryland.
They can be summed up in five words: Abortion. Nationalism. Redemption. Hillary Clinton. One participant shakes her head when asked if she’s heard the infamous audio of Trump singing the praises of adultery and unsolicited sexual touching.
Susan Priest believes he’s sought salvation.
Trump, who last year said he never asked God for forgiveness, couldn’t cite a favoured Bible verse, routinely gloats about his material wealth and skates around scriptural admonishments regarding sexual immodesty.
He found faith last year, Priest says — she heard it on a conference call this week with fellow churchgoers. That’s why she won’t bother watching the video.
“He’s born-again now. He’s a Christian,” said the Maryland resident. “We consider the things he did in his past now forgiven — like our sins are forgiven.
“He’s not the same person.”
Evangelical Christians mostly support Trump. Yet the cultural cleavages of this election appear among Christians, too. Trump is dominant among white evangelicals — a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute had him leading Clinton by 50 percentage points. Among non-white Christians, Clinton led by 56 percentage points.
That culture clash permeated this week’s event in downtown Annapolis, where Franklin Graham, the son of legendary preacher Billy Graham, held his latest prayer rally during a 50-state election tour.
Graham took the stage to the strains of “In America” — a country song that describes an eagle flying slow, the Stars and Stripes flying low, and the scourge of ISIL — and urged the faithful to defend their traditions.
That means leaving the Ten Commandments up on school walls, even if it offends people: “Good. Let it offend them,” he said. And it means reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It involves blunt comparisons with Islam and Buddhism: “Muhammad didn’t die for your sins. Buddha didn’t die for your sins. Only one — and that is Jesus Christ.”
There were only a few Trump signs at the rally. Graham wouldn’t tell people who to vote for. He simply invited them to pray for the politicians — and send text messages to receive his ministry’s analysis of the party platforms.
That analysis tilts decidedly toward Trump.
It warns about the need to defend the Supreme Court from liberal same-sex marriage “zealots” and pro-abortion judges. It mentions military strength, terrorism, immigration, Internet decency and Israel. There’s a section on poverty and charity, too.
Not all Christians view the election the same way.
The magazine founded by Graham’s own father, “Christianity Today,” excoriated Trump this week. A piece by its editorial director said no public figure exhibits his idolatry, greed, sexual immorality, and pride.
“He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool,” said the piece by Andy Crouch.
”Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbours ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us.”
Another writer at the magazine called this the religious right’s long-overdue death-spasm.
This is the culmination of a movement that started in the 1970s, said another analyst of religion in U.S. politics. Faith leaders conducted a cultural counter-revolution against changes of the 1960s and over time, said Franklin Lambert of Purdue University, the religious right became less “religious,” more ”right”: ”So, pardon the pun, politics ‘trumps’ religion.”
So Trump wins votes even from the wary.
At Tuesday’s rally, Sharon McCall says she used to change the channel when Trump was on TV — she disliked him that much. She supported Ben Carson. But she believes Trump will keep his promise to appoint conservative Supreme Court judges.
She doesn’t fret over that old video. ”That’s just a hit job,” she says.
Priest is also fixated on the court. She’s spent years awaiting justices who will stop abortion. Two decades ago, she was arrested for a sit-in outside a clinic.
Trump has vowed to appoint conservative judges. If conservatives doubted his sincerity, he moved to mollify their skepticism by releasing a list of his possible court picks. A few months later, he released a second list.
That’s better than his liberal opponent, Priest said.
”Hillary is absolutely unacceptable. She’s willing to see any child murdered.” She illustrated her point by citing a relative: ”(He says), I’m voting for Trump even if he shoots somebody. Because he’s not Hillary.”