Donald Trump Is on the Wrong Side of the Religious Right
The sanctuary buzzed as Mike Pence climbed into the elevated pulpit, standing 15 feet above the pews, a Celtic cross over his left shoulder. The former vice president had spoken here, at Hillsdale College, the private Christian school tucked into the knolls of southern Michigan, on several previous occasions. But this was his first time inside Christ Chapel, the magnificent, recently erected campus cathedral inspired by the St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish of England. The space offers a spiritual refuge for young people trying to find their way in the world. On this day in early March, however, it was a political proving ground, a place of testing for an older man who knows what he believes but, like the students, is unsure of exactly where he’s headed.
“I came today to Christ Chapel simply to tell all of you that, even when it doesn’t look like it, be confident that God is still working,” Pence told the Hillsdale audience. “In your life, and in mine, and in the life of this nation.”
It only stands to reason that a man who felt God’s hand on his selection to serve alongside Donald Trump—the Lord working in mysterious ways and all—now feels called to help America heal from Trump’s presidency. It’s why Pence titled his memoir, which describes his split with Trump over the January 6 insurrection, So Help Me God. It’s why, as he travels the country preparing a presidential bid, he speaks to themes of redemption and reconciliation. It’s why he has spent the early days of the invisible primary courting evangelical Christian activists. And it’s why, for one of the first major speeches of his unofficial 2024 campaign, he came to Hillsdale, offering repeated references to scripture while speaking about the role of religion in public life.
Piety aside, raw political calculation was at work. Trump’s relationship with the evangelical movement—once seemingly shatterproof, then shaky after his violent departure from the White House—is now in pieces, thanks to his social-media tirade last fall blaming pro-lifers for the Republicans’ lackluster midterm performance. Because of his intimate, longtime ties to the religious right, Pence understands the extent of the damage. He is close personal friends with the organizational leaders who have fumed about it; he knows that the former president has refused to make any sort of peace offering to the anti-abortion community and is now effectively estranged from its most influential leaders.
According to people who have spoken with Pence, he believes that this erosion of support among evangelicals represents Trump’s greatest vulnerability in the upcoming primary—and his own greatest opportunity to make a play for the GOP nomination.
But he isn’t the only one.
Although Pence possesses singular insights into the insular world of social-conservative politics, numerous other Republicans are aware of Trump’s emerging weakness and are preparing to make a play for conservative Christian voters. Some of these efforts will be more sincere—more rooted in a shared belief system—than others. What unites them is a common recognition that, for the first time since he secured the GOP nomination in 2016, Trump has a serious problem with a crucial bloc of his coalition.
The scale of his trouble is difficult to overstate. In my recent conversations with some two dozen evangelical leaders—many of whom asked not to be named, all of whom backed Trump in 2016, throughout his presidency, and again in 2020—not a single one would commit to supporting him in the 2024 Republican primary. And this was all before the speculation of his potential arrest on charges related to paying hush-money to his porn-star paramour back in 2016.
“I think people want to move on. They want to look to the future; they want someone to cast a vision,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who spoke at Trump’s nominating convention in 2016 and offered counsel throughout his presidency.
At this time eight years ago, Perkins was heading up a secretive operation that sought to rally evangelical support around a single candidate. One by one, all the GOP presidential aspirants met privately with Perkins and his group of Christian influencers for an audition, a process by which Trump made initial contact with some prominent leaders of the religious right. Perkins probably won’t lead a similar effort this time around—“It was a lot of work,” he told me—but he and his allies have begun meeting with Republican contenders to gauge the direction of their campaigns. His message has been simple: Some of Trump’s most reliable supporters are now up for grabs, but they won’t be won over with the half measures of the pre-Trump era.
“Oddly enough, it was Donald Trump of all people who raised the expectations of evangelical voters. They know they can win now,” Perkins said. “They want that same level of fight.”
It’s one of the defining political statistics of the current political era: Trump carried 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2016, according to exit polling, and performed similarly in 2020. But the real measure of his grip on this demographic was seen during his four years in office: Even amid dramatic dips in his popularity and approval rating, white evangelicals were consistently Trump’s most loyal supporters, sticking by him at rates that far exceeded those of other parts of his political coalition. Because Trump secured signature victories for conservative Christians—most notably, appointing the three Supreme Court justices who, last year, helped overturn Roe v. Wade—there was reason to expect that loyalty to carry over into his run for the presidency in 2024.
