Evangelicals have qualms with Trump, but see nowhere else to turn

Donald Trump and the evangelical vote

The evangelical vote in swing states like Missouri could be pivotal for Donald Trump. How do such voters find a way to support a candidate whose public behavior and beliefs seem to be at odds with their own?
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The evangelical vote in swing states like Missouri could be pivotal for Donald Trump. How do such voters find a way to support a candidate whose public behavior and beliefs seem to be at odds with their own?

Ask Calvin Morrow, an evangelical Christian activist, if he’s going to embrace Donald Trump and his expression sours, as if he has just tasted milk well past its sell-by date.

But he will vote for him.

“It’s not an issue of embracing him,” said Morrow, executive director of Christians Uniting for Political Action, who hails from a part of Missouri where faith is a calling card. “It’s an issue of, ‘Oh, what the heck. We’re stuck with him.’ ”

Southwest Missouri was Ted Cruz territory during the Republican primaries. Trump, however, won the state by a whisper.

But there’s been little else quiet or subdued about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and that’s what both troubles, as well as energizes, many of his supporters among evangelical voters here in this rural corner of the Show-Me State.

“I believe with every fiber of my body that he wants to go down in history as a good president, but there are times I want to wash out his mouth with lye soap,” said Mavis Busiek, executive director of the 7th Congressional District Republican Committee.

The rise of the New-York-real-estate-tycoon-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-political-rebel poses something of an existential question to voters in the faith community: Can they support someone whose candidacy seems to rebuke the very Biblical admonitions about charity, humility and compassion that underlie their beliefs?

I believe with every fiber of my body that he wants to go down in history as a good president, but there are times I want to wash out his mouth with lye soap.

Mavis Busiek, Missouri 7

Interviews with evangelical voters around Springfield, from pastors to Republican Party officials, public servants to religious activists, reveal a grudging acceptance of Trump as the GOP’s standard-bearer. They’ve papered over their disquiet with his egocentric bluster, his racially tinged attacks, and his obvious unfamiliarity with matters of faith with a plethora of excuses: he’s rash, he’s not a practiced politician, he’s not politically correct.

“I think he’s speaking out loud what a lot of people think and are just afraid to say,” said Benny Gard, 73, a retired Baptist pastor from Springfield. “I think a lot of those things have been blown out of proportion. I think he will try and lead us in ways that will be more conservative, more in . . . what I believe in and what I hold as a Christian.”

For Danette Proctor, 66, a member of Gard’s former congregation and chairwoman of the Greene County Republican Central Committee, the calculus is much simpler. It has nothing to with trying to explain away Trump calling women “bimbos” or labeling Mexicans as “rapists.”

“It’s my job to get Republicans elected, so I’ll be behind him big-time,” she said.

But perhaps more than any other reason for their acquiescence is Trump’s pledge to appoint a conservative to the Supreme Court. That’s the bottom line for many. Evangelical voters fear that Hillary Clinton, who clinched the necessary delegate count this week to become the presumptive Democratic nominee, would choose a justice who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

“That is for me the thing that keeps me hopeful,” said Steve Patterson, director of mission at the Spring River Baptist Association, a collection of 50 Southern Baptist congregations in nearby Joplin, Missouri. “He (Trump) does not show himself to have the character that I would normally vote for, but . . . I’m not voting for a Sunday school teacher. I’m voting for a president.”

A similar theme was sounded at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C., Friday, where Trump told the annual gathering of grassroots conservatives that he shared their values and pledged to appoint only judges who oppose abortion rights. He slammed Clinton for supporting such rights.

In introducing Trump, Faith and Freedom Coalition President Ralph Reed cautioned conservatives not to look for perfection in their candidate. “We already have a messiah,” he said, adding later that God often uses “imperfect people to achieve his perfect will.”

There’s little question that Republicans will carry this part of Missouri, a region where there might well be more cows than Democrats. It’s the reddest region in a state that until recently had long been celebrated as a political swing state and presidential bellwether. Win Missouri; win the White House.

But Missouri has increasingly been trending Republican. The last time a Democrat seeking the presidency won the state was Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996.

Trump, however, remains a wild card – explosive and unpredictable; more reliant on his own gut instincts and what has worked so far than the advice of veteran political handlers and the cautions of anxious party leaders.

When a man calls himself a Christian, which I am, and then says in the next breath he never felt much reason to ask for forgiveness from God, either he doesn’t understand the Christian faith or was not being terribly honest at that moment.

Darin Chappell, evangelical Republican voter

Evangelicals comprise a quarter or more of the Republican vote in Missouri. Trump might need every one of them.

But he won’t get Nick Ibarra, a 36-year-old paralegal from Springfield who supported Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky during the Republican primaries. He’s not been swayed by the Manhattan real estate baron.

“I think that people of deep Christian faith who do support Trump are to a certain extent gasping for air and hoping for the best in what they have to choose from,” said Ibarra, a former Springfield city council member and Iraq war veteran. “I think he says what he has to say to get through whatever moment he’s in.”

Springfield sits in the heart of the 7th Congressional District, an old Midwestern city enfolded into a culture of Christian fervor. It’s one of several sites across the South that claims to be “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” Churches and signs directing you to them dot the landscape.

The world’s largest Pentecostal denomination, the Assemblies of God, is headquartered in Springfield, as is Evangel University and several other religiously affiliated schools. Branson, an entertainment and tourist mecca in the Ozarks, beckons down the road.

Springfield’s aging downtown boasts chic new coffee shops, while grain stores and other essentials of the rural economy are everywhere. Highways, malls that stretch for long blocks and franchise eateries encircle the city, while not far off lie green meadows speckled with ebony cattle and glistening farm ponds. They are contrasting snapshots of a shifting cultural topography.

Shifts are what this campaign has been all about: in political loyalties, public mood and voter demographics.

Trump, like Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic contest, has had a keen political antenna for the unrest and dissatisfaction that has coursed through the electorate, like a shark attuned to the scent of prey.

While evangelical support for Trump, who has bragged about his wealth as well as his sexual conquests, might seem like an apostasy, many on the Christian right are not so quick to judge, or to line up behind the Republican Party establishment, which Trump made a sport of bashing as he picked off each of his primary opponents.

Despite years of GOP promises in exchange for right-wing support, abortion rights and the health care law have not been repealed. Evangelical Christian voters feel betrayed. They’re angry and have connected with the brash New Yorker who offers a rat-ta-tat-tat of simple answers. That doesn’t mean they see him as some kind of political savior who will deliver on his promises.

“I cringe when I hear him say some of the stupid things he says,” said Darin Chappell, city manager of Bolivar, just north of Springfield, who describes himself as “a Christian first, a Constitutionalist second and a Republican third.”

But Chappell, who also teaches politics at Missouri State University in Springfield, said that without a viable third option, he will vote for Trump.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess.

“I think Donald Trump is the proverbial dog who caught the truck and now doesn’t know what to do with it,” Chappell said.

Lesley Clark contributed to this story from Washington.

David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