Tony Perkins has a message for evangelical voters this election season: fear not or risk electing twice-divorced, one-time pro-choice, gay-sympathizer Donald Trump.
“We cannot be driven by fear,” Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and a Ted Cruz supporter, told TPM in an interview this week on the heels of Trump’s victory in South Carolina. “When we are driven by fear, we make mistakes.”
Trump’s support among evangelical voters has floored pundits. As a New Yorker whose name is plastered across buildings in the city, Trump is synonymous with the capital of the secular society that evangelicals detest and Perkins warns against. And yet, Trump is resonating with the evangelical community.
Perkins believes that’s because Trump has articulated the fears that have been simmering for evangelicals since President Barack Obama’s assumed the presidency. From fears of terrorism to porous borders to the economy, Trump is speaking to them.
“The problem with fear is that fear causes us to basically shut down,” Perkins said. “Fear and faith are incompatible.”
As the Republican field narrows, Trump is the definitive Republican primary frontrunner with early contest wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Now, as he barrels toward the Southern-focused Super Tuesday, evangelical voters are poised to make or break Trump’s winning streak.
In South Carolina, Trump won 34 percent of the evangelical vote, eight points more than Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the son of a minister whose fervid defense of the Constitution on the stump echoes the cadence of a Sunday preacher teaching the gospel from the pulpit.
Pastor Joshua Nink, right, prays for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, as wife, Melania, left, watches after a Sunday service at First Christian Church Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Cruz evokes God’s name on the trail. Trump refers to “two Corinthians.” Cruz vowed not to support a funding bill that sent money to Planned Parenthood. Trump, meanwhile, has said the group carries out “some very good work.”
Trump has said he does not want to fund Planned Parenthood “if it’s doing the abortion.” But it was less than a decade ago that Trump declared on Meet the Press that he was “very pro-choice.”
Ken Klukowski, senior counsel and director of strategic affairs at the Liberty Institute, which seeks to defend religious freedom, said that Trump’s popularity with evangelical voters comes down to the fact that the Republican Party has fallen short of religious voters’ expectations in recent years.
“Some voters demand to see a person’s record. They want consistency,” Klukowski said. “Others, if they are hearing the right things, they feel so abused by some elected officials in the Republican Party they thought they could rely on, that they are cynical of politics in general.”
Cruz’s campaign has been dogged about trying to set the record straight with evangelical voters. It’s derided Trump’s “New York values” and played ads highlighting Trump’s past position on abortion. Still, evangelical voters are flocking to Trump.
“He is the frontrunner and has been since July of last year,” said Ralph Reed, who made his name as the first executive director of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in the early 1990s and more recently has been the founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “It is not believable that he would be leading among every other category of Republicans and evangelical voters would not be supporting him.”
Reed argues that evangelical voters are forgiving of past political positions and personal transgressions. Take Mitt Romney for example. The former Massachusetts governor who supported a woman’s right to choose tin his campaign for governor. Then, in 2011, Romney said he rejected abortion as he fought to win the Republican nomination for president. Romney still earned 22 percent of the evangelical vote in the South Carolina primary. Rick Santorum, an emblem of the pro-life movement, earned 21 percent of the vote and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had been caught up in an extramarital affair in the 1990s blew them both out of the water with 44 percent of the evangelical vote, according to the Pew Research Center.
“When it comes to the right to life, sanctity of marriage, support for the state of Israel… and religious liberty, Trump checks all the boxes,” Reed said. “Evangelicals have a long history of accepting converts to the pro life and pro family cause at their word.”
The inconsistency, however, of how an evangelical voter could support Trump has still stumped social scientists and religious leaders.
“I must say: I am completely baffled by the Trump and evangelical numbers. Bizarre,” Michael Cromartie, the Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, first said in response to a query on the topic.
Cromartie said that either evangelical voters are not prioritizing their values when they go to the ballot box or the definition of “evangelical” or “born again Christian” has grown too broad.
“The definition of evangelical is starting to get elastic,” Cromartie said “In the past, evangelicals were people who had moral and culture conservative values and they cared less about the economy and jobs. … Either they have put on deep dark sunglasses and are saying they like a person who speaks bluntly and emphatically about the fact that we don’t win anymore or the definition has grown too broad.”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for service at First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In exit polls, large numbers of Republican voters identify themselves as “evangelical or born again.” In South Carolina, 70 percent of Republican voters identified as evangelical, according to a report in the National Review. But if you look more closely at the numbers, the National Review’s analysis indicates that Cruz performed better in counties in South Carolina where voters reported they went to church more often. Trump, meanwhile, did better in counties where voters went to church less frequently.
Perkins said this shows that voters who are hearing the message more regularly in the church pews are voting more consistently with what the Bible teaches while Trump supporters may just be motivated by fear.
“I would never say that if you are a Christian you cannot vote for this person. That is inappropriate,” Perkins said. “I think it raises questions about the depth of your relationship and the priority you place on it, but I don’t think it is helpful as we get into the political process to judge someone’s spiritual standing. Who can judge a man’s heart?”