And then Trump sabotaged himself. Desperate to dodge culpability for the Republican Party’s poor performance in the November midterm elections, Trump blamed the “abortion issue.” He suggested that moderate voters had been spooked by some of the party’s restrictive proposals, while pro-lifers, after half a century of intense political engagement, had grown complacent following the Dobbs ruling. This scapegoating didn’t go over well with social-conservative leaders. For many of them, the transaction they had entered into with Trump in 2016—their support in exchange for his policies—was validated by the fall of Roe. Yet now the former president was distancing himself from the anti-abortion movement while refusing to accept responsibility for promoting bad candidates who lost winnable races. (Trump’s campaign declined to comment for this story.)
It felt like betrayal. Trump’s evangelical allies had stood dutifully behind him for four years, excusing all manner of transgressions and refusing countless opportunities to cast him off. Some had even convinced themselves that he had become a believer—if not an actual believer in Christ, despite those prayer-circle photo ops in the Oval Office, then a believer in the anti-abortion cause after previously having described himself as “very pro-choice.” Now the illusion was gone. In text messages, emails, and conference calls, some of the country’s most active social conservatives began expressing a willingness to support an alternative to Trump in 2024.
“A lot of people were very put off by those comments … It made people wonder if in some way he’d gone back to some of the sentiments he had long before becoming a Republican candidate,” said Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor, who runs the Young America’s Foundation and sits on the board of an anti-abortion group. Walker, himself an evangelical and the son of a pastor, added, “I think it opened the door for a lot of them to consider other candidates.”
The most offensive part of Trump’s commentary was his ignorance of the new, post-Roe reality of Republican politics. Publicly and privately, he spoke of abortion like an item struck from his to-do list, believing the issue was effectively resolved by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Meanwhile, conservatives were preparing for a new and complicated phase of the fight, and Trump was nowhere to be found. He didn’t even bother with damage control following his November outburst, anti-abortion leaders said, because he didn’t understand how fundamentally out of step he was with his erstwhile allies.
“He thinks it will go away, but it won’t,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, told me. “That’s not me lacking in gratitude for how we got here, because I know how we got here. But that part is done. Thank you. Now what?”
Before long, evangelical leaders were publicly airing their long-held private complaints about Trump. Mike Evans, an original member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, told The Washington Post that Trump “used us to win the White House” and then turned Christians into cult members “glorifying Donald Trump like he was an idol.” David Lane, a veteran evangelical organizer whose email blasts reach many thousands of pastors and church leaders, wrote that Trump’s “vision of making America as a nation great again has been put on the sidelines, while the mission and the message are now subordinate to personal grievances and self-importance.” Addressing a group of Christian lawmakers after the election, James Robison, a well-known televangelist who also advised Trump, compared him to a “little elementary schoolchild.” Everett Piper, the former president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, reacted to the midterms by writing in The Washington Times, “The take-home of this past week is simple: Donald Trump has to go. If he’s our nominee in 2024, we will get destroyed.”
Perkins said that he’s still in touch with Trump and wouldn’t rule out backing his primary campaign in 2024. (Like everyone else I spoke with, Perkins said he won’t hesitate to support Trump if he wins the nomination.) He’s also a longtime friend to Pence, and told me he has been in recent communication with the former vice president. In speaking of the two men, Perkins described the same dilemma I heard from other social-conservative leaders.
“Donald Trump came onto the playground, found the bully that had been pushing evangelicals around, and he punched them. That’s what endeared us to him,” Perkins explained. “But the challenge is, he went a little too far. He had too much of an edge … What we’re looking for, quite frankly, is a cross between Mike Pence and Donald Trump.”
Who fits that description? Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been blasting out scripture-laden fundraising emails while aggressively courting evangelical leaders, making the case that his competence—and proud, publicly declared Christian beliefs—would make him the ultimate advocate for the religious right. Tim Scott, who has daydreamed about quitting the U.S. Senate to attend seminary, built the soft launch of his campaign around a “Faith in America” tour and is speaking to hundreds of pastors this week on a private “National Faith Briefing” call. Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is known less for her devoutness than her opportunism, invited the televangelist John Hagee to deliver the invocation at her campaign announcement last month.
