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How come evangelical leaders are cool toward Trump?

They’re waiting on the people in the pews.

Former President Donald Trump announces a third run for president at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, Nov. 15, 2022. Trump has told a conference of Orthodox Jews that he is their “best ally” without addressing his widely criticized meal with a white nationalist and a rapper who has spewed antisemitic conspiracies. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

Last May, my imaginary friend the Trump court evangelical called to say that he had given up his pastorate in the face of a congregation captured by “Stop the Steal,” COVID denialism and the love of guns. Underlying it all was his own disillusionment with the former president. I figured he’d be able to shed some light on reports that this feeling is increasingly shared by his sometime colleagues.

MS: Hello, Rev?

CE: Hi, Mark. Not sure I’d ever hear from you again after I left my church.

MS: Oh, c’mon. How’re you doing?

CE: OK, I guess. I still haven’t found a new line of work. Anyway, to what do I owe the pleasure?

MS: I was just thinking you might help me understand this story about how Donald Trump’s big evangelical supporters have turned lukewarm on his 2024 presidential bid. I mean, Robert Jeffress says his endorsement won’t come before the GOP nomination. Franklin Graham says he’ll hold back until the primaries are over. Paula White isn’t talking. Have they seen the error of their ways?

CE: Nah. It’s like this. They’re waiting to see where their flocks are headed before they get out in front of them.

MS: You mean the flock’s leading the pastor? 

CE: In a way. My old sociology of religion prof used to say, “If you’re not in the pews, you don’t get the cues.” That was then. The way it works now for the evangelical rank and file is, “If you’re not watching Fox News, you’re not getting the cues.” They’re watching Fox for sure. Problem is, the cues are unclear. You’ve got Tucker and Laura playing the field, giving Trump the occasional hairy eyeball. Even Hannity broke away midway through Trump’s announcement in November. So the pastors have to watch and wait.

MS: I heard that New York Times podcast about the Arkansas pastor who, kind of like you, left his big church because no one in his congregation wanted to hear his messages any more. This is kind of unprecedented, don’t you think?

CE: You’re supposed to be the historian here, aren’t you? Of course there’s precedent. Back in the ’50s, after the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education, lots of evangelical pastors in places like South Carolina figured that the law was the law, and cautiously supported school desegregation. But the congregations went nuts, and the pastors couldn’t change their tune fast enough.

MS: OK, I stand corrected. What you’re saying is, pastors only get to tell their congregations how to think and act up to a point.

CE: What I’m saying is that, from time to time, pastors get run over if they don’t get to the side of the road their flocks are on.

MS: Then what side of the road will their flocks be on in the 2024 cycle?

CE: That’s a good question. There’s been some enthusiasm for (Florida Gov.) Ron DeSantis, but all they know about him is his culture wars on critical race theory and woke-ism. Also, he’s Catholic, which isn’t exactly a plus for us. None of the others have much support, though Mike Pence shouldn’t be discounted, in my view. Heck, he got the Bob Jeffress welcome at First Baptist Dallas earlier this month. As the easily reelected governor of Georgia can tell you, if you’re a conservative Republican, being attacked by Trump these days isn’t necessarily a black mark against you with evangelical voters.

MS: So what you’re saying is, the evangelical vote is up for grabs?

CE: In the primaries. Once the general election rolls around, it’ll turn out big-time for whoever’s the GOP nominee, be he (or she) Catholic, Mormon, Hindu or whatever. And if it’s Trump, well, they’ll be all in for him once again.

MS: Thanks, Rev. Not much of a story, then, is it?

CE: Nope. You take care. Bye.

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