Donald Trump last month invited one hundred evangelical leaders to the White House for an important message: If Democrats win in November, they will overturn Christian gains under Trump “quickly and violently.” According to a leaked audiotape, the president warned “there’s violence. When you look at Antifa and you look at some of these groups — these are violent people.” This election, he said, is a “a referendum on your religion.”
As a former political reporter, I have been fascinated by evangelical politics since the group became the largest voting bloc to usher in the Newt Gingrich Revolution. I have followed prayer chains and social media messages, and I think Trump’s warning was a more potent campaign event than many realize, especially here in the South, home to half of the nation’s conservative Christians.
In order to understand why, one must understand how the president has tapped into the evangelical psyche. Trump gets that evangelicals feel under siege in a society with rapidly changing laws and social standards about sex, abortion, marriage and gender identity. He is keenly aware evangelicals believe that unless America turns from its ways and embraces Israel, God will no longer bless this country.
Above all, evangelicals have felt abandoned by party politics. Even after they became a critical Republican voting bloc, they saw no change in the trajectory of American culture.
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Until Donald Trump entered the Republican primary. Trump was coarse and licentious, but he wasn’t afraid to bash elites who disparaged him. In him, evangelicals found a candidate who was willing to overturn the tables of the money lenders and clean the cultural temple. He could restore America in a way George W. Bush had not.
In this context, it becomes easier to understand why many evangelicals, including Franklin Graham, believe God ordained Trump’s presidency. Just search “God and Trump” on YouTube. Among the many hits is a video of “proven” prophets who proclaim Trump was chosen by God to help Israel and “shake” Canada and Mexico. It has more than half a million views.
Evangelical leaders understand last month’s warning means a return to liberal judges and declining social mores. But they heard a more frightening prophesy: Antifa will be unleashed. Antifa is an organization of black-clad, anti-fascist protesters who show up at white supremacist and pro-Trump rallies. The group is indeed violent. It has damaged property and assaulted white supremacists in Charlottesville. But, aided by Fox News anchors, it has taken on almost mythic proportions among evangelicals.
When Trump said there was “blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, evangelicals knew he was talking about Antifa. And after Infowars reported Antifa was planning a civil war to overthrow American institutions, prayer chains pleaded for intercessors. When the predicted Nov. 4 riots didn’t occur, evangelicals believed they “fizzled” because of prayer.
Reading the president’s warnings, I knew they would be relayed in prayer chains and sermons, not in public affirmations. Christian Broadcasting Network mocked the media for exaggerating warnings of violence and played tape of the vice president downplaying the president’s words, as he always does. Fox News interviewed an evangelical who attended the meeting and flatly denied any warnings of violence.
But only a few days later, I received a Christian author’s Facebook video. Trump, he said, had “prophesied” violence, warning of a “dangerous time and a persecution” of Christians. The speaker repented for missing Republican events. The video has 1.3 million page views. That kind of message will resonate until November, because the president speaks the language of evangelicals.