Evangelical Christians who supported Donald Trump in overwhelming numbers were driven in large part by their antipathy for his opponent and by their concern for the U.S. Supreme Court, according to public opinion surveys.
The death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in February brought renewed attention to the high court, its ideological composition and the potential for the next president to fill open seats. On the surface, Trump would seem an unlikely receptacle for conservative Christians. After all, he’s a casino-owning divorcee, who has expressed support for liberal positions in the past. He has also been called out for making rude and crude comments about women.
Yet, Trump won 80 percent of the evangelical vote. He also pulled in a majority of Roman Catholics, who appeared set to support the Democratic ticket until the final weeks of the campaign. So, what happened during the course of the campaign that enabled Trump to overcome his own personal baggage to make such large and significant inroads with committed Christians who vote in accordance with their own religious convictions?
Faced with the binary choice between Trump, who has vowed to nominate conservative judges, and Hillary Clinton, an anti-constitutional progressive, it’s clear that evangelicals and traditional Catholics voted defensively. Whatever misgivings they had about Trump were overshadowed by the lasting damage they knew a President Hillary Clinton would have inflicted.
That’s part of the answer, but there was another dynamic at work that compelled evangelicals to come on board with Trump. By the time the campaign ended, it was clear that evangelicals didn’t just vote for the businessman-turned-presidential-candidate out of mere opposition to the Democratic ticket.
Some commentators point to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s early endorsement of Trump during the Republican primary as a critical turning point. After all, Falwell is president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA, the largest Christian university in the world. But, in reality, his endorsement divided his campus and alienated evangelicals who identified more with the other Republican candidates.
What did help to galvanize and motivate evangelicals, and what has been largely overlooked by political scientists and other analysts, is the role of Pat Robertson and Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. Robertson is the chancellor, CEO, and founder of Regent University. He is also chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network and remains an influential voice among conservative Christians. But, unlike Falwell, Robertson did not explicitly endorse any presidential candidates. Instead, Robertson invited all of the candidates in both parties to appear on campus for live interviews and to field questions from the Regent University community. The Presidential Candidate Forums attracted several of the Republicans, but none of the Democrats.
Trump appeared on stage with Robertson at Regent University on Feb. 24 just a few days after Scalia had died. President Obama had selected Merrick Garland, a federal appeals court judge, to replace Scalia. But U.S. Senate Republicans managed to block his nomination. A Reagan appointee, Scalia was widely viewed as one of the most conservative members of the court. If Obama or another President Clinton were able to fill Scalia’s seat and fill other anticipated vacancies, the Supreme Court would be lost to conservatives for the next generation.
During their exchange, Robertson specifically asked Trump about the Supreme Court and what criteria he would use in selecting judges.
“Pro-life” Trump said to applause.
Trump also identified Associate Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas as two of the judges now on the court that he admired the most. But Trump was highly critical of Chief Justice John Roberts for upholding the federal health care law widely known as Obamacare.
“He [Roberts] approved Obamacare,” Trump said. “He was the vote that said we were going to keep it. He had a second time at it that also would have killed it. The rumors are that the other conservative judges wouldn’t even speak to him,” Trump said. “What he did was terrible.”
If Trump were to go down in history as the president who saved the Supreme Court for constitutionalists, it would not be the first time in history that reform, redemption, and revolution came from an unexpected source. The Bible is filled with these stories. Trump may also turn out to be the cure all for political correctness. Liberal commentators who feigned outrage over Trump’s locker room talk had no problem defending and apologizing for President Bill Clinton’s mistreatment and abuse of women.
During his interview with Trump, Robertson said that the next president might appoint up to three judges. There is the open seat of Scalia’s, but there are also other justices who are reaching advanced ages. Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Anthony Kennedy come to mind.
In many ways, Trump’s visits to Regent University served as bookends for his campaign. He was one of the first presidential candidates to visit the campus in 2016. He also made one of his last campaign stops at Regent just a few days before the election. More than 10,000 guests were in attendance on the Virginia campus for the October rally.
“On behalf of Regent University, I want to welcome you and the Trump team to this plaza on this glorious day,” Robertson said as the rally opened. While he was careful not to play favorites, it’s clear that the platform Robertson made available to Trump fostered strong relations with the evangelical community.
Charles Dunn, a retired professor and author who previously served as the dean for the school of government at Regent University, said, in an interview, that the timing of Trump’s visit to the university and his commitment to nominating judges who the share the values of evangelicals ultimately proved to be more consequential than any endorsement.
“Pat Robertson is the unsung hero of Donald Trump’s victory,” Dunn said. “Although Robertson did not endorse Trump, his nationwide CBN television network introduced Trump to America’s single-largest evangelical audience. And Trump’s highly-publicized appearance at Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson, received nationwide exposure on the major television networks at a critical time in the presidential campaign.”
Dunn continued, “Trump left CBN and Regent without an official endorsement, but with something far better, Robertson’s emphasis on the vital importance of Supreme Court nominations, which was the most important issue in the campaign for evangelicals. Of course, Robertson’s strong pro-life position also augured well for Trump.”
Trump has released a list of potential Supreme Court picks. The list includes suggestions from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington D.C.
As he prepares to enter office, Trump will want to grow and expand on his base of support with Christian voters. Here, he would be well-advised to confer further with Robertson, who has worked to strengthen ties between evangelical Christians and traditional Roman Catholics. At a time when religious liberty is under assault from the secular left, evangelicals and Catholics are finding that they are on the same side of a number of important public policy questions. While Trump did win a narrow majority of Catholics in November, they remain a pliable voting block swinging back and forth between the two major parties.
Dr. Jay Richards, a professor at Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business and Economics and executive editor of The Stream.org, saw Trump’s hiring of Kellyanne Conway, who is Catholic, as a decisive move, which helped to shift the Catholic vote.
Kellyanne served to refine Trump’s rhetoric on key issues for Catholics, especially on abortion and religious freedom,” Richards said in a statement. “The Catholic vote, which earlier in the campaign was strongly against Trump, swung in Trump’s direction on voting day. I’m convinced that a key factor for many Catholics came in the third debate, when both candidates discussed their views on abortion. I am pleased to see Kellyanne receive a key role within the Trump administration and hope she continues to provide invaluable counsel to our new president.”
If evangelicals and Catholics continue to join forces in the ballot box, that will only work to Trump’s continued advantage.
Kevin J. Mooney, Investigative Reporter for Political Storm in Washington D.C.