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Despite Trump’s Indictments, Evangelicals Continue to Back His 2024 Run

Many evangelicals have stuck with the former president through his legal troubles, moral failings, and public indiscretions.
Despite Trump’s Indictments, Evangelicals Continue to Back His 2024 Run
Image: Robert F. Bukaty / AP
Trump supporters pray at a campaign rally in New Hampshire.

On the eve of former president Donald Trump’s indictment on charges that he attempted to overturn the presidential election of 2020, Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s show on Newsmax to share his take.

“It’s a sad day for America,” Graham said.

The indictment—the third Trump has faced in the span of four months—“is an attempt to … inflict enough political wounds on this man to where it will be impossible for him to run” for president in 2024, Graham said.

According to Graham, this is but the latest attempt by Democrats to discredit Trump. First, there was Robert Mueller’s investigation on whether Trump colluded with Russia in the 2016 election. Then, a probe into the Trump Organization’s tax returns, and finally, accusations of sexual harassment by women that “seem to come out of the woodwork.”

Next week Trump may face yet more charges in Georgia for attempting to interfere in the presidential election of 2020. The investigation has taken nearly two and a half years and could bring charges to nearly 20 people.

After all the scandals Trump faced in his presidency and beyond, is he still susceptible to “political wounds”?

Trump’s political career has been morally fraught from the start, and a plurality of evangelical supporters stuck with him through the Access Hollywood tape, the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, revelations of Trump paying hush money to Stormy Daniels, his impeachments, and the Capitol insurrection.

Some conservative evangelicals may be turned off by Trump’s legal fights and pivot to a different GOP candidate in 2024, said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah University. But “most conservative evangelicals gave up on the politics of character in 2016” and still consider their relationship to Trump as a pragmatic bargain.

“They have maintained their contractual relationship with Donald Trump. This means that they will essentially ignore his moral failings and his criminal indictments in exchange for Supreme Court justices, anti-abortion laws, religious liberty (as they define it), anti-‘woke’ classrooms, and the possibility of overturning Obergefell v. Hodges,” Fea said via email. “Little has changed in eight years.”

Trump’s defenders extend beyond his closest acolytes. According to a New York Times/Siena College poll from July, 76 percent of self-identified white evangelicals believe the former president has not committed any serious federal crimes.

Like Graham, Tony Suarez, a pastor and the chief operating officer of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, also dismissed the latest charges against Trump as “games” played by Democrats to try to block his presidential bid, Religion News Service reported.

Richard Land, the former president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and executive editor of The Christian Post, called the indictment a “jihad” by the Department of Justice against Trump.

Others who do not support Trump’s third bid for the presidency also have raised concerns that Trump’s indictment is politically motivated. In a recent article, Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, questioned the legal reasoning behind the charges.

“Lying and manipulating and conspiring to gain political goals is, let’s be honest, pretty much a bipartisan enterprise in politics, and especially in the Oval Office. This does not justify any moral wrong, but there is a huge difference between moral wrong and criminal wrongdoing,” Mohler wrote in World.

According to an Ipsos/ABC News poll, most Americans believe the charges are serious, but are divided on whether Trump should be charged with a crime. Nearly half think the charges are politically motivated.

After his indictment in the spring, Republican support for his White House run swelled in the polls, with 81 percent of white evangelicals maintaining a favorable view of the former president.

Robert P. Jones, president of the pollster group PRRI, notes that white evangelicals also seem to have developed a higher tolerance for political misbehavior.

In 2011, PRRI asked Americans whether “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” That year only 30 percent agreed with the statement, but in 2016 when Trump won the GOP nomination, their share spiked to 72 percent—a number that remained largely unchanged in 2020 when PRRI asked the question again.

Another factor likely influencing evangelicals’ view of Trump’s indictment is the upcoming presidential election. In the minds of many evangelicals, Trump is the only viable candidate who can stand against President Joe Biden.

According to the Times/Siena poll, 62 percent of white evangelicals said they believed Trump could defeat Biden, compared to just 28 percent who said Florida governor Ron DeSantis could do so.

But among some evangelicals, Trump’s sway may be slightly weaker. In Iowa, where the first caucus for the GOP nomination will be held, Trump has the support of 50 percent of white evangelical voters, compared to 56 percent nationwide, according to other Times/Siena polls. DeSantis, Trump’s strongest rival, is also polling better in Iowa than nationwide.

Bob Vander Plaats, president of The Family Leader, an Iowa-based organization that recently hosted an evangelical forum for the GOP nominees, is one evangelical who wants the Republican Party to move beyond Trump. In a recent exchange with conservative radio host Todd Starnes about whether presidential candidates should attend church, Vander Plaats brought up Trump’s character.

“The problem people of Faith have with [Trump] isn’t Church attendance. Has everything to do with the ‘fruits of the Spirit,’” Vander Plaats posted on Twitter (now X).

Vander Plaats closed his post with a hashtag that seemed to reference Matthew 7:16, a passage where Jesus warns his disciples about false prophets.

Among Trump’s GOP rivals, his indictment seems to have barely caused any ripples. Most avoided mentioning Trump or the charges at an event on Sunday in Iowa—except Mike Pence, who took the opportunity last week to launch a new product for his campaign.

For $30, supporters of the former vice president can now buy T-shirts emblazoned with “Too Honest,” a jab apparently aimed at Trump after he told Pence, “You’re too honest,” when he refused to help overturn the election results of 2020.

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