Former US president Donald Trump courted evangelical Christians and women at two back-to-back Washington events on Friday — voting blocks whose loyalties to him once seemed contradictory but have now become a well-established part of his base.
The legal, moral and sexual escapades of the scandal-plagued frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination have earned him indictments, impeachments and public scorn in many quarters.
But support among his devotees remains strong.
“As a woman I understand that he can be offensive,” Joan Horswell, a 76-year-old retired nurse from Texas, told AFP.
But “personally, I like him,” she said at the “Pray Vote Stand” summit, put on by the conservative Christian group Family Research Council.
Something of a rock star among white evangelical Protestants, 84 percent of whom voted for him in 2020, Trump also holds his own among women, having won 44 percent of their vote in the last election, according to the Pew Research Center.
“This election will decide whether America will be ruled by Marxist, fascist, communist tyrants who want to smash the Judeo-Christian heritage,” Trump, 77, said at the summit, “or whether America will be saved by God-fearing freedom-loving patriots like all of the people in this room.”
“Is he a flawed individual? Sure. But most Christians will say, we are all sinners. Jesus is not on the ballot,” said William Wan, a 60-year-old Catholic engineer from Winter Garden, Florida who attended the summit.
Still, Trump may strike many as offensive.
He was found liable in a civil trial in May for sexually abusing writer E. Jean Carroll in 1996. He’s also set to go on trial for allegedly paying election-eve hush money to a porn star. And he was heard boasting of groping women’s genitals when the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape was published, just one month before the 2016 presidential election.
But lots of conservative evangelicals believe he “is the perfect man for the job precisely because he does not reflect Christian values,” Kristin Du Mez, a history professor at Calvin University, told AFP.
Trump’s supporters “certainly like what he’s done for them. But I think that many are also very comfortable with how he’s done it,” Du Mez said.
She points to his take-no-prisoners approach in getting conservative Christians what they wanted, from ending the federal right to an abortion to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Her book “Jesus and John Wayne” chronicles the rise of rugged masculinity ideology within white evangelical Christianity.
Penny Nance, CEO of conservative Christian women’s group Concerned Women for America, echoed this dogma when she introduced Trump before he spoke across town at a leadership summit for her advocacy group on Friday.
“Conservative women are not looking for a pastor or a husband for president, we are looking for a bodyguard,” she told the audience to cheers.
“Someone willing to stick the knife in his teeth and swim the moat to our rescue from those who threaten our safety and our freedom.”
Melissa Deckman, CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, points out that while some political observers had initially been surprised by the number of women willing to vote for Trump, not all women see eye-to-eye on issues of sex and sexism.
“American women are far from monolithic when it comes to attitudes about gender dynamics,” she told AFP in an interview.
Trump’s former vice president Mike Pence — who is also running for the Republican 2024 nomination and spoke at the “Pray Vote Stand” summit — brandishes authentic evangelical bona fides as a deeply religious long-time churchgoer who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”
Yet only five percent of surveyed white, evangelical potential Republican primary voters said they would choose him as their nominee. Trump meanwhile would receive 56 percent of their vote, according to a July 2023 New York Times/Siena Poll.
“He is the clearest kind of white evangelical poster boy out there,” said Du Mez. “They might want (Pence) as a Sunday school teacher; that’s not who they want in the Oval Office.”
Horswell, the retired nurse, thinks “Mike Pence is OK,” but adds, “I think at this point in our government, we need a much stronger man.”
For conservative Christians, Trump’s accomplishments as a “strong man” are many.
He appointed three of the Supreme Court’s nine justices, creating a bench that went on to overturn abortion rights. In 2020 he became the first sitting president to attend the annual anti-abortion March for Life rally in Washington.
And he has repeatedly expressed his opinion that gender is biological, siding against trans inclusion in women’s sports and against gender-affirming care for minors.
Any personality flaws take a back seat said Deckman: “The moral character, I think, matters less in some ways than what a candidate is willing to stand for and fight for.”
As Wan, the engineer from Florida, put it, “many Christians would argue we’re electing a president, we are not electing a chief theologian.”