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White evangelical voters are standing by their man: Donald Trump

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

White evangelical Christians show no signs of backing away from former President Donald Trump. That appears to be at least one takeaway from this week's Iowa Republican caucuses, where the former president won a decisive victory over several challengers. And as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, evangelicals could once again be critical to determining the outcome of the general election.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Shelley Burrough (ph) has been a Trump supporter since his first Iowa caucus in 2016. She's also an evangelical Christian. Here's how she talks about Trump's character.

SHELLEY BURROUGH: Have you read the Bible?

MCCAMMON: What do you mean?

BURROUGH: Have you read the Bible?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, I have.

BURROUGH: Because many of the people in the Bible were married multiple times, and they didn't always do the perfect thing.

MCCAMMON: In 2016, there was a lot of head scratching about evangelical support for Trump given his divorces, allegations of extramarital affairs and sexual assault, and his insults toward women, immigrants and others. Burrough looks past all that.

BURROUGH: People aren't perfect. God is perfect.

MCCAMMON: She also disregards the 91 state and federal criminal charges Trump is facing, including trying to overturn the 2020 election. She says they're illegitimate and she doesn't think they'll stick. Around 8-in-10 white evangelicals supported Trump in the general election in 2016 and again in 2020, when he lost to President Biden. Some defended those votes as a binary choice between Trump, who would advance goals like restricting abortion, and a Democrat who would not. But this year, according to CNN entrance polls, more than half of white evangelicals in Iowa still chose Trump, even when they had several other options. Many, like Iowa State Representative Brad Sherman, who's also an evangelical pastor, see Trump's harsh style as an asset.

BRAD SHERMAN: Yeah, he's brash and he's a fighter. That's who we need right now in the political arena and the political atmosphere that exists. You got to be tough.

MCCAMMON: White evangelicals find themselves in a paradoxical moment, wielding outsized power in American politics because of their grip on the Republican Party, but their numbers and cultural influence are declining as the country becomes less religious and more racially diverse. Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma, says even with recent victories like the overturning of the abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade, many still see themselves as underdogs in a culture war.

SAMUEL PERRY: And they believe that Trump is the guy who has in the past and continues to promise to fight for them.

MCCAMMON: Since Trump's rise, Perry says the word evangelical has taken on an increasingly political meaning versus its religious one.

PERRY: The conservative, Trump-supporting faction of evangelicalism, I think, has laid claim successfully to the evangelical kind of space in a way that if you don't fit in that and that you don't feel like all of that term represents now is you, then you back away from that.

MCCAMMON: But Perry says most of those who still identify as evangelicals show no signs of softening their support for Trump. Still, moving even a relatively small number of those voters could make a big difference in November. Doug Pagitt is executive director of Vote Common Good, which works to persuade evangelicals and Catholics to support progressive candidates and policies. His group will be heavily focused on swing states this year.

DOUG PAGITT: Because moving 3% of evangelicals away from voting for Donald Trump on Election Day makes it, by our estimates, impossible for him to win in those states.

MCCAMMON: That's assuming Trump becomes the Republican nominee. For now, all eyes are on next week's primary in New Hampshire, a state with fewer evangelical voters and more moderates who may be somewhat more open to another candidate.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Manchester, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.