As impeachment moves to the Senate, where a Republican majority will control the trial, GOP lawmakers are acutely aware of the clout wielded by the Christian right ― not only in the upcoming elections, but in the Trump White House. For them, crossing Trump does not just mean facing his wrath, but also, by extension, the wrath of his most devoted base in the voting booth.
Trump’s evangelical base is a sprawling, interconnected network of political advocacy groups, megachurches, White House advisers, televangelists and prayer warriors. It also includes a formidable, data-driven get-out-the-vote operation. Top names in this circle include Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. The two are part of a group of about two dozen Christian leaders who meet regularly at the White House and who blast out full-throated defenses of the president through their organizations’ mailing lists, radio shows, podcasts and television programs.
Inside this ecosystem, impeachment is, at best, a partisan sideshow concocted by Democrats to distract the public from Trump’s many important accomplishments. At worst, it is a satanic scheme to upend God’s plan for America, which was to install Trump in office in order to ensure the nation is governed by Christians who espouse “biblical” values.
Just before Thanksgiving, as the House Intelligence Committee completed its crucial round of public hearings, Reed made a plea for donations, promising that “while we fight to defend the President from the Democrats’ ongoing political assassination attempt, we’re also laying the groundwork for a historic effort that will secure his reelection next year.” In December, as the House Judiciary Committee began a new phase of the impeachment proceedings, Perkins warned followers that “the radical Left is rallied around a single goal: impeaching this president to stop his pro-life, pro-family values, pro-religious liberty agenda, so they can force their radical, anti-American agenda onto voters.”
This rear guard has been poised at every turn of the impeachment investigation to defend Trump. The Family Research Council’s marquee annual event, the Values Voter Summit, came this year in October, just days after FBI agents arrested Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of presidential attorney Rudy Giuliani, as they were attempting to leave the country. The two were charged in a scheme to violate election laws by funneling foreign money to Republicans including then-Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who in turn pressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to recall the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. (Both men have pled not guilty.) As the Values Voter Summit got underway, Yovanovitch testified that she had been told by a top State Department official that she was recalled from her post prematurely due to “a concerted campaign against me, and that the Department had been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018.”
To Values Voter Summit attendees, however, this tumble of calamitous news was only evidence of a partisan attack against a divinely anointed president. Carly Eli, an attendee from Atlanta, said in an interview that God has told her that Trump is “chosen” and “anointed,” and that she believes God has placed a “hedge of protection” around Trump. Eli claims to have received visions of God placing a crown on Trump’s head twice — something she interprets as a prophecy that Trump will serve two terms.
Another attendee, Jason Farris, came from Colorado, where he is a volunteer with the Truth & Liberty Coalition, a new political advocacy group that is based on 7 Mountains theology, which holds that Christians must take control of the seven major spheres of society — religion, family, education, government, media, arts and entertainment, and business. When Farris read the July 25 call summary, he said it was “easy for me to see he [Trump] didn’t do anything wrong.” Echoing an increasingly common GOP talking point, Farris claimed that the impeachment proceedings were instigated by Democrats who are disappointed that “the Mueller report didn’t give them what they wanted. … Even since before the inauguration, the progressive left has wanted to undermine and remove him from office,” he said.
Another attendee, Eric Swanson, a graduate of Liberty University and host of a podcast called All-In America, called the impeachment probe “disgusting” and “the biggest witch hunt in American history.” Instead, he insisted, Joe Biden should be investigated for bribery, echoing a widespread conspiracy theory that Biden “confessed” to bribery in a 2018 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations — a claim that has been repeatedly debunked.
In this evangelical bubble, the Republican lawmakers who disrupt the impeachment investigation and confuse the public about both the process and the facts of the case are heroes. On Oct. 23, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and other Republican lawmakers stormed the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility where a closed-door deposition was about to take place. That same day, former Arkansas Gov. and onetime Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was taping his flagship weekly television program for Trinity Broadcasting Network. In a segment Huckabee calls “Facts of the Matter,” during which he tries “to make sense of some of the certified Washington, D.C., insanity,” a viewer named Carlos asked whether Gaetz had accomplished anything with his stunt.
