Donald Trump has done it again, making bold statements that endear him to his supporters in a style his competition wouldn’t dare mimic. On Monday night, at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, he told 10,000 students, “Christianity, it’s under siege.” He reassured them, “We’re going to protect Christianity. I don’t have to be politically correct.” He was introduced warmly by Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of the university, who compared Trump to his own father, Jesus, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
For Trump, this endorsement was essential. Liberty University is the largest evangelical university in the world, with over 100,000 students. Evangelical Christians are the bedrock of his support, with a recent New York Times/CBS News poll showing the 42% support the Presbyterian candidate.
He has strong support among the Christian voters and religion is already playing a central role in the run towards the Republican primaries. After eight years of a Democrat president with ambiguous claims to any specific church, the strong reaction from the Republican public is pointedly religious to a degree that is unique to that party.
Though no one has fussed over Bernie Sanders’ Jewish roots and few people are even aware that Hillary Clinton taught Sunday school in her Methodist Church, the Republican lineup is made up of candidates whose religious convictions come through loud and clear.
For the Republicans, religion plays a major role. Candidate Ben Carson, an accomplished neurosurgeon, spends more time defending his beliefs as a devout Seventh Day Adventist than he does his political views. Ted Cruz, a southern Baptist, frequently speaks about religion on the campaign trail, and religious liberty – the concept that a person’s religious beliefs should be protected even if it conflicts with the law – is a part of his platform. His father is an ordained evangelical Pastor and a prominent speaker.
In many ways, Donald Trump’s campaign success is a unique enigma. A businessman who is not dependent on corporate handouts, he is free to say what he wants, often coming out with statements that shock many. So far, these off-the-cuff remarks have propelled him into the lead, indicating that he is merely saying what so many are thinking. His call for banning all Muslims from entering the US as a reaction to the San Bernadino terror attack horrified many, yet solidified his support among Republicans.
Perhaps the biggest enigma of all is that despite facing off against other Republican candidates who have strong religious beliefs and family values, Trump has trumped them all, gathering in 32% of the votes from white evangelicals. This success seems counter to his personal connection with religion.
Trump is reportedly a Presbyterian and was quoted in the Christian Post as saying, “I think religion is a wonderful thing, I think my religion is a wonderful religion”. His personal church is the same as his parents’, Marble Collegiate Church, but he is reportedly not an active member.
He has stated several times that the Bible is his favorite book, but in an interview last year on On Point, he was hard pressed to quote his favorite verse, giving the excuse, “That’s a very personal thing. I don’t like giving that out to people that you hardly know.”
When asked if he asks God for forgiveness, his irreverent reply was, “I’m not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
Nonetheless, Trump is a hit with religious voters, Christian and Jewish (but probably less so with Muslims). He is close to several Christian leaders, most notably Tony Perkins and Ralph Reed, and was blessed by Emmanuel Lemelson, a prominent Greek Orthodox priest. He attended Rev. Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party in 2013, and at a political rally in 2015, compared himself to the evangelist minister.
Enthusiasm for Trump’s candidacy among the evangelical crowd may seem illogical, but it may not be all about religion. In a recent article investigating the issue, The New York Times quoted Charles E. Henderson, 61, a disabled veteran from Lexington, Ky., who grew up attending a Nazarene church. Henderson explained, “Spirituality is a big issue, but we need somebody who’s strong. Lots of times the preachers and everything, they have a tendency to be just a little bit weak.”
For whatever reason, Trump seems to have realized long ago that religious Christians are his bread and butter. In 2015, he said on the Christian Broadcasting Network in his characteristic bombastic manner, “Believe me, if I run and I win, I will be the greatest representative of the Christians that they’ve had in a long time.” His recent remarks in front of a large crowd of evangelists in Virginia are part of a long policy that has brought Trump to where he is, at the head of the Republican campaign. It has worked for Trump so far and since he is a man who pushes to succeed, much more can be expected.