In June, on the day Donald Trump met with nearly a thousand conservative religious leaders in New York, Jerry Falwell Jr., the scion of a founding father of the Christian right, proudly tweeted a photograph of himself and his wife Becki flanking the Republican presidential nominee. Taken in the candidate’s Trump Tower office, the photo showed the trio smiling broadly, both men giving a thumbs up, intending to promote, in Falwell’s words, Trump’s “incredible job” that day laying out an agenda palatable to the Christian right. But despite Falwell’s PR effort, the photograph contained one small flaw that triggered an instant eruption of ridicule: to the immediate left of Becki Falwell’s head was a framed cover of Playboy magazine, featuring a much younger Trump with a smug grin, hands in his tux pockets, and a half-clothed woman, her ass pressed into his leg, smiling mischievously at him over her shoulder.
To anyone who has followed the trajectory of the religious right from its founding in the late 1970s through the age of Trump, the image was a near perfect encapsulation of the bafflement, frustration and dismay that has roiled the evangelical world since Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump in January, just before the Iowa caucuses. That March 1990 issue of Playboy (in which Trump presaged a future presidential run) appeared on newsstands a little over a decade after Falwell’s father, the late Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of the Moral Majority, played a key role in transforming Republican politics by turning white conservative evangelicals and Catholics — voters opposed to, among other secular sins, pornography — into the party’s most dependable voting bloc.
In the 2016 Republican primary, Falwell Jr., the president of the evangelical Liberty University, had a choice of 16 other candidates, including several with impeccable records on the religious right’s core issues of opposing abortion and LGBT rights. Every one of them was more rehearsed in public displays of piety and biblical literacy than Trump. By contrast, Trump, who says he’s a Presbyterian but has not recently belonged to any church, Presbyterian or otherwise, stumbles over Bible verses and even describing basic tenets of Christianity. One of his most notable gaffes was his August 2015 statement that he has never asked God for forgiveness — something many evangelicals have apparently either forgotten or forgiven.
Falwell’s decision to endorse Trump, not as the only man standing at the end of the primary process, but as the best man for the job before a single vote was cast, was seen by many as besmirching his father’s legacy. There was “anger, frustration, bewilderment,” says one evangelical activist who opposes Trump. “You’d hear comments like, ‘If we see the Trump school of business open at Liberty University, we’ll know why this happened.'”
The endorsement was a clear setback to the other contenders, particularly Ted Cruz, whose campaign had expected evangelical support after the Texas senator chose to announce his presidential candidacy with a sermonizing speech at Liberty last year. Sarah Erdos, the director of faith grassroots outreach for Cruz’s campaign, says Falwell’s decision to back Trump was “disheartening.”
Falwell denies that Trump has ever given, or promised to give, money to Liberty University. He says he fielded one call from Cruz’s father Rafael, a fiery pastor whom Trump would later baselessly suggest abetted the John F. Kennedy assassination, about an endorsement, but settled on Trump. Falwell insists that he, and not Trump-skeptical religious right leaders, had his finger on the pulse of grassroots evangelicals. Indeed, in many evangelical-heavy state primaries, Trump won a majority or plurality of white evangelicals, according to exit polling data.
Along the way, though, Falwell’s endorsement wreaked havoc in the evangelical world by pitting evangelical allies against each other in bitter and unusually public ways. Mark DeMoss, a Liberty alumnus who was Falwell’s father’s chief of staff, and later an advisor to Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, was asked to step down from the executive committee of Liberty’s board after criticizing Falwell’s Trump endorsement to a Washington Post reporter.
DeMoss, a respected public relations executive specializing in evangelical causes, tells Rolling Stone, “instead of Jerry Falwell and I simply saying publicly, ‘This is one we disagree on,’ it got very personal and ugly. Some of the reaction, quite frankly, felt to me very Trumpian, the way the Trump campaign treated people, Trump’s campaign supporters treat people.”
But Falwell defended his decision — and Trump himself. “I think a lot of those folks are really opposed to Trump because of other reasons,” he says. “I think they are probably more liberal than they admit on the issues, some of them. And I think they use his personality, or what he said about this person or that person, as a reason not to support him.” Calling politics a “blood sport,” Falwell likens the process to playing a football game or fighting a war, in which “you’re not supposed to turn the other cheek. You’re at war.” He adds that many evangelicals, like he does, see how “personable” Trump is “and how generous he’s been to a lot of people in his personal life. I think that’s what makes somebody a good Christian.”
