Trump vs Biden: The final battle?

(Photo: Reuters)

Donald Trump, having won the support of 81% of US (mostly white) evangelicals in 2016 has established himself as their favoured politician. But, in the context of the Covid-19 crisis and the violence on US streets after the shooting of two black men by the police, Trump has needed to double-down on his pitch for this evangelical vote, which was showing signs of dropping somewhat in early summer. It is a style of politics which has not been lost on his opponents.

The day after Trump's Bible-brandishing photo-opportunity outside Washington's St John's Church on 1 June, Biden (a Catholic) declared in Philadelphia that he was engaged in a "battle for the soul of our nation". But, by the last week of June, 72% of white evangelicals polled by the Pew Research Center said they approved of Trump's performance and 82% were inclined to vote for him. It seems that any white evangelical slippage away from Trump has been halted.

There is, though, no room for complacency in such turbulent times, and competition for the Christian vote has intensified since then. On 21 August, in his acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden pledged to restore the "soul of America", echoing the wording of his 2 June declaration. The very next day Trump tweeted: "The Democrats took the word GOD out of the Pledge of Allegiance at the Democrat National Convention...Remember Evangelical Christians, and ALL, this is where they are coming from."

He emphasized the same point at the Republican National Convention (RNC) the next week. Backed by US flags, he declared "We will not be taking 'God' out of the Pledge of Allegiance like the Democrats did." The appeal to religious believers was at the forefront of this repeat accusation.

As a matter of interest, the Democrats hadn't done this. The reference to God had been omitted at two caucus meetings, but had been used on the main platform every day of the DNC. This was public knowledge and can easily be checked online. However, accusations such as the one levelled by Trump have 'legs' and one should have no doubt that it will have hit home among many of the target audience.

As if anyone doubted this, it was only a matter of days before Trump re-tweeted a message of support from Natalie Harp, Californian entrepreneur and Advisory Board member for 'Donald J. Trump for President'. Her original tweet read: "We are living a GREAT AMERICAN STORY ­– only because you are in it, President @realDonaldTrump! "Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God" (Philippians 1:3)."

Clearly, 'soul', 'God' and scriptural quotes are bring increasingly referenced in the turbulent context of US politics, as the summer falls behind us and as the countdown to November's presidential election gains pace.

With less than two months to go, polling by Gallup over the summer reveals that the religious divisions in US society are striking. White Americans who identify as evangelicals, along with Mormons and white Catholics, are significantly predisposed to vote for Trump. However, as always, white evangelicals stand out as Trump's most loyal faith-base. He remains the poster-boy of evangelicals, despite Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter.

On the other hand, Biden is strongly supported by black Protestants (mostly evangelicals), those who identify with non-Christian faiths, and Hispanic Catholics. Little has changed here since late June, when the same poll that revealed that 82% of white evangelicals were inclined to vote Trump also found that large majorities of 'Black Protestants', generally evangelicals, (83%) and 'Hispanic Catholics' (74%) stated that they disapproved of Trump. Among those designated 'Black Protestant voters', a huge 88% said at this point that they would vote Biden. However, the later poll by Gallup revealed that Hispanic evangelicals seem evenly split between Trump and Biden.

It has often been said that theology and particular moral stances explain the support for Trump among US evangelicals. The ultimate evangelical target is the reversal of Roe v Wade (1973), which underpins current US abortion legislation. Hence the number of abortion-related laws going through state legislatures at present, in an attempt to force this back to the Supreme Court. This is often assumed to be the single most important factor behind evangelical support for Trump, although it is difficult at present to assess what the ultimate 'desired legislation' would look like. Trump's conservative Supreme Court nominations and many conservative appointments to lower courts will, it is hoped, guarantee conservative judgements for decades to come. There is also an evangelical desire to roll back LGBTQ rights; although Trump's position on this has been ambiguous.

