WASHINGTON (RNS) — As president and since, Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to blunt the impact of scandals and prosecutions by leaning into his nearly ironclad support among evangelical Christian pastors and other leaders. Some of those figures are again rallying to Trump after his arraignment Thursday (Aug. 3) on charges of plotting to overturn the 2020 election.
The Rev. Tony Suarez, chief operation officer of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and a longtime faith adviser to Trump, dismissed the new federal indictment, Trump’s second, as a distraction. Echoing GOP politicians’ summation of the charges lodged by special prosecutor Jack Smith, Suarez insisted Democrats were attempting to “disqualify Trump’s run for the Republican nomination.”
Suarez predicted the indictment would fail to stifle evangelicals’ support. “Evangelical Christians, conservatives and independents are tired of these games and ready to fight to protect our democracy and ensure a fair election in 2024 that we believe will lead to President Trump returning to the Oval Office,” he said.
Another longtime Trump faith adviser, the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, told Religion News Service that he had exchanged texts with Trump after the indictment was announced and that the former president is “upbeat and optimistic.”
Jeffress, who initially declined to endorse anyone in the 2024 primary, said he is now openly supporting Trump.
“It’s doubtful that the latest indictment of President Trump will have any meaningful impact on his overwhelming popularity with evangelical voters, given the fact that previous indictments have only increased his support among Republicans — and most evangelicals vote Republican,” Jeffress said in an email. “I predict evangelical voters will continue to support President Trump because of his strong pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and pro-Israel track record.”
Jeffress added that while he considers the charges against Trump to be “serious,” he believes them to be “politically-motivated” and accused the Department of Justice of attempting to imprison President Joe Biden’s political rival.
A New York Times/Siena College poll conducted before the indictment found that 56% of white evangelicals said they would most likely support the former president, with 18% saying they would back Florida Gov. DeSantis. All other GOP candidates draw 5% or less of white evangelical support.
In the same poll, 76% of white evangelicals said they do not think the president has committed any federal crimes.
Those who analyze religion in politics also agreed that the latest charges, following those charging falsification of business records and conspiracy to retain classified documents, won’t dent his popularity among evangelicals.
Michael Wear, an evangelical Christian who worked on faith outreach for both of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, said, “The majority of white evangelicals have accepted this idea that Trump wants what they want — I’m not sure this indictment changes that.”
But Wear, who now runs the Center for Christianity and Public Life, added that the Trump indictments give the former president’s Republican primary opponents an opening. Former Vice President Mike Pence, Wear noted, is already using Trump’s indictments related to Jan. 6 as a way to undermine the “presumption” that Trump is “someone who just wins.”
On Wednesday, Pence — who is described in the indictment as repeatedly rebuffing Trump’s alleged insistence that Pence help overturn the 2020 election results — responded to reporters’ questions on Wednesday by saying, “I really do believe that anyone who puts themself over the Constitution should never be president of the United States, and anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should not be president again.”
But even Pence, a former Indiana governor whose selection as Trump’s running mate was intended to lock in evangelical votes, said the issue should have been left to American voters, not the courts.
Later on Wednesday, Pence told Fox News his decision to refute Trump was “keep(ing) faith” with his oath to the American people and “Almighty God.”
The response to the latest indictment shows how Trump has refashioned the dynamics of evangelical politics, Wear said. Whereas politicians once courted evangelical leaders in hopes they would inspire their followers to turn out on their behalf, Republican activists now have a more direct relationship with conservative Christian voters. Evangelical pastors are as likely to follow the lead of their dyed-in-the-wool Republican congregants rather than risk their displeasure as influence their votes from the pulpit.
Wear pointed to last month’s Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, traditionally a major opportunity for GOP candidates to connect with the powerful evangelical caucus in the state. This year, the person grilling Republican White House hopefuls at the event was not a pastor or other broker of faith votes but former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
“I don’t think there is any clearer picture of what’s going on in the right-wing political space,” Wear said. “What used to be assertions of evangelical influence are now assertions of evangelical assimilation into a political movement.”