DeMoss has no patience, though, for Falwell’s claim that his father’s endorsement of the divorced Ronald Reagan over Baptist Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, and of George H.W. Bush over Christian right activist Pat Robertson in 1988, is evidence that the supposedly obvious evangelical candidate isn’t always the best choice. “Oh, please,” says DeMoss. “Both Reagan and Bush in my opinion exhibited more character and integrity and certainly civility than does Donald Trump.”
DeMoss isn’t the only mainstream evangelical Republican to publicly castigate his Trump-supporting brethren. Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, has used his nationally syndicated column to pen scathing indictments of Trump and his evangelical supporters. In one, Gerson even used a biblical analogy to argue that evangelical supporters of Trump will be stigmatized by God. “In legitimizing the presumptive Republican nominee, evangelicals are not merely accepting who he is; they are changing who they are,” Gerson wrote. “Trumpism, at its root, involves contempt for, and fear of, outsiders — refugees, undesirable migrants, Muslims, etc. By associating with this movement, evangelicals will bear, if not the mark of Cain, at least the mark of Trump.”
Falwell, though, insists his evangelical critics haven’t read their Bibles. “I think they just need to read the teachings of Jesus more closely and stop trying to apply the teachings Jesus meant for personal every day life to the government,” he says. Falwell, the president of the leading evangelical university, takes his biblical argument further, offering an odd analogy: “I don’t think Jesus would have said, back when he was alive, to his disciples, ‘Only vote for the Roman emperor who is one of my followers.'”
At the June meeting in New York, Falwell introduced Trump, pronouncing him “God’s man to lead our great nation at this crucial crossroads in our history.” But for many evangelicals, that meeting, at which Trump pandered to the group by promising to repeal the IRS rule prohibiting use of tax-exempt church resources to endorse political candidates, and to stack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion justices, was nothing more than an embarrassing charade. Michael Farris, a leading figure in the Christian homeschooling movement who worked with the elder Falwell in the Moral Majority, wrote in a widely circulated op-ed that the gathering “marks the end of the Christian Right.”
“I’ve been a part of political groups of evangelical leaders who’ve screened presidential candidates for decades,” says Farris, who also founded Patrick Henry College, an evangelical school in Purcellville, Virginia, known for funneling students into internships and staff positions in the George W. Bush White House. But, he tells Rolling Stone, “I won’t do it anymore.”
Indeed the aftermath of the meeting was marred by a comedy of errors, sparked by Michael Anthony, a Pennsylvania pastor who attended the meeting and recorded a brief interview with religious right icon James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Dobson told Anthony he had heard that Trump “did accept a relationship with Christ, I know the person who led him to Christ.” It was fairly recent, Dobson added, “and I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian, we all need to be praying for him.” Dobson acknowledged, though, that Trump “doesn’t know our language,” noting that he “said hell four or five times” during the meeting with religious leaders.
Falwell made similar excuses for Trump’s language and failure to address issues in rhetoric that would roll off the tongue of anyone steeped in evangelical culture: talking about alleged infringements on religious freedom for opposing same-sex marriage, about one’s policy proposals for “protecting the unborn,” that “life begins at conception,” or about how one’s “biblical worldview” will help restore the country to its lost “Judeo-Christian values.” Trump has called for the reversal of the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, and belatedly criticized this term’s decision striking down portions of a restrictive Texas abortion law, but hardly made either issue a centerpiece of his campaign.
“There’s sort of a cultural divide between New York City, and how Christians there express their faith, and evangelicals in this part of the country that sometimes I think it took Mr. Trump a while to understand,” Falwell says. “So I think that some of the misunderstandings throughout the campaign have been because of that cultural divide more than anything else.”
After Anthony’s interview with Dobson went viral — to much chortling about the term “baby Christian” — Dobson issued a statement that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit,” but that he did not know for sure whether the pastor he referred to, Paula White, had actually converted Trump. White, a long-time friend of Trump whose own televangelism career has been marred by scandal, later told the Christian Post, “I can tell you with confidence that I have heard Mr. Trump verbally acknowledge his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins through prayer, and I absolutely believe he is a Christian who is growing like the rest of us.” (White did not respond to interview requests from Rolling Stone.)
