Last August, President Donald Trump sat behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and looked me straight in the eyes. With a look of reflection and purposefulness, he discussed his upbringing and fondly recalled a vivid childhood memory from the 1950s: watching Billy Graham sermons on television with his father. “My father was a fan of Billy Graham,” the president said. He recalled how his father, Fred, attended the historic 1957 New York City Crusade.
Graham brought both evangelism and evangelicalism into the mainstream of American culture. Meanwhile, Trump grew to be successful, wealthy and famous — culminating with his becoming the leader of the free world. In the process, he too brought evangelicals somewhere, a place so many would have never imagined: an embrace of Donald Trump.
Of all the questions surrounding the current president, perhaps the most perplexing is this: How could evangelicals get behind a man like Trump, especially well-known conservative leaders who both treasure and champion morality? Constant news reports paint a picture of an out-of-control, angry, mentally unstable, reckless president who is prejudiced against all of humanity except white people with modest incomes and out-of-date values. But after interviewing scores of evangelical leaders, I have developed a different perspective.
Most of the world, and even most reporters, know only the public side of Trump. In private, evangelical leaders have come to recognize a more compassionate side.
For example, Trump took a car ride with Mike Pence along with Billy Graham’s son Franklin and Tony Perkins, a leading figure on the Christian right, during the Louisiana floods of 2016. Impressed by what Graham’s Christian ministry had done for flood victims, Trump told him that he was writing it a six-figure check, which Graham told him to send to Perkins’ church. Both men were moved by his impulsive kindness, and a bond was formed.
Another story involves Trump and the televangelist James Robison praying together inside an SUV on the airport tarmac in Panama City, Fla., during a campaign stop. When Trump exited the car, he gave Robison a hug, pulled him up against his chest firmly and said, “Man, I sure love you.” A small gesture, perhaps, but heartfelt, real and so unlike the caricature of the president most of us see. And practically every evangelical leader I interviewed has a similar tale.
Critics say that the Trump-evangelical relationship is transactional, that they support him to see their agenda carried out. In fact, evangelicals take the long view on Trump: They afford him grace when he doesn’t deserve it. Few dispute that Trump may need a little more grace than others. But evangelicals truly do believe that all people are flawed, and yet Christ offers them grace. Shouldn’t they do the same for the president?
This is more than a biblical mandate. The Bible is replete with examples of flawed individuals being used to accomplish God’s will. Evangelicals I interviewed said they believed that Trump was in the White House for a reason.
Bishop Wayne Jackson, who is the pastor of Great Faith Ministries International in Detroit and calls himself a lifelong Democrat, remembers Trump’s campaign visit to his church. He told me that the moment Trump got out of the car, “the spirit of the Lord told me that that’s the next president of the United States.”
Evangelical leaders also see a civic obligation to speak godly counsel to him, on policy and personal matters. He is, after all, the president. And it’s paying off. I’ve watched Trump through the lens of the faith community for years, and he has delivered the policy goods and is progressing on the spiritual ones.
My reporting suggests Donald Trump is on a spiritual voyage that has accelerated in recent years, thanks to evangelicals who have employed the biblical mandate of sharing and showing God’s love to him rather than shunning him. President Trump told me that he “was exposed to a lot of people, from a religious standpoint, that I would’ve never met before. And so it has had an impact on me.”
This president’s effect on our cultural norms has been shocking. His critics would call it appalling; evangelicals say it’s immensely satisfying: They’ve seen a culture deteriorate quickly in the past decade, and they’re looking for a bold culture warrior to fight for them. Showing that God does indeed have a sense of humor, He gave them Trump. Yet in God’s perfection, it’s a match made in heaven. Trump and evangelicals share a disdain for political correctness, a world seen through absolutes and a desire to see an America that embraces Judeo-Christian values again rather than rejecting them.
Finally, why in the world wouldn’t evangelicals get behind and support a man who not only is in line with most of their agenda but also has delivered time and time again? The victories are numerous: the courts, pro-life policies, the coming Embassy in Jerusalem and religious liberty issues, just to name a few. He easily wins the unofficial label of “most evangelical-friendly United States president ever.”
Does Trump have moral failings? Yes. Critics will suggest a hypocrisy coming from evangelical leaders who are quick to denounce the ethical failings of others who don’t have an “R” next to their name. But the goal of evangelicals has always been winning the larger battle over control of the culture, not to get mired in the moral failings of each and every candidate. For evangelicals, voting in the macro is the moral thing to do, even if the candidate is morally flawed. Evangelicals have tried the “moral” candidate before.
Jimmy Carter was once the evangelical candidate. How did that work out in the macro? George W. Bush was the evangelical candidate in 2000. He pushed traditional conservative policies, but he doesn’t come close to Trump’s courageous blunt strokes in defense of evangelicals.
Evangelicals have found their man. It may seem mystifying to outsiders, but for someone like me, with a front-row seat to an inside view, it makes perfect sense. Maybe they’re taking their cue from Billy Graham, embracing presidents with moral failings rather than rejecting them.
David Brody is the host of “Faith Nation” on the Christian Broadcasting Network.