In response, Huckabee, who is the father of former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, proceeded to spout disinformation about what had happened. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Huckabee claimed, “was so frightened by” the Republicans’ entry “that he shut the meeting down, got up and he walked out.” (In fact, the room had to be swept for security reasons after the Republican lawmakers broke security rules by bringing their cellphones inside.) Huckabee further misled his audience that “this was all happening behind closed doors, where only one side even got to call witnesses, one side got to hear the full testimony.” (This also was not true; Republicans could and did attend the depositions and ask questions.) To applause, Huckabee declared that such proceedings might take place “in North Korea, maybe in China, maybe in Iran, but not in America.”
- Trump’s evangelical base is a sprawling, interconnected network of political advocacy groups, megachurches, White House advisers, televangelists and prayer warriors.
In the eyes of evangelical loyalists, Trump is a salvific figure who must be defended to save Christian America from a catastrophic downfall at the hands of overweening Democrats. After 25 evangelical advisers met with him at the White House in late October, participants, including the Christian public relations guru Johnnie Moore, whom Trump appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, pushed out photographs of them praying with the president on social media. (Moore did not respond to interview requests for this article.) In an interview the day after the meeting, evangelical adviser Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor and Fox News personality, said that most evangelicals “believe this impeachment is an attempt to overthrow the 2016 election and therefore negate the votes of millions of evangelical Christians.” These voters, he went on, “see it as a war for the soul of our nation.” Jeffress predicted that evangelicals would react “very poorly” to Republican senators voting to convict Trump in an impeachment trial.
Trump’s evangelical boosters have also mobilized their foot soldiers into a spiritual army of prayer warriors who fervently believe their intercession will aid Trump against demonic enemies. This effort fans out far beyond leading Beltway players like Perkins or Reed, or popular television stars like Huckabee or Jeffress. In fact, Trump’s validation has meant greater celebrity for a proliferating network of “prophets” and televangelists, like Lance Wallnau, a speaker and author known for comparing Trump to the biblical King Cyrus, who restored Jerusalem. Wallnau claims to receive divine revelations about Trump, his power, and the attacks on him from a demonic left. Bakker’s Prophetic Encounter conference also featured the evangelist Jeremiah Johnson, who claims to have received many visions from God about Trump, and wrote a book called “Trump, 2019, & Beyond,” in which he claims, among other things, that God warned him about Hillary Clinton in 2012, telling him to “take careful notice of the secrecy that she operates in,” and warning, “The Church must resist her. She has plans to control, plans to influence. Beware!”
As the impeachment probe intensified and the House approved a resolution laying out its procedures, Trump actively sought to reward powerful evangelical figures for their support. In late October, for example, he elevated controversial Florida televangelist Paula White to an official White House post as the adviser to his Faith and Opportunities Initiative, a reinvention of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. White, Trump’s top spiritual adviser and friend, hails from the world of the prosperity gospel, where God is portrayed as blessing believers with finances and good health, and where prophecies from God — about Trump and otherwise — are commonplace. She has long been a key emissary between Trump and this world, elevating his profile in this community while he in turn has expanded theirs.
Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called White “unfit” for her new position, and denounced the appointment as “yet another example of President Trump pandering to his evangelical Christian supporters as he scrambles to secure his base amidst an impeachment investigation.”
Forming A Defense
The blueprint for the evangelical defense of Trump against impeachment was crafted during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference and obstruction of justice by Trump and his associates. In early May, a few weeks after Mueller released his report, Trump assembled his closest evangelical supporters for a Rose Garden ceremony for the National Day of Prayer. There, White declared the White House “holy ground” and prayed that Trump would “fulfill all the will of the Lord and do the assignment God has carried him to do.” Later that month, Franklin Graham organized a group of more than 250 pastors to make June 2 a special day of prayer for the president because his “enemies continue to try everything to destroy him, his family, and the presidency.” (White did not respond to interview requests for this article.)
- While the Christian right has, since Ronald Reagan’s presidential run in 1980, rallied around GOP nominees, the tenor and nature of the mobilization for Trump’s reelection is markedly new.
Evangelical leaders also freely weighed in on the substance of the Mueller report itself. “No collusion,” Jeffress told me in June during the Faith & Freedom Coalition Road to Majority Conference in Washington. “I’ve said to the president several times … unless Bob Mueller can produce a photograph of you holding the flashlight while the Russians were breaking into a voting machine — anything short of that he won’t need to worry about,” Jeffress said.