Trump’s campaign is banking on these candidates, plus Pence, fragmenting the hard-core evangelical vote in the Iowa caucuses, while he cleans up with the rest of the conservative base.
There is another Republican who could crash that scenario. And yet, that candidate—the one who might best embody the mix that Perkins spoke of—is the one making the least effort to court evangelicals.
In January, at the National Pro-Life Summit in Washington, D.C., Florida Governor Ron DeSantis won a 2024 presidential straw poll in dominant fashion: 54 percent to Trump’s 19 percent, with every other Republican stuck in single digits. This seemed to portend a new day in the conservative movement: Having had several months to process the midterm results, the thousands of activists who came to D.C. for the annual March for Life were clearly signaling not just their desire to move on from Trump, but also their preference for the young governor who had just won reelection by 1.5 million votes in the country’s biggest battleground state.
There was some surprise in early March when the group Students for Life of America—which had organized the D.C. conference in January—met in Naples, Florida, for its Post-Roe Generation Gala. The event drew activists from around the country. Pence, a longtime friend of the group, had secured the keynote speaking slot. But DeSantis was nowhere to be found. Some attendees wondered why there was no video sent by his staff, no footprint from his political operation, not even a tweet from the governor acknowledging the event in his own backyard.
Kristan Hawkins, the Students for Life president, cautioned against reading anything into this, explaining that her group had not formally invited DeSantis, instead reserving the spotlight for Pence. At the same time, she complained that DeSantis has had zero engagement with her or her organization, “not even a back-channel relationship.” For all of DeSantis’s culture warring with the left—over education and wokeism and drag shows—Hawkins argued that he has largely ignored the abortion issue.
“So many people are astounded when I tell them that Florida has one of the highest abortion rates in the country. It’s the only Republican-controlled state in the top 10,” Hawkins told me. “Folks on social media are like, ‘You’re wrong! Florida has DeSantis!’”
She sighed. “Checking the box, yes. When asked, he’ll affirm ‘pro-life.’ But leading the charge in Tallahassee? We haven’t seen it.”
This squared with what I’ve heard from many other evangelical leaders—in terms of both the policy approach and the personal dealings. “He doesn’t have any relationships with me or the people in my world,” Perkins told me. “I’ve been cheering for him … but he hasn’t made any real outreach to us. That’s a weakness. I guess he sort of keeps his own counsel.” Dannenfelser was the lone organizational head who told me she’d gotten some recent face time with DeSantis, while noting that she, not the governor or his team, had requested the meeting.
DeSantis has been made aware of these complaints, according to people who have spoken with the governor. (His political team declined to comment for this story.) John Stemberger, the president of Florida Family Policy Council, told me that DeSantis had recently attended a prayer breakfast held by the state’s leading anti-abortion activists, and that his team has “slowly but methodically” begun its outreach to leaders in early-nominating states. However sluggish his efforts to date, DeSantis now stands to benefit from the good fortune of great timing: Having signed a 15-week abortion ban into law just last year, he is now supporting a so-called heartbeat bill that Republicans are advancing through the state legislature. The timing of Florida’s implementation of this new law, which would ban abortions after six weeks, will roughly coincide with the governor’s expected presidential launch later this spring.
“He’s got a robust agenda, and he’ll be doing robust outreach soon enough,” Stemberger said.
Even without the outreach, DeSantis is well positioned to capture a significant share of the Christian conservative vote. Among pastors and congregants I’ve met around the country, his name-identification has soared over the past year and a half, the result of high-profile policy fights and his landslide reelection win. Last month, a Monmouth University national survey of Republican voters found DeSantis beating Trump, 51 percent to 44 percent, among self-identified evangelical voters. (Trump reclaimed the lead in a new poll released this week.) This, perhaps more than any other factor, explains the intense interest in the Florida governor among conservative leaders: Unlike Pence, Haley, Pompeo, and others, DeSantis has an obvious path to defeating Trump in the GOP primary.
Stemberger, an outspoken Trump critic during the 2016 primary who then became an apologist during his presidency—telling fellow Christians that Trump had accomplished “unprecedentedly good things” in office—would not yet publicly commit to backing DeSantis. But he suggested that the abortion issue crystallizes an essential difference between the two men: Whereas Trump “self-destructs” by “shooting from the hip all the time,” DeSantis is disciplined, deliberate, and “highly strategic.” Part of that strategy is a speech DeSantis is scheduled to deliver next month at Liberty University.
