Why a Trump indictment will matter so little to most of his Christian supporters

Consider just a few of the public revelations and remarks by Trump since 2016 and how little they affected white evangelicals' loyalty to him.

Former President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he departs after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023, Saturday, March 4, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(RNS) — The country is collectively holding its breath this week to see whether former President Donald Trump will be indicted for falsifying business records to cover up the payment of $130,000 of “hush money” to adult film actress Stormy Daniels on the eve of the 2016 election. If this comes to pass, it will mark the first time in American history a former president has been indicted.

One of the most blatant acts of public hypocrisy I’ve witnessed, in more than two decades observing conservative white Christians, was their easy discarding of the “values voters” moniker along the road to supporting Trump. This abrupt abandonment was particularly striking, given that its original purpose was to exploit the sexual indiscretions of Bill Clinton as a campaign weapon to be wielded against other democratic candidates.

Jonathan Merritt highlighted the hypocrisy in a 2016 “Atlantic” article. He quotes Southern Baptist Seminary President Al Mohler making this point explicitly, “If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton.”

By 2020, Mohler had nonetheless become a public supporter of Trump, even standing by his vote for Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection. “Based upon the binary choice we faced on November the third, I believe then that that was the right action to take,” Mohler said on his podcast on January 7, 2021. “And going back to November the third, I would do the same thing again.” To my knowledge, Mohler has yet to issue an apology to Bill Clinton.

As we anticipate the potential indictment of a former president, the data suggests that even such an unprecedented event would have little impact on the support for Trump by white evangelical Protestants and other conservative white Christians.

The unwavering support of Trump by white evangelical Protestants

First, we have the testimony of the trends: the unwavering support of Trump by these former “values voters” across Trump’s presidency, despite numerous well-known episodes of lewd, bigoted and unethical behavior. Check out the chart below:

"Trump Favorability Among White Evangelical Protestants, 2015-2022" Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“Trump Favorability Among White Evangelical Protestants, 2015-2022” Graphic courtesy of PRRI

Now, consider just a few of the public revelations and remarks by Trump that occurred during this period covered by that chart:

  • October 7, 2016: The Access Hollywood tape is released. On a hot mic, Trump brags about forcibly kissing and groping women, declaring, “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…. Grab them by the p—y, you can do anything.” Between September 2016, before the tape is released, and 2017, Trump’s favorability among white evangelical Protestants climbs 12 points, from 61% to 73%.
  • August 12, 2017: The white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which gathered around a statue of Robert E. Lee that was slated for removal, resulted in the murder of a counter protester. Trump refused to denounce the white supremacists, declared that there were “very fine people on both sides,” and suggested that it was the counter protesters who were “very, very violent.” Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals remains at 73%.
  • January 12, 2018: The Wall Street Journal breaks the story about Trump’s hush money payments to Stormy Daniels, reporting her claim that Trump had an affair with the adult film actress at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006. Trump was just a year into his marriage with Melania and just months into being a new father following the birth of his son Barron. At the time, Daniels was 27 and Trump was 60. Additionally, Trump’s inhumane policy of separating immigrant children, some as young as four, from their families, came to light a few months later in April. Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals remains at 73% throughout 2018.
  • December 18, 2019: Trump is impeached for the first time for attempting to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden in exchange for U.S. military and other assistance. Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals remains at 73% throughout 2019 and even inches up to 74% in 2020.
  • January 6, 2021: Trump incites a violent insurrection designed to thwart the counting of state electoral votes in order to stay in power. The 2020 election becomes the first in U.S. history that is not marked by a peaceful transition of power. On January 13, 2021, Trump is impeached for a second time. By the fall of 2021, after losing the election, inciting an insurrection and becoming the first U.S. president in history to be impeached for a second time, his favorability finally drops among white evangelical Protestants — but only 7 percentage points to 67%.
  • By the fall of 2022, Trump’s favorability among white evangelical Protestants dips modestly to 63%, but his popularity remains comparable to this same point in his 2016 campaign.

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody …”

At a campaign stop at Sioux City, Iowa’s Dordt College — an institution whose website assures students that “Everything at Dordt revolves around Jesus Christ” —  Trump infamously described his confidence in the unfettered allegiance of his supporters. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” Trump remarked. “It’s, like, incredible.” NPR described the audience that day as “receptive” to his message.

In a series of PRRI surveys across Trump’s presidency, we set out to see just how many Trump supporters would explicitly affirm such an allegiance to the former president. In the fall of 2020, nearly half of Republicans (49%) and white evangelicals (46%) who approved of Trump’s presidency declared there is almost nothing Trump could do to lose their approval. These findings were generally consistent in each year throughout Trump’s presidency.

The abandonment of even the pretense of principle

Finally, PRRI polling also documented a stunning wholesale abandonment of even the pretense of a political ethic of principle by white evangelical Protestants and other conservative white Christians. In 2011 and again in 2016, PRRI asked Americans whether “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”

Across this five-year period, no group shifted their position more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants. In 2011, only 30% of white evangelical Protestants agreed that an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life, a position one might expect from a group billing itself as “values voters.” But by 2016, with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, 72% of white evangelicals agreed — a 42-point jump from 2011. These results were largely unchanged the last time PRRI asked this question in 2020.

"White Evangelicals Grow More Accepting of Politicians' Personal Indiscretions" Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“White Evangelicals Grow More Accepting of Politicians’ Personal Indiscretions” Graphic courtesy of PRRI

Trump may yet make history again this week, becoming not only the only president to be impeached twice but the first former president to be indicted. Should he run in 2024, it is likely that such a distinction will hurt him in the general election, especially given that he lost the 2020 election by over 7 million votes and his favorability ratings among all Americans are consistently underwater.

But an indictment is unlikely to have a great impact on the white evangelicals and other conservative white Christians who have been his staunchest supporters. To those who have long abandoned their posture as “values voters” and have fully embraced an authoritarian figure they see as the savior and protector of white Christian America, the moral repulsiveness of the crass violation of his marriage vows and the legal evidence of a coverup, even if they are substantiated in a court of law, will likely have little weight.

Robert P. Jones. Photo courtesy of PRRI

Robert P. Jones. Photo courtesy of PRRI

As has been the case since Trump’s emergence as a national political figure in 2015, any excuse to deny the obvious will do. An indictment — particularly by a district attorney who is a Black Democrat from Manhattan whom Trump has already derided as a politically motivated “racist” — is likely to reconfirm their perception of a world upside-down and strengthen their allegiance to Trump.

(Robert P. Jones is CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” This article was originally published on Jones’ Substack #WhiteTooLong. Read more at robertpjones.substack.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.) 

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