At the Faith & Freedom Coalition Road to Majority Conference in June, attended by a thousand grassroots activists from around the country, administration officials and evangelical activists portrayed Washington as a bubble disconnected from reality and obsessed by the “phony Russian collusion scandal.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of having “Trump derangement syndrome.” Marsha Blackburn, the Republican senator from Tennessee, told the audience, “Fewer and fewer people believe what they hear on the evening news. They listen to it with skepticism and doubt.” But this conference will “shore you up and give you the information you need to talk to your friends and neighbors,” Blackburn said, because the “most important name in news is you and your circle of friends.”
Conference attendees also heard from John Solomon, the Fox contributor and former opinion writer for The Hill, who reportedly was at the center of spreading disinformation about Joe Biden and his son Hunter. His articles fomented the recall of Ambassador Yovanovitch based on a false claim by a Ukrainian prosecutor who later recanted it, and they promoted the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to help Hillary Clinton. At the Faith & Freedom conference, Solomon took aim at his mainstream media peers, lamenting that they had lost their neutrality in reporting the news. “If the media had been neutral, it would have taken a deep breath at the beginning of this Russia scandal and they would have had reason to pause, and say, some of this doesn’t add up, it’s too easy, it doesn’t make sense,” Solomon told the audience. “Instead they just went on this bandwagon and drove off. They eventually drove off a cliff, and they have a story that today is overtly wrong.”
David Brody, political correspondent for the Trump-cheerleading Christian Broadcasting Network, who was moderating the panel on which Solomon spoke, left that comment unchallenged — even though the intelligence community had concluded that Russia interfered in the election to help Trump. After Mueller gave a press conference about his report in late May, stating, “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Brody’s network ran a story headlined, “Case Closed: Special Counsel Mueller Says Russia Investigation Is Over, Nothing More to Say.”
Whether Trump’s evangelical boosters actually believe he is anointed by God or that the evidence really does exonerate him, they have one powerful motive for their unflagging support: Trump has given evangelicals unprecedented power. With him in the White House, Christian right ideologues have virtual carte blanche to run his administration, as he has handed them control over personnel and policy at a level they could have only dreamed of, even under admired presidents like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Trump has handed them conservative judicial nominees, from the Supreme Court down to federal trial courts, and also has installed longtime evangelical allies at key Cabinet posts, including Mike Pompeo at the State Department, Bill Barr at the Department of Justice, Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development, and Betsy DeVos at Education. Ralph Reed has told his followers, “There are more Christians serving” in the Trump administration “than all previous presidents combined.”
At the Faith & Freedom conference in June, Mercedes Schlapp, who at the time served in the White House but later moved over to the Trump reelection campaign, described her office as “the West Wing Chapel.” Derek Kan, a political appointee at the Office of Management and Budget, recounted how the books of Leviticus, Joshua and Genesis shape his views on regulation and taxes.
Health and Human Services has been ground zero for Trump administration efforts to scale back reproductive and LGBTQ rights, and eroding church-state separation and framing it as “religious freedom” for Christians. HHS Secretary Alex Azar then delivered a speech enumerating “many of the ways that under President Trump HHS has protected life, conscience and faith.” The department, he said, has “never fought more fiercely to protect life at all stages, from conception until natural death. That is thanks above all to the work, the leadership and the courage of President Trump, the most pro-life president in American history.” At the Values Voter Summit, two officials from HHS — Shannon Royce, the head of the department’s Office of Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, and Roger Severino, the head of the Office of Civil Rights, which in 2018 launched a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division — were given front-row seats and a shoutout from Tony Perkins.
In turn, evangelical organizations provide top Trump deputies a platform to tout their Christian credentials to the base ― and shield them from the glare of mounting scandals. The same day that Yovanovitch testified in her closed-door deposition, Pompeo delivered a speech, “Being a Christian Leader,” to the American Association of Christian Counselors, which is led by Tim Clinton, another top evangelical ally to Trump. (Clinton did not respond to a request for comment.) A week and a half later, Pompeo touted religious freedom initiatives carried out by the State Department to a Heritage Foundation President’s Club Meeting in Washington, D.C., joking that the gathering had provided him “shelter from the storm.”
Reelecting A ‘Christian’ President
While the Christian right has, since Ronald Reagan’s presidential run in 1980, rallied around GOP nominees, the tenor and nature of the mobilization for Trump’s reelection is markedly new. While many of the expressed fears — that a Democratic president would nominate pro-Roe v. Wade judges or take away Christians’ religious freedom — are familiar, the motivation now is not just to avert liberal judges and policies. It is much more deliberately an imperative to reelect a singularly “Christian” president. As Ralph Reed reportedly will argue in a book to be published this spring, evangelicals “have a moral obligation to enthusiastically back” Trump in 2020.