Tellingly, Stemberger didn’t note any difference in the personal beliefs of the two Republican front-runners. I asked him: Does faith inform DeSantis’s politics?
“It’s interesting. I know he’s Catholic, but I’m not even sure he attends Mass regularly,” Stemberger told me. He mentioned praying over DeSantis with a group of pastors before the governor’s inauguration. “But his core is really the Constitution—the Federalist Papers, the Founding Fathers. That’s how he processes everything. He’s never going to be painted as a fundamentalist Christian … He does make references to spiritual warfare, but that’s an analogy for what he’s trying to do politically.”
Indeed, over the past year, while traveling the country to raise money and rally the conservative base, the governor frequently invoked the Book of Ephesians. “Put on the full armor of God,” DeSantis would say, “and take a stand against the left’s schemes.”
In bowdlerizing the words of the apostle Paul—substituting the left for the devil—DeSantis wasn’t merely counting on the biblical illiteracy of his listeners. He was playing to a partisan fervor that renders scriptural restraint irrelevant. Eventually, he did away with any nuance. Last fall, DeSantis released a now-famous advertisement, cinematic frames shot in black and white, that borrowed from the radio host Paul Harvey’s famous speech, “So God Made a Farmer.” Once again, an important change was made. “On the eighth day,” rumbled a deep voice, with DeSantis pictured standing tall before an American flag, “God looked down on his planned paradise and said: ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.”
The video, which ran nearly two minutes, was so comically overdone—widely panned for its rampant self-glorification—that its appeal went unappreciated. Trump proved that for millions of white evangelicals who fear the loss of power, influence, and status in a rapidly secularizing nation, nothing sells like garish displays of God-ordained machismo. The humble, country-preacher appeal of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has lost its political allure. Hence the irony: DeSantis might have done the least to cultivate relationships in the evangelical movement, and the most to project himself as its next champion.
Speaking to the students at Hillsdale, Pence took a decidedly different approach to quoting the apostle Paul.
Having spoken broadly of the need for all Americans to return to treating one another with “civility and respect,” the former vice president made a specific appeal to his fellow Christians. No matter how pitched the battles over politics and policy, he said, followers of Jesus had a responsibility to attract outsiders with their conduct and their language. “Let your conversation be seasoned with salt,” Pence said, borrowing from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
If he does run for president, this will be what Pence is selling to evangelicals: humility instead of hubris, decency instead of denigration. The former vice president pledged to defend traditional Judeo-Christian values—even suggesting that he would re-litigate the fight over same-sex marriage, a matter settled by courts of law and public opinion. But, Pence said, unlike certain other Republicans, he would do so with a graciousness that kept the country intact. This, he reminded the audience, had always been his calling card. As far back as his days in conservative talk radio, Pence said, he was known as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf.”
That line got some laughs. But it also underscored his limitation as a prospective candidate. After the event, while speaking with numerous guests, I heard the same thing over and over: Pence was not tough enough. They all admired him. They all thought he was an honorable man and a model Christian. But a Sunday School teacher couldn’t lead them into the battles over gender identity, school curriculum, abortion, and the like. They needed a warrior.
“The Bushes were nice. Mitt Romney was nice. Where did that get us?” said Jerry Byrd, a churchgoing attorney who’d driven from the Detroit suburbs to hear Pence speak. “Trump is the only one who stood up for us. The Democrats are ruining this country, and being a good Christian isn’t going to stop them. Honestly, I don’t want someone ‘on decaf.’ We need the real thing.”
After Pence sacrificed so much of himself to stand loyally behind Trump, this is how the former president has repaid him—by conditioning Christians to expect an expression of their faith so pugilistic that Pence could not hope to pass muster.
Byrd told me he was “done with Trump” after the ex-president’s sore-loser antics and is actively shopping for another Republican to support in 2024. He likes the former vice president. He respects the principled stand he took on January 6. But Byrd said he couldn’t imagine voting for him for president. Pence was just another one of those “nice guys” whom the Democrats would walk all over.
Unprompted, Byrd told me that DeSantis was his top choice. I asked him why.
“He fights,” Byrd replied.