Falwell now almost seems to relish how Trump undermined the religious right leadership, much like Trump’s supporters generally delight in how he has upended the GOP. “I don’t think it matters what the evangelical ‘leadership’ says or does,” Falwell tells Rolling Stone. “I think that’s just the leadership trying to tell the people what to look for in a president. I think the people are smarter than that, and I think they’ve figured out you can’t trust career politicians.” As for Trump saying “things that are offensive,” Falwell adds, “this is not a race for the pastor-in-chief, it’s the commander-in-chief. I think it’s obvious to the vast majority of rank-and-file Christian voters.”
While many prominent evangelicals have withheld an endorsement, others began to line up for Trump in the spring, something Falwell depicts as the leaders belatedly following the grassroots. David Lane, the founder of the American Renewal Project, which focuses on restoring America’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” and recruiting pastors to run for office, wrote to supporters in early May, “I’m going to choose to believe that Donald Trump can be one of the top 4 presidents in American history.” Ralph Reed, who led Christian Coalition in the Nineties, and now runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told the New York Times that evangelicals “love a convert.” (Reed and Lane did not respond to interview requests, nor did the Trump campaign.)
Eric Metaxas, a popular author and radio host, tells Rolling Stone, “I did come to believe that, fundamentally, this is not a proto-fascist or someone who is going to upend the American system for his own nefarious or narcissistic designs.” Instead, Metaxas says, Trump “is kind of like your uncle who says stuff that makes you cringe, but you know that when push comes to shove, he’s a decent guy.”
Trump’s appeal to evangelicals in 2016, though, did not come out of nowhere. In April 2011, when Trump was flamboyantly toying with running for president, the Christian Broadcasting Network aired an episode of its flagship political show, The Brody File, devoted to puffing up Trump’s unlikely appeal to evangelical voters. David Brody, the network’s chief political correspondent and Trump’s interlocutor for an interview in the real-estate mogul’s Trump Tower office, prodded the novice candidate — who was clearly unversed in the doctrinaire subculture and rhetoric of evangelical political activism — with softball questions aimed at burnishing his credentials with evangelical voters.
Over the course of the program, Brody alternated between presenting himself as a star-struck tourist (“Me and the Donald, can you believe this? There we are, in Trump Tower”) and evangelical voters’ vetter-in-chief. “Talk to me a little bit about how you see God?” asked Brody, serving Trump an opening to ramble vaguely about Christianity and to praise the Bible as “the book, the thing.” They talked about how often Trump attended church (“as much as I can”) and his views on civil unions (a muddled, “there can be no discrimination against gays. I’m against gay marriage.”) Brody asked Trump about what he called “the Muslim problem,” noting that evangelicals have “some concern about the teachings of the Koran.” The Koran, Trump replied in a prelude to the Islamophobia that marked his 2016 campaign, teaches “some very negative vibe.”
The sit-down with Trump came about because “I approached him,” said Brody in an interview in May at CBN’s downtown Washington, D.C., bureau. “I think my pitch at the time was something along the lines of, ‘If you’re going to run, you are going to need evangelicals behind you, so you might want to get out in front of an evangelical audience.'” For Brody, his visit to Trump Tower was more than a public service to acquaint Trump and the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc with each other. Brody, whose Twitter profile reads, “We Don’t Follow The News: We Make It,” now describes it as “one of the interviews I’m most proud about, because I think we got a lot of good information and it’s all coming out today.”
Five years later, Brody has proved to be one of Trump’s favored journalists, interviewing him over a dozen times, by his own count. After Trump officially declared his 2016 candidacy last June, within weeks Brody published a blog post, “Explaining the Evangelical Attraction to Donald Trump,” arguing that evangelicals like his “boldness,” and that “they relate to him because when they’ve been bold about their faith they get blasted too. It’s a kinship in a strange sort of way.”
