(RNS) — President Donald Trump insisted that he is favored by God during a speech to evangelicals on Friday evening (Jan. 3), in which he also went through a roll call of evangelical rallying points and challenged the faith of his Democratic rivals as he kicked off a new campaign initiative aimed at conservative Christians.
“I really do believe we have God on our side,” Trump told the crowd of roughly 5,000 gathered at El Rey Jesús Church in Miami.
Trump was at the church to launch “Evangelicals for Trump,” a new initiative for his 2020 reelection bid. Many in the audience wore red hats emblazoned with the president’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.
The event came in the wake of a bombshell editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office published in December at the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. The editor-in-chief of the magazine, which was founded by famed evangelist Billy Graham, described the president as “morally lost and confused” and said the impeachment case against him was solid and “unambiguous.”
Trump inaccurately dismissed Christianity Today as “far left” at the time, and he has appeared eager to reinforce his support among evangelicals in recent weeks.
He regularly invoked Christian nationalist themes throughout his address on Friday, tying faith to the country’s history and future. He described the United States as “not built by religion-hating socialists” but by “churchgoing, God-worshipping, freedom-loving patriots.” He argued that “a society without religion cannot prosper, a nation without faith cannot endure, because justice, goodness and peace cannot prevail without the glory of Almighty God.”
He then extended the theme to his own reelection. “We’re going to win another monumental victory for faith and family, God and country, flag and freedom,” he said.
Trump spent much of the speech touching on subjects he often mentions when speaking to evangelical Christian audiences: religious freedom, Israel, his administration’s opposition to abortion and his claim that he has made it permissible to say “Merry Christmas” again. He was joined onstage by several speakers who praised his administration’s efforts, including Cissie Graham Lynch, a granddaughter of Graham.
“Above all else in America we don’t worship government, we worship God,” Trump said as the crowd erupted in applause.
The president repeatedly characterized religion itself as under attack or “under siege” in the United States, saying that people of faith have no greater champion than him. He noted a recent shooting at a church in Texas and the stabbing of Jews at a Hanukkah gathering in New York, adding that he would strive to combat anti-Semitism.
He did not mention his controversial travel ban — which was originally proposed as a ban on Muslims entering the country — or attacks on Muslim Americans and their houses of worship that have occurred during his presidency.
However, Trump did take shots at the field of Democratic candidates vying to replace him.
“As we speak, every Democrat candidate is trying to punish religious believers, and silence our churches and our pastors,” Trump said. “Our opponents want to shut out God from the public square so they can impose their extreme anti-religious and socialist agenda on America.”
It is unclear what Trump meant by “punish religious believers,” although he made reference to a short-lived proposal by former candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who once suggested faith-based institutions should lose their tax-exempt status if they don’t support same-sex marriage. O’Rourke later clarified that he was referring only to religious institutions that provide public services, not individual houses of worship.
Trump also mocked former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has referenced faith repeatedly during his presidential campaign. The president joked that “nobody can pronounce (Buttigieg’s) name” before questioning the authenticity of the Democrat’s religious beliefs.
“All of a sudden he has become extremely religious,” Trump said. “This happened about two weeks ago.”
Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, has discussed his faith repeatedly since he first initiated his presidential bid in January 2019. The Democratic candidate also tweeted a reference to faith after Trump’s speech, saying, “God does not belong to a political party.”
Trump’s quips regarding the Democratic candidates' religious views appear to contradict remarks he made during his 2016 campaign. After Pope Francis seemed to suggest the businessman was “not a Christian” in February of that year, Trump responded by arguing that such theological critique was inappropriate.
“No leader, especially a religious leader, has the right to question another man’s religion or faith,” Trump said at the time.
Friday’s event opened with several evangelical leaders praying over Trump. Paula White, newly minted head of the White House's Faith and Opportunity Initiative, and Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, flanked the president as pastor Jentezen Franklin of Gainesville, Georgia, called Trump “a fighter and a champion for freedom” and thanked God for sending him to the Oval Office.
“I thank you, Lord, that he doesn’t claim to be perfect, but he is passionate,” Franklin said. He closed with a line that appeared to reference Trump’s campaign slogan: “Lord, do something so great in him and in this nation that the pundits on TV and the news anchors will be amazed at how great America is because God is great in America again.”
The choice of venue — El Rey Jesús Church, a massive congregation of mostly Spanish-speaking worshippers — may have been a strategic play by Trump’s campaign team to garner support among Hispanic evangelicals. The subgroup of Christian conservatives does not fit squarely within either major political party and has been touted as an important swing vote ahead of the 2020 election.
“It is not only logical but — arguably — politically brilliant that the President will kick off 2020 with the launch of his reelection’s evangelical outreach at a Latino megachurch in the state of Florida,” the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, told Religion News Service in a statement. “According to exit polls, 29 to 30% of Latinos voted for President Trump in 2016. The driving forces behind that Hispanic support may this time garner even greater support: faith values and economic opportunity.”
Also in attendance on Friday was Tony Suarez, a vice president of the NHCLC who endorsed Trump in 2016. Suarez told RNS that he attended the gathering because he supports the president, and he predicted evangelicals of all stripes would back Trump come Election Day.
“Other than one article from (Christianity Today) that I believe to be an anomaly, Evangelical support for our president is as strong as it’s ever been,” Suarez said via text message. “Beyond Evangelical support, no one expected President Trump to receive much of the Latino vote as he did in 2016 and I predict it’ll be even higher in 2020.”
There are signs that securing Hispanic evangelical support will not be uncomplicated for Trump, however — especially when it comes to immigration policies, on which Hispanic evangelicals are less conservative than white evangelicals. Ahead of his visit, Guillermo Maldonado, the pastor of El Rey Jesús, assured his congregants that they would not risk deportation if they decided to attend the event.
Trump may also have difficulty winning over evangelicals who are already unhappy with his presidency. Red Letter Christians, a progressive-leaning evangelical group, broadcast a response to his speech Friday night over Facebook. Lisa Sharon Harper, founder of Freedom Road and the person chosen to deliver the response, singled out Trump's recent decision to kill Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, which the president celebrated at the beginning of his speech.
"We oppose President Trump’s order to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani last night," Harper said. "Our faith compels us to speak, and our conscience will not permit us to be silent. ... We speak here as followers of Jesus, who said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.'"
She also bemoaned Trump's support among her fellow evangelical Christians.
“We must not lend support to compromised evangelicals with our silence," she said. "History will remember this unholy collusion between white evangelicals and Donald Trump. We must speak up.”