Evangelicals put the Republican party in a bind

I wrote recently about how Republicans have dug a hole for themselves because their voting base, especially evangelical Christians, has taken the abortion issue to far greater extremes than the party establishment would like, in the process alienating many people who, while they may be uneasy about abortion, are even more disturbed about making it so hard to get that it becomes almost impossible for women to get one even in cases of rape or incest or the health of the woman.

Then there is the other problem that evangelical Christians present to Republicans in that while Republican candidates seek their support, evangelicals are not the majority of the voting population and getting their vote is not sufficient to put them over the top.

We see this dynamic play out in the first state to vote in the Republican nomination contest, which is Iowa. This has the format of caucuses where people gather together on one evening in winter to discuss and vote for candidates at public meetings. Such formats are favorable to those who are very committed and in the case of the Iowa caucuses, that consists of people like evangelicals. Already we are seeing a steady stream of Republican hopefuls going, or planning to go, to Iowa to pander to that group. Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott have already made their pilgrimage.

But the Iowa caucuses also show why pandering to the extreme religious right can be a losing strategy, because the winners of the caucuses in past elections did not go on to win the nomination. In 2016, for example, Trump finished second to Ted Cruz in Iowa.

But in the early phase of the next presidential campaign, Scott’s joyful proclamations of his Christian faith face an unlikely obstacle. Like other Republicans eyeing the White House, he is navigating an evangelical community that is faithful to former President Donald Trump, the thrice-married former reality television star who once supported abortion rights and spent decades boasting of his sexual prowess.

That history repelled many Iowa evangelical leaders during the last competitive Republican caucuses in 2016, when they helped push Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to victory in the opening contest. As the 2024 campaign begins, however, many of those same leaders are open to Trump, grateful for his judicial appointments that resulted in the dismantling of a constitutional right to abortion.

Beyond Cruz, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won the 2012 caucuses as a crusading abortion opponent. In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, posted a surprise victory by cobbling together a Christian coalition of pastors and religious home-school advocates.

Many of these evangelicals were repulsed by Trump in 2016 because of the lurid reports about his behavior but now they are fans. They find excuses for him by comparing him to biblical characters like Cyrus who was not a Jew but is lauded as a protector of Jews. The AP reporter interviewed several evangelical pastors and leaders about their intentions this time around. They are now happy with Trump because he did the things they wanted, such as nominating judges who oppose abortion and pandering to Israel by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and moving the US embassy there.

In a new display of pragmatism, Jech and others like him who didn’t support Trump in 2016 say the former president is no less imperfect a man now, but that his action on policy they hold dear may erase questions about his moral character.

During the 2016 campaign, the Rev. Mike Demastus of Des Moines supported Cruz and called Trump “morally loathsome,” “wicked” and “a reprehensible man.” Today, Demastus calls him “the most pro-life president we have ever had,” and would consider supporting him in the caucuses, along with others.

In a March Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, Trump was viewed favorably by 58% of evangelicals, unfavorably by 39% and 3% were unsure. On the eve of the 2016 caucuses, Iowa evangelicals seemed to have a dimmer view of Trump. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll taken on the eve of the caucuses showed Trump with support from only 19% of evangelicals, with Cruz supported by 33%.

Amann, the suburban Des Moines pastor who rejected judging Trump, said the former president need only worry about evangelical support if his resolve for their priorities weakens.

“If he backs off of pro-life, that would be a bigger issue,” Amann said.

But even among this group, Trump has to tread warily because pandered groups do not take lightly to what they see as less than total fealty to their causes.

The once anti-Trump DeMastus was quick to remind that Trump blamed devout abortion opponents for Republicans’ weaker-than-expected showing in last year’s congressional elections. Notably, Trump said candidates who opposed legal abortion in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the pregnant woman “lost a large numbers of votes.”

“That ticked me off so bad,” DeMastus said. “That’s the part of him I’m talking about where he just needs to keep his mouth shut.”

Trump keeping his mouth shut? Dream on. Trump will say whatever he thinks will meet his immediate need for personal aggrandizement or advancement.

The problem for evangelicals is that the culture is shifting away from them from under their feet and they face the problem of how far they can accommodate the changes without losing their sense of identity. For example, take Bob Jones University, an evangelical stronghold that has strict, fundamentalist rules about students’ behavior, even until 2000 prohibiting inter-racial dating. It is currently going through turmoil because the chair of the board of trustees was actively opposing the mild reforms that the president Steve Pettit instituted.

In 2018, Pettit relaxed dress codes, which now allow women to wear pants and not just dresses or skirts to class. He drew fire for music choices in chapel services, a fashion show put on by students, and who was invited to speak at university events and fund raisers.

What is clear is that Bob Jones University is now trapped in a vortex that many Christian institutions of higher education find themselves in: Do you move from your traditional approach, even slightly, and risk alienating your traditional student and alumni base, or stay tethered to traditional fundamentalist approaches and potentially alienate students looking for something different?

These conflicts have potentially existential stakes. Christian colleges are subject to the same enrollment headwinds as everybody else, and strict fundamentalist rules can be a blessing or a curse, depending on the student. Some institutions, like Ohio’s Cedarville University or Michigan’s Hillsdale College, that have stuck to their traditional core beliefs and practices have seen enrollment growth. A study published in 2021 showed that among Christian institutions, those judged the “least distinctive” — say, requiring the fewest number of Bible classes to be taken — saw high application totals, but colleges with more stringent rules had higher yield rates.

It is not surprising that requiring fewer Bible classes leads to higher application totals while more stringent rules had higher yields. (The ‘yield’ is the percentage of students offered admission who actually enroll.) If students apply despite the stringent rules, that means they are more committed to the school’s mission and thus are more likely to attend. Whereas being very stringent turns off many potential students from applying.

The problem that Trump and the Republicans face is similar to what evangelical colleges face with enrollments. The more extreme they are, the more pleased are those who agree with those positions and the enthusiasm they show for such candidates. But at the same time, those who are not as extreme will find them off-putting. So an early win in the primaries could lead to a later loss.


  1. Amarnath says

    No worries. Every college in Florida is getting to be modeled after Hillsdale College of Michigan.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    those who are not as extreme will find them off-putting.

    Offputting enough to not vote for them? Possibly. Offputting enough to vote for the opposition? Very unlikely. Patting yourself on the back that the Right are alienating waverers is NOT a winning strategy. Rant over.

  3. Holms says

    I read the same post you did sonof, and I saw no trace of simply hoping Trump alienates enough people that no one has to do anything else.

  4. says

    and pandering to Israel by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and moving the US embassy there.

    Evangelical christians have no affinity for Israel or Jews, they just need the country to exist to hasten Armageddon and the End Times.

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