With Trump’s reelection once again hinging on slim margins in a few key states, a multifaceted get-out-the-vote operation is getting underway. Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition is aiming to raise $42.7 million for its 2020 Project, aimed at bolstering its “unparalleled values-voter database, supporting field offices, and coordinating volunteers and staff to get out the vote.” It will be, Reed promised supporters, the “largest Christian Get Out The Vote (GOTV) effort in history,” necessary because “the left is already turning the re-election of Donald Trump into a three-ring circus, aimed at impeaching our president and reversing all progress for voters of faith.”
Reed’s organization is not alone. United In Purpose, an organization that provides polling and voter data to Christian right organizations, helped organize a pivotal 2016 meeting between a thousand evangelical leaders and Trump, during which he sealed an alliance by promising to nominate judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and eliminate the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from using tax-exempt resources to endorse political candidates. Although his organization is “still in the planning stages” for the 2020 election cycle, UIP’s president, Bill Dallas, said in an interview that the conservative Christian get-out-the-vote operation ― as well as its opposition’s ― will exceed 2016 in terms of “the sophistication, not just the data mining, using every technique to get the votes out.”
Maximizing white evangelical turnout for Trump will be key in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states he won in 2016 by narrow margins. White evangelicals made up 27% and 28% of the electorate in those states, respectively, according to exit polling data. Other closely watched states with high percentages of white evangelical turnout in 2016 include North Carolina (38%), Iowa (34%) and Ohio (33%).
According to Dallas, the views driving Trump’s support among the Christian voters that United in Purpose targets have already begun to solidify. “The reason why Trump has such a strong support base is because he did what he said he would do,” said Dallas. “I don’t see that [impeachment] turning off Christian voters. What would turn off Christian voters is if he didn’t fulfill his promises and commitments that he said he would do if he was elected.”
For the 2020 cycle, My Faith Votes, an organization that boasts Huckabee as its honorary national chairman, has also been organizing voter registration drives. “As Christians,” Jason Yates, the group’s CEO claims, “we must always look to elect leaders who defend our values and believe that God is the ultimate authority in this nation.” (Yates did not respond to interview requests.) In an email to My Faith Votes supporters, Huckabee described the group’s efforts in more detail. Over the course of the year, he wrote, “TV and radio PSAs will be running around the country reaching millions; millennials and Generation Z will be reached on Christian campuses; hundreds of thousands of Christians will be mobilized using peer-to-peer texting and door-to-door outreach, all in an effort to motivate and equip Christians with everything they need to take action.”
In November, Yates announced a partnership with Intercessors for America, an organization based in Purcellville, Virginia, that hosts weekly prayer calls and enlists supporters to engage in prayer against supposed deep-state and George Soros-led schemes against Trump and his allies. In a webcast, Yates and Dave Kubal, Intercessors for America’s president, announced they were developing a phone app to identify Christian voters with a “low propensity” to vote. But apps and microtargeting of voters are not the only way to keep evangelical voters in the Trump camp. The next day, Kubal was on a conference call with Paula White, her chief of staff, Todd Lamphere, and the evangelists Jon and Jolene Hamill announcing the launch of the One Voice Prayer Movement, carrying out, according to Kubal, White’s “vision to see the church of Jesus Christ come together, and pray for this administration and pray for our country.” (Kubal did not respond to an interview request. The Hamills, who are hosting a “Revolution” conference on New Year’s Eve at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, also did not respond to interview requests.)
On the call, White prayed for 10 minutes, during which she asked God to protect Trump and deliver him from his enemies. “Lord, we ask you to deliver our president from any snare, any trap, any setup of the enemy according to Ephesians 6:12,” a verse in the Bible that forms the core of the “spiritual warfare” that Trump’s prayer warriors say they are engaged in on his behalf. (“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”)
But White has a plan to protect Trump from those dark forces, vanquish his enemies, and to defend the “biblical” government that has elevated Christian right personnel and policy priorities. And she left no doubt that the multiple roles she plays — presidential personal pastor, White House employee and defender of Trump against his enemies — have merged into a single message of God’s wrath against anyone who dares criticize him. “Any persons, entities, that are aligned against the president,” she said on the One Voice Prayer Movement launch call, “will be exposed and dealt with and overturned by the superior blood of Jesus.”
Sarah Posner is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations.