Trump Appeals to Religious Voters With Battleground Map in Mind

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is seeking to invoke religion to bolster his law and order image during the civil unrest in an appeal to evangelical and Catholic conservatives, two groups he routinely turns to when he’s facing strong criticism.

Trump, not a regular churchgoer, this week stood outside St. John’s Episcopal Church across the street from the White House, holding a Bible aloft, and the next day visited a shrine to Saint John Paul II where the president and his wife, Melania, posed solemnly in front of an altar.

Those events were meant to serve as contrast to his demands for a tough, militaristic response to the violent demonstrations across the country for some conservative religious leaders, even as they deeply offended more liberal ones.

White evangelical and Catholic voters make up a third of the population of the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump won those states in 2016 by a combined 77,000 votes over Hillary Clinton.

Trump Appeals to Religious Voters With Battleground Map in Mind

This time, Trump faces Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic and Pennsylvania native with broader appeal to white, working-class voters than Clinton had. On the same day that Biden visited the Bethel AME church in Delaware on Monday and expressed sympathy with those protesting police violence, Trump visited St. John’s.

In doing so, Trump sent a signal to those culturally conservative voters that he’s on their side of the societal divide ripped open by a week of unrest.

What started as peaceful protests that erupted over the police killing of an African-American man in Minneapolis have exploded into rioting, arson and looting in cities across the U.S., giving those suburban and rural voters frightening images of urban violence piling on to the pandemic and high unemployment.

By shining a spotlight on vandalism and arson of churches instead of the root causes of the violence, Trump is speaking to the resentments of some conservative Christians who have said they are feel besieged by hostile — and even violent — cultural forces.

Trump Appeals to Religious Voters With Battleground Map in Mind

Trump all but acknowledged the connection on his way to the Shrine of Saint John Paul II, tweeting a two-word phrase used by Richard Nixon to appeal to law and order voters amid Vietnam War protests: “SILENT MAJORITY!”

Republican strategist Chris Wilson said it’s a winning message for Trump, who has proved adept at connecting almost any issue to his support for religious conservatives.

“The president is also very good at weaving other strands of his coalition into a message so it was important that he stood in front of the Church, showing that he’s not going to let a riot happen just feet from the White House with impunity while also proclaiming that he will protect the institutions — like churches — that are fundamental to the American fabric,” he said.

Trump Appeals to Religious Voters With Battleground Map in Mind

Trump has always been an unlikely exemplar of evangelical Christianity. He rarely attends church, has been divorced twice and has shown limited biblical literacy.

Still, evangelicals tend to see Trump as morally upstanding and honest, according to a Pew Research Center survey in March. That perception is fueled in large part by his presidential acts: 63% say they’re “winning politically” under Trump.

“It’s a transactional relationship,” said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University professor who studies religion and the presidency. “It’s purely calculated. Trump understands that he needs the support of religious conservatives to get re-elected. And they need a president who will support their political goals and nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court.”

Evangelicals form a solid voting base in reliably Republican states of the Deep South. Their support for Trump overlaps with the president’s other demographic advantages: They tend to be older and less likely to have a college degree than other religious groups.

Over the last 40 years, evangelicals have found common cause with conservative Catholics on issues like gay marriage and abortion, making their combined numbers an important voting bloc in swing states like Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Trump Appeals to Religious Voters With Battleground Map in Mind

But Trump’s faith outreach this week follows a pattern: When faced with a political crisis, he delivers on his promises to religious conservatives.

On May 4, 2017, the same day he drafted a letter firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump held a Rose Garden signing ceremony for an executive order gutting enforcement of a federal law prohibiting tax-exempt churches from engaging in political activity.

A year later, Trump signed an executive order rebranding the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, hours after acknowledging that his lawyer had paid hush money to a porn star who said Trump slept with her.

On Oct. 31, Trump appointed Florida megachurch pastor Paula White to head the faith and opportunity office. It was two days before the House voted on impeachment articles.

And on Jan. 16, the same day his impeachment trial began in the Senate, Trump convened religious leaders in the Oval Office to announce he was undoing an Obama-era executive order that put restrictions on religious groups receiving federal grants.

After returning to the White House from the Catholic shrine on Tuesday, Trump signed an executive order reaffirming religious freedom as a core aim of U.S. foreign policy.

Trump Appeals to Religious Voters With Battleground Map in Mind

​Many evangelical leaders looked on Trump’s church visits approvingly. Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor who Trump invited to preach on Inauguration Day, said vandalism and arson by protesters was “despicable.”

“I believe President Trump was absolutely correct in walking over there last evening, and standing in front of that church to show his solidarity not only with that congregation but with houses of worship all across America,” he told Fox & Friends on Tuesday.

“Yesterday @POTUS Trump made a statement by walking to @StJohnLafayette that had been vandalized & set on fire in Sunday night’s rioting,” tweeted Franklin Graham, who heads the religious association founded by his father, Billy Graham. “God & His Word are the only hope for our nation.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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