‘This will be an election that will go down in the history books for the evangelicals, for the Christians, for everybody of religion,” said Donald Trump last week. “This will be maybe the most important election the country has ever had.”
Trump was speaking to a gathering of evangelicals in Florida, and supplicating his audience not just to vote for him but to “go out and spread the word” because becoming president ‘‘may be the only way I’m going to get into heaven.”
The Donald, it seems, needs a little divine intervention. The polls have been moving against him for a few weeks now; the latest show Hillary Clinton beating him by at least five percentage points. The so-called “Trump meltdown” may be something of a media fantasy for biased journalists. There is no denying, however, that, as November 8 (election day) approaches, the Trump Train is running out of steam.
Catholics just aren’t keen on him. According to a recent survey, Trump trails Hillary Clinton among practising Catholics by a whopping 19 percentage points. This is bad news for the Republican nominee. As any American psephologist will tell you, Catholics, as a bloc, tend to pick the winner in presidential elections. The last president who came to office without a majority of Catholics behind him was Eisenhower in 1952.
Trump’s vice-presidential nominee, the pious Mike Pence, a self-styled ‘‘Catholic evangelical’’ and avid pro-lifer, may help him win over the faithful in the coming weeks. But Pence is not as popular among Catholics as Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential choice, Tim Kaine.
Trump’s strong suit is evangelicals. According to the same survey, he has the support of 79 per cent of church-going white evangelicals. Given that whites still make up about 70 per cent of the American electorate, and evangelicals represent about 25 per cent of the general population, that adds up to a lot of votes.
Trump’s popularity among evangelicals mystifies some commentators. How can a thrice-married billionaire, who until recently would brag about his sex life in public and who has an unreliable record on abortion and gay marriage, appeal to so many God-loving Americans?
The answer is not just that many Christians in the US regard Hillary Clinton as the anti-Christ or that they like Trump’s moves towards crude white nationalism. It’s more that Trump inspires such profound loathing among the godless metropolitan and coastal elites. This makes evangelicals feel that Trump must be with them, on the side of the angels.
For evangelicals, Trump is the medium, not the message. Evangelicals are not necessarily looking for a president who shares, let alone exemplifies, their values. In fact, many prefer Trump’s admitted sinfulness to the bogus pieties of other politicians. What they want more than anything is a powerful figure – a liberator, as they see him – who has the guts to challenge and destroy politically correct orthodoxies.
In Cleveland last month, at the Republican National Convention, I met lots of pro-Trump evangelicals. Some were barmy: for instance, the strange Deep South sect who blew noisy shofars — Ram horns — to keep away evil liberal spirits and said that Trump was the reincarnation of King Cyrus.
Others were just angry at what they saw as the decline of their great country. When I asked one devout woman if she worried about Trump’s morality, she replied: “Say while you’ve been away your house has been over-run with squirrels. When you get the exterminator in, you don’t care about his values. You just want him to do the job.”
The liberal journalist next to me was shocked by the remark: he assumed, by squirrels, the woman meant Hispanics, and perhaps unconsciously she did. But she seemed more concerned about the loss of the American dream in a broader sense. She was praying for a strong man.
Trump, who is more clever than he looks, knows how to woo such voters. He plays on their fears about America’s turpitude, and presents himself as somebody who has seen the light. Evangelicals don’t really care that he doesn’t know his Bible. They like the way he courts their support and appeals to their forgiveness.
As he put it in his big Convention speech in Cleveland, “The evangelical community … The support that they’ve given me, and I’m not sure I totally deserve it, has been so amazing and has been such a big reason for me being here tonight.”
If Donald Trump ever were to make it to heaven, he would no doubt make a similar point. To reach the White House, however, he needs to win over more Catholics.
This article first appeared in the August 26 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.