The ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel in the U.S. capital hosted a two-day gathering of the bulk of the Republican Party’s primary candidates for the 2024 presidential election. This was the first time that Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Asa Hutchinson, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, Francis Suarez and Larry Elder participated as candidates at the same event. All of them were attending the annual convention of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an influential evangelical group, whose slogan is “Road to Majority.”
The session got underway on Friday to the sound of bilingual religious chants in English and Spanish, even before the national anthem was sung. After the Pledge of Allegiance and the prayers of a pastor, the majority of the Republican candidates were ushered in on a day of politics and religion. Donald Trump’s rivals in the primaries are attempting to expose his moral values, no doubt in the hope that influential evangelical voters will see the contrast with the former president and his own scandals.
However, Trump is still the king for many people. The mere mention of his name on Friday was enough to raise the loudest applause from the attendees. Meanwhile, Chris Christie, the only person who dared to openly criticize him, was roundly booed. “I’m running because he’s let us down,” said Christie. “He’s let us down because he’s unwilling, he’s unwilling to take responsibility for any of the mistakes that were made. And any of the faults that he has. And any of the things that he’s done. And that is not leadership everybody, that is a failure of leadership. You can boo me if you want, but that’s the way it is,” added the former New Jersey governor. A woman close to the stage then shouted: “We love Trump” and others joined in with chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
The star speech at the “patriot’s gala,” which brought Saturday’s convention to a close, was reserved for the former president, and Trump certainly enjoyed the limelight. He made the attendees laugh, applaud, stand up and chant his name during his one-hour talk, despite his peculiar approach in front of an evangelical audience. “A Saturday night and we are here because of religion,” Trump quipped, while he presented himself as a true ally: “No president has fought for Christians as hard as I have,” he said. And while the attendees chanted his name over and over again (“we love Trump!”) he added: “Have all the candidates been treated this way? Not really, I’ve seen one who was booed off.”
The fact that someone with all the morals — or a lack of them — of Donald Trump is the favorite of evangelical Christians seems paradoxical in U.S. politics. The evangelical vote played a decisive role in bringing him to the White House in the 2016 presidential election. It seems the former president has been forgiven for virtually everything. His evangelical supporters tolerate his mocking of his rivals (he called DeSantis a “rank amateur”), his conviction for sexual abuse, his harassment and mistreatment of women and his indictment for crimes. “Every time the radical left Democrats, Marxist, communists and fascists indict me, I consider it a great badge of courage,” he said on Saturday, portraying himself as a martyr: “I’m being indicted for you.” “I’m the only one who gets indicted and improves his numbers [in the polls],” he added.
Kristin Kobes du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, has studied the 2016 phenomenon. “How could conservatives with ‘family values’ support a man who contradicted every single principle they claimed to stand for?” she asks. According to the writer, that support “was no aberration.” “It was more the culmination of the evangelicalism adoption of a combative masculinity, an ideology that entrenches patriarchal authority and condones a ruthless display of power,” she writes.
“In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them,” explains Kobes du Mez in her book, which looks at the parallelism between Trump and the actor John Wayne, “an icon of American masculinity for generations of conservatives” and over time “an icon of rugged Christian masculinity” with his “bravado.”
John Wayne “did not live a moral life by the standards of traditional Christian virtue,” yet “for many evangelicals, he would come to symbolize a different set of virtues — a nostalgic yearning for a mythical ‘Christian America,’ a return to ‘traditional’ gender roles, and the reassertion of (white) patriarchal authority.” “Like Wayne, the heroes who best embodied militant Christian masculinity were those unencumbered by traditional Christian virtues,” she writes. “For many evangelicals, these militant heroes would come to define not only Christian manhood but Christianity itself,” she concludes.
Trump ranted for more than an hour and a half on Saturday. In his speech, he painted an apocalyptic picture of America, slammed the president, Joe Biden, and “the lunatic radical left,” pledged his supposed commitment to Christian principles, and promised simple solutions to complex problems. “Together, we’re warriors in a righteous crusade to stop the arsonists, the atheists, globalists and the Marxists,” Trump said.
He devoted a quarter of an hour to defending himself against the latest indictment and to arguing through misleading points that he was entitled to keep in his Mar-A-Lago mansion the secret documents for the illegal retention for which he is indicted. Despite deluging the audience with lies, manipulations and half-truths that amount to something close to a parallel world, he charmed the audience with his dialectical wizardry and received by far the loudest applause of the convention.
Ralph Reed, founder and president of Faith & Freedom, sought to justify himself by saying: “We are accused of worshipping the personality of the former president. But this is the truth about us, what inspires us and why we are here today and why we are involved in the civic domain. We are a cult of only one personality. There is only one person we worship and that is Jesus Christ,” he said at the start of the conference. And in reference to all the candidates that he had been able to lure to his convention, he added: “While we welcome them, and while we so desperately desire change in our country, we are not looking for a savior because we already have one. I want us to open this conference by praying to that Savior.”
The speeches followed that stream of Christian nationalism that holds the belief that the United States is God’s chosen nation, that politics and religion are not to be separated, and that the Bible is not only the ultimate authority for personal living, but also the greatest instruction manual for governing. Virtually all the candidates declared their faith, and even the Indian-born billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy, who is not a Christian, stated as the first of his premises that “God is real.”
Ron DeSantis, Trump’s closest rival in the primaries, cited God more than half a dozen times, championed a society in which rights come from God and not the government, and declared war on the “cultural Marxism” that he believes is gripping the country. He reiterated his messages against trans people, against Disney, against pandemic restrictions, for the prohibition of books in schools that he believes sexualize children and for the “culture of life,” in reference to the recent anti-abortion law he recently passed in Florida.
The date of the convention coincided with the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that abolished abortion as a constitutional right throughout the country and referred its regulation to the individual states. The anniversary served as a cause for celebration for all participants. “Thank God Almighty for the Dobbs’ decision,” said the ultra-religious senator, Tim Scott. “I am literally a product of the pro-life movement myself, because my parents actually met at a pro-life rally,” said the mayor of Miami, Francis Suárez, one of the last to jump on the primary bandwagon. “Jesus Christ is the center of my life,” he added.
Mike Pence, who served as vice president under Trump, has seen abortion as a way to distance himself from Trump among evangelical voters. “Every Republican candidate for president should support a ban on abortion before 15 weeks as a minimum nationwide standard,” he said on Friday. “I believe we just can’t rest or relent until we restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law,” he added.
Without mentioning Trump, but in a clear reference to him, the former vice president warned against those who claim that because the Supreme Court returned the abortion issue to the States, “no action should be taken at the federal level.” “Others will say that continuing the fight for life could result in overly harsh state legislation. Some have even gone so far as to blame the overturning of Roe v. Wade [the ruling that established abortion rights] for electoral losses,” he added.
While the Democrats, under Joe Biden, are using abortion in their election campaigns, Trump believes it is damaging to them. “It wasn’t my fault that the Republicans didn’t live up to expectations,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social, in January, partly justifying himself for the poor electoral results for the Republican Party in the November 2022 elections. “It was the ‘abortion issue,’ poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters,” he added.
While Trump’s stance may not be favored by evangelical voters, they may not forget that he was the one who appointed three conservative justices to the Supreme Court who enabled the ruling that ended abortion rights. The former president has repeatedly recalled this and has proclaimed himself the most “pro-life president in the history of the United States.” As a result, it seems Evangelical Christian voters are keeping their faith in him.
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