Meet the evangelicals who still love Trump

They’re happy with his first 100 days, especially when it comes to the Supreme Court.

Trump speaks to religious leaders before signing an executive order on “religious freedom” on May 4. CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci
Trump speaks to religious leaders before signing an executive order on “religious freedom” on May 4. CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci

From the very early days of Donald Trump’s campaign for president, political analysts obsessed over his consistently robust support among evangelical Christians — particularly white evangelicals. Trump’s volatile style and various missteps regarding matters of faith makes the political pairing unlikely. Nonetheless, the business mogul still managed to win over 80 percent of white evangelicals on Election Day.

And now, roughly six months and a wave of controversies later, conservative Christians continue to fawn over him.

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. declared last week that evangelicals have found their “dream president” in Trump, and a recent Pew survey found that a solid 78 percent of churchgoing white evangelicals approve of his job performance so far. Meanwhile, Trump appears to be courting this support. He signed an executive order on “religious freedom” this week that — while not exactly popular with religious Americans in general — appears tailor-made to appease right-wing faith leaders.

But what is it about Trump and his policies that keeps this group so enamored? ThinkProgress spoke with two different evangelical Christians we interviewed before the election — one white, one Hispanic — to ask them what they think of Trump’s administration so far.

A conservative Supreme Court

Chris Nickels, an evangelical Christian from South Carolina, decided to back Trump for one very specific reason: his promise to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice. Roughly six months later, Nickels told ThinkProgress he is delighted Trump kept that promise.

Nickels detailed his reasoning for backing Trump in two separate interviews before the election in October 2016. At the time, he told ThinkProgress that he was torn over his vote for the controversy-laden Trump. He predicted the businessman would get “shellacked” at the polls, saying he wouldn’t “be smiling” when he cast his ballot for him on Election Day.

Still, Nickels thinks he made the right choice.

“President Trump, from the evangelical perspective…he’s going to grade very high,” Nickels said in a recent interview. “What’s most significant is the obvious Supreme Court appointment of Neil Gorsuch — that was huge. That was a promise made and a promise kept.”

Nickels is in good company among his fellow evangelicals. White evangelicals consistently named the Supreme Court as a primary campaign concern in exit polls. And during the campaign, when Trump was dogged by revelations that he bragged about sexual assault in a video, several conservative Christian leaders stood by his side, pointing to the importance of putting a conservative on the bench.

“President Trump, from the evangelical perspective…he’s going to grade very high.”

But Nickels said he was content with other aspects of Trump’s short tenure as well, such as Trump’s purported attempt to restore “absolute allegiance to Israel.” He also spoke highly of the Trump administration’s use of the MOAB bomb to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan, and said he approved of how the government was handling Syria and ISIS.

“ISIS is a special problem for Christians because, while they target all people, they also target Christians,” Nickels said. He later noted that others in his church men’s group expressed a “general level of satisfaction and relief” about the president’s job performance thus far, and that there is excitement surrounding the influence of Vice President Mike Pence, who he described as “a bit of a rock star” among conservative Christians.

Nickels did acknowledge he still has major issues with Trump, however, such as his temperament and tendency to brag about his Electoral College victory. He lamented that Trump doesn’t always “focus on the core stuff,” and was eager for the president to work on tax reform.

But for now, he says, the Supreme Court appointment is enough to keep him happy. He spoke excitedly about rumors that Justice Anthony Kennedy may resign from the court as early as this summer, opening the door for Trump to change the Supreme Court for a generation to come.

“[The appointment] was huge,” he said. “Probably the biggest item for evangelicals…[Ultimately], I can buy TurboTax, but I can’t do anything about a Supreme Court decision.”

More work to be done on immigration

While Nickels’ glowing review of Trump is typical of most white evangelicals, other groups underneath the evangelical umbrella are more critical — especially Hispanic evangelicals, a largely conservative and increasingly influential demographic in American politics.

National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) vice president Rev. Tony Suarez endorsed Trump shortly before the election, declaring, “Not only am I a deplorable, but I’m a Latino for Trump.” He likened Trump to the Zacchaeus figure in the Bible, drawing parallels between the modern-day business mogul and the ancient tax collector who was despised by the masses but accepted by Jesus Christ.

Suarez reiterated his praise for Trump earlier this week in an interview with ThinkProgress, noting that he, like Nickels, primarily supported the business mogul because he promised to put a conservative on the Supreme Court.

But he also said the president still has more work to do before he can earn the title of his “dream president.”

“My dream president would nominate the kind of Supreme Court justices that President Trump has so far, and my dream president would give unwavering support to Israel — which President Trump has,” he said while driving to Washington, D.C. to participate in the National Day of Prayer. “But my dream president would [also] work to pass immigration reform and criminal justice reform with Congress. Those are issues that are still on the table that need to be dealt with, and they’re not something that we have the luxury of waiting years to see happen.”

“I think you find a lot of [Hispanic evangelicals] who are content right now,” he said. “But they are closely watching, and if DREAMers start getting deported in large numbers, and innocent undocumented immigrants start getting deported in large numbers, I think you’ll start seeing a shift in that support.”

Suarez was quick to note that his frustrations rest primarily with Congress, which he said bears most of the responsibility for failing to pass an immigration bill. And while some Hispanics take issue with Trump’s promise to build a border wall, the pastor argued that erecting a barrier may shift the national conversation away from border security and towards the issue of immigration reform.

But while many Latino evangelicals are happy with the president for now, Suarez hinted that could change if the Trump administration continues its rapid increase in deportation raids.

“I think you find a lot of [Hispanic evangelicals] who are content right now,” he said. “But they are closely watching, and if DREAMers start getting deported in large numbers, and innocent undocumented immigrants start getting deported in large numbers, I think you’ll start seeing a shift in that support.”

Suarez said he and NHCLC president Rev. Samuel Rodriguez plan to join other evangelical leaders to meet with Trump this week, where they expect to raise the issue of immigration. Meanwhile, the organization is readying a document on the need for an immigration bill, which will be given to Trump in the coming months.

Despite his frustration with Washington, however, Suarez said this kind of advocacy work is exactly what he expected when he endorsed Trump.

“It took Jesus one conversation with Zacchaeus [to change him] — But I’m not Jesus,” he said, laughing. “So this is an ongoing relationship, but I think it’s important that we have a voice at the table.”