In addition, conservative judges will not necessarily deliver as expected, as was seen back in June when Trump-appointee to the Supreme Court, Gorsuch, upheld federal law with regard to LGBTQ rights. In similar fashion, conservative judge Roberts sided with the court's four liberals in finding that the Trump administration failed to follow proper administrative procedures when it sought to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (the so-called 'Dreamers'). Earlier he had also sided with liberal judges on the LGBTQ judgement. Judges do not always follow the prescribed 'script'. But that there exists an 'evangelical script' in the first place seems undeniable.

Trump's support for the current Israeli administration also finds a high level of support among evangelicals. Indeed, in December 2017, polling by Lifeway revealed that 80% of evangelicals believe that the establishment of the State of Israel was a fulfilment of biblical prophecy which will bring about Christ's Second Coming. That is somewhere in the region of thirty-three million voters.

Yet these positions alone do not explain the sharp faith divide between Republican- and Democrat-inclined voters, as we move into this climactic autumnal contest. There is more going on and one can see this in the way that Trump has attempted to dominate the narrative concerning urban unrest over the summer, so that it becomes a solely law and order issue, rather than one focused on engaging with responses to systemic racism. It is noteworthy that Biden condemns both the rioting and the racism that has caused it. Trump takes a simpler approach. While claiming to have done more for black Americans than Abraham Lincoln (remember Lincoln freed the slaves!), Trump has used the unrest to bid for white support in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May and the serious wounding of Jacob Blake in August.

His declaration of himself as "your president of law and order", the deployment of federal security units on the streets of Portland, and the framing of Black Lives Matter protests as, in essence, terroristic is clearly designed to resonate with white voters. Analysis of the situation in September by the data-gathering 'US Crisis Monitor' found that in over 93% of all the demonstrations connected to the BLM movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or in destructive activity. One would not guess that from Trump's tweets or statements. Even ones such as his call for support from "suburban housewives" can be read as a coded reference to race, since the suburbs are predominantly made up of single-family white residences. When Kyle Rittenhouse shot three demonstrators in Kenosha – two of whom died of their injuries – Trump failed to condemn Rittenhouse's actions, and suggested that he acted in self-defence.

Members of unofficial white militia groups will, no doubt, have taken note of the president's position. The activities of these heavily-armed vigilantes have increased massively over the past year: both online and on the streets. Equipped with semi-automatic weapons and combat gear, they have made their presence felt in anti-lockdown protests and have flexed their muscles (with mixed political stances) during the unrest on the streets. Many, though not all, are far-right white supremacists. At no point has Trump condemned them. In fact, he has made statements that present them in a positive light. This, despite the fact that on 10 September a leaked Department of Homeland Security draft document warned that white supremacists will remain the most "persistent and lethal threat" in the US through 2021. One does not hear much about this from Trump as he condemns BLM as terroristic.

Others will have noted his statement that he has "heard" that Democratic candidate Kamala Harris "doesn't meet the requirements" to serve as US vice-president. He did not actually say this was so, but noted "by the way the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer." It is reminiscent of his attempt to suggest that Obama was not a US citizen (the so-called 'birther' conspiracy).

In all these racially charged actions, white evangelicals have remained loyal to 'their man'. For a long time, even-handed commentators have tried to explain this loyalty as being due to the 'culture war' in the USA over abortion, sexuality, school prayers, etc. But the polling leaves one with the unavoidable conclusion that the unspoken agenda of race is all too prominent among white evangelicals.

Black evangelicals believe the same things, but they largely don't support Trump. White believers do. One has to ask: why does this disparity exist and why are white evangelicals able to applaud, overlook, excuse or deny so much of what Trump is doing and suggesting? It seems undeniable that attitudes towards racial politics are playing a key role in this. This would be denied, but actions speak louder than words and are revealing.

The US stands at a crossroads, but it increasingly feels like many white evangelicals have already decided their direction of travel.

Martyn Whittock is a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England and an evangelical. As a historian, he has a particular interest in the interaction between faith and politics. His book, Trump and the Puritans: How the Evangelical Religious Right Put Donald Trump in the White House (co-author James Roberts), was published by Biteback in January 2020 in the UK, and in June in the USA.