When Trump began racking up primary wins, Brody continued to tout evangelicals as his core supporters. “Evangelicals are the energy behind this locomotive,” said Brody after Trump’s Super Tuesday victories. When Trump all but clinched the nomination in May, Brody wrote a post, “Donald Trump Wins GOP Celebrity Apprentice… And He Can Thank Evangelicals.”
Brody’s imprimatur gave Trump the ammunition to position himself as an evangelical favorite, making his case directly to evangelical voters, and bypassing the typical vetting by evangelical leaders. He botched Bible citations and mocked a leading Southern Baptist on Twitter. To nearly everyone’s surprise, none of that mattered.
As Trump’s evangelical critics lament Trump’s inexplicable support from their coreligionists, some see the credulous coverage in Christian media as one link in a chain that took evangelicals from viewing Trump as a not-serious candidate to supporting him in the primaries. Brody, says DeMoss, was sometimes “just like Trump’s number-one cheerleader.” And Christian media in general, he adds, “has not been particularly tough, but maybe they don’t want to be labeled as morons and dishonest” by Trump.
Ruth Malhotra, a former conservative activist and a lifelong Southern Baptist, says she “crossed paths” with Trump over the past five years at events like the Conservative Political Action Conference and the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority. “I think all of that kind of helped mainstream him as a candidate and made him seem more palatable to conservatives,” she says.
“I don’t recall conservative or Christian media really scrutinizing him during those conferences,” Malhotra adds. “What I recall: this intrigue, even this kind of positive approach, almost so excited to have someone like Trump call himself a Republican.” She recalls scrutiny of other candidates thought to have thin records on social issues, like former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who ran in 2008, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who ran this cycle, but “I think Trump kind of got a pass because of the celebrity factor.”
Brody’s interviews, for example, are aired on CBN, and he boosts highlights from them on CBN’s website and social media and via The Brody File email list. He has taken Trump’s side against the “despicable” New York Times, asking in a blog post critical of a Times piece on Trump’s treatment of women, “Why in the world is The New York Times a respected news outlet?” Still, Brody has positioned himself as the explainer of Trump’s appeal to evangelicals, both to evangelicals themselves and a skeptical media, making appearances on CNN, Meet the Press and This Week on ABC.
Most crucially, in a segment of the 2011 interview that also aired on CBN’s daily 700 Club program, Brody gave Trump the opening to discuss his conversion from pro-choice to pro-life. “Evangelicals want to feel secure” that a candidate is “solid” on the social issues, Brody told Trump. “I’m a very honorable guy,” was Trump’s characteristically self-serving reply. “I’m pro-life, but I changed my view a number of years ago.” That turned out to be the most bare-bones declaration of opposition to abortion by a Republican presidential nominee in recent memory — something that continues to grate for Trump’s evangelical opponents. “He’s barely had the language to back up the conservative position this election cycle, much less the fact that I can look at him and say he’s fought on this issue,” says Erdos.
Still, by the time Trump tapped evangelical favorite Mike Pence as his running mate, and the party adopted a platform that included Trump’s new pet evangelical issue, regarding the tIRS code for tax-exempt organizations, he had already consolidated the evangelical vote. A July 13 Pew Research Center survey found that 78 percent of white evangelicals intend to vote for Trump — meaning Trump will likely match the level of support among white evangelicals enjoyed by George W. Bush in 2004, when white evangelicals made up 23 percent of the electorate, and were an essential 36 percent of all Bush voters.
As is evident from Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement speech on the third night of the Republican National Convention, there remains a contingent of evangelical Never Trump diehards. But it is nonetheless unmistakable that Trump has provoked the most significant shake-up of the religious right in nearly 40 years. Trump became the presumptive nominee by scoffing at religious right presidential protocol. He divided and conquered the movement as an influencer of Republican presidencies, neutered kingmakers who wouldn’t get behind him and, once he clinched the nomination, humiliated evangelical leaders with an impossible set of choices: join the Never Trump camp, and risk losing influence with a mercurial President Trump, or be seen as jettisoning sacrosanct religious principles by caving to him.
Cruz chose to try to face down Trump, drawing admiration from the Never Trump minority. But Cruz, once considered one of the religious right’s most loyal foot soldiers in Washington, was booed out of his own party’s convention hall.
Ted Cruz defended his RNC speech and refusal to endorse Trump. Watch here.