Call it a crisis of faith. Despite appointing the conservative judges who ultimately overturned Roe v. Wade — and fervently courting the religious right during his presidency — prominent evangelicals are beginning to shy away from supporting former President Donald Trump’s third bid for office.
A major factor is the same issue driving leaders in other parts of the conservative coalition away from his campaign: They’re not sure he can win.
“Evangelicals, conservatives and freedom-loving Americans … the common question is: Who can win in 2024?” Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader, told Semafor. “And I believe that’s Trump’s highest hurdle.”
Vander Plaats, who co-chaired Ted Cruz’s campaign in 2016, said he’d had many conversations with conservatives who “really like the former president” but want to move forward with “a vision for the future versus a complaint or critique about the past.”
Some Evangelical leaders are also tiring of the former president’s obsession with trying to somehow overturn the previous election and his ever-growing list of personal scandals and inflammatory statements.
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council who prayed with Trump in office and defended him at critical moments, suggested Trump remains too focused on the 2020 election and that evangelicals “don’t want a lot of drama” this time around. He said the former president needed to earn their vote by speaking about issues that resonated with them instead — he pointed to Trump’s frequent references to a “war on Christmas” in 2016 as an example.
Vander Plaats and Perkins aren’t the only ones with doubts about Trump 2024. American Renewal Project leader David Lane trashed the former president just last week in his bi-weekly letter to evangelical Christian pastors, according to Religion News.
Christian Zionist activist Mike Evans, who helped pull together the evangelical vote for Trump in 2016, wrote in an essay shared with The Washington Post that even though the president kept his word on issues like judges, evangelicals must stop treating him “like he was an idol” and move on.
“Donald Trump can’t save America,” Evans wrote. “He can’t even save himself. He used us to win the White House.”
Dr. Robert Jeffress, a Dallas evangelical leader who was among Trump’s most crucial early supporters in 2016, has declined to endorse him in the upcoming race, even as he told Semafor his hesitancy “has nothing to do with any disappointment in President Trump” and predicted he would again win the nomination.
“It's a matter of personal priorities,” Jeffress said. “And right now, getting in the middle of a Republican civil war is not one of my priorities.”
It’s far too early to write Trump off with any political constituency, and Christian leaders have scrambled to shift their positions before.
Dr. Russell Moore, a theologian and editor-in-chief at Christianity Today who has been critical of Trump throughout his rise, told Semafor that he doesn’t see evangelical leaders influencing voters “much, if at all.” In fact, Moore argued that it’s the other way around, pointing out that “many of the evangelical leaders who became part of Trump’s network followed their followers into that support” back in 2016.
Room for Disagreement
Some observers think Trump’s rivals have a strong chance to win evangelical voters. Writing in the National Review, Evan Myers sees Ron DeSantis, who has been incorporating a religious flavor into his campaign ads and speeches, as a potential threat to Trump’s support. Former Vice President Mike Pence has been making appeals to social conservatives as a steadfast ally on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. And Vander Plaats also named former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, and Cruz as names to watch.