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Jesus is their savior, Trump is their candidate. Ex-president’s backers say he shares faith, values

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As Donald Trump increasingly infuses his campaign with Christian trappings while coasting to a third Republican presidential nomination, his support is as strong as ever among evangelicals and other conservative Christians.

“Trump supports Jesus, and without Jesus, America will fall,” said Kimberly Vaughn of Florence, Kentucky, as she joined other supporters of the former president entering a campaign rally near Dayton, Ohio.

Many of the T-shirts and hats that were worn and sold at the rally in March proclaimed religious slogans such as “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president” and “God, Guns & Trump.” One man’s shirt declared, “Make America Godly Again,” with the image of a luminous Jesus putting his supportive hands on Trump’s shoulders.

Many attendees said in interviews they believed Trump shared their Christian faith and values. Several cited their opposition to abortion and LGBTQ+ rights, particularly to transgender expressions.

Nobody voiced concern about Trump’s past conduct or his present indictments on criminal charges, including allegations that he tried to hide hush money payments to a porn actor during his 2016 campaign. Supporters saw Trump as representing a religion of second chances.

And for many, Trump is a champion of Christianity and patriotism.

“I believe he believes in God and our military men and women, in our country, in America,” said Tammy Houston of New Lexington, Ohio.

“I put my family first, and on a larger scale, it’s America first,” said Sherrie Cotterman of Sidney, Ohio. “And I would any day of the week, take a president that openly knows he needs the strength from God over his own.”

In many ways, this is a familiar story.

About 8 in 10 white evangelical Christians supported Trump in 2020, according to AP VoteCast. Pew Research Center’s validated voter survey found that a similar share supported him in 2016.

But this is a new campaign, and that support has remained durable — even though Republican voters in the early primaries had several conservative Christian candidates to choose from, none of whom faced the legal troubles and misconduct allegations that Trump does. In the Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina Republican primaries, Trump won between 55% and 69% of white evangelical voters, according to AP VoteCast.

Trump even criticized one competitor, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for signing strict abortion curbs into law.

Trump was the only Republican candidate facing scores of criminal charges, ranging from allegations that he conspired to overturn his 2020 election defeat to his current trial on allegations he falsified business records in seeking illegally to sway the 2016 election with hush money to porn actor Stormy Daniels.

Trump was also the only GOP candidate with a history of casino ventures and two divorces, as well as allegations of sexual misconduct — one of them affirmed by a civil court verdict.

Republican primary voters still overwhelmingly chose Trump.

This has frustrated a minority of conservative evangelicals who see Trump as an unrepentant poser, using the Bible and prayer sessions for photo props. They see him as lacking real faith and facing credible, serious misconduct allegations while campaigning with incendiary rhetoric and authoritarian ambitions.

Karen Swallow Prior, a Christian author and literary scholar who criticized fellow evangelicals’ embrace of Trump, said this support in 2024 is familiar but “intensified.”

In the past, she said Trump supporters hoped but weren’t certain that he shared their Christian faith.

“Now his supporters believe themselves,” she said. “Despite the fact that Trump clearly wavers on abortion and he wavers on LGBTQ issues, those things are just ignored, they’re just erased out of the narrative.”

At the Ohio rally, several attendees cited their belief that Trump has followed the Christian path of repenting and starting a new life.

“We’ve all come from sinning. Jesus sat with sinners, so he’s going to sit with Trump,” Vaughn said. “It’s not about where Trump came from, it’s about where he’s going and where he’s trying to take us.”

The Ohio rally, like other Trump events, featured a recording of the national anthem sung by some of those convicted for crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, whom Trump called “patriots.”

At the rally’s entrance, one group handed out pamphlets urging attendees both to “trust in Jesus Christ for your salvation” and to support the “J6 patriots.”

Jody Picagli of Englewood, Ohio, said her Catholic faith and views on abortion are central.

“I’m a big right-to-life person,” she said. “That’s huge for me. And just morals. I think the moral compass is so out of whack right now. And we need religion and church back in here.”

She acknowledged that, with the Supreme Court turning the abortion issue over to the states, a future President Trump may not impact abortion law.

“But I know he’ll never go to an abortion clinic and visit it, like our vice president did,” she said, alluding to Kamala Harris’ tour of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Minnesota in March.

Robert Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute and an author of books on white supremacy in American Christianity, said the strong evangelical support for Trump isn’t surprising. But he said that in a 2023 PRRI poll, less than half of white evangelicals said that abortion was a critical issue to them personally. More than half said that five others were a critical issue, including human trafficking, public schools, rising prices, immigration and crime.

“One of the biggest myths about white evangelical support for Trump is this idea that it’s really about abortion and they’re holding their nose and voting for Trump,” Jones said.

He added that Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants “invading the country and changing our cultural heritage” resonates with his audience.

The slogan “Make America Great Again” echoes an “ethno-religious vision of a white Christian America, just barely underneath the surface,” Jones said.

He acknowledged the racial lines aren’t absolute, with Trump attracting Black supporters such as South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.

The Ohio rally included a vast majority of white attendees but with some Black and other ethnic groups represented.

Trump’s rallies take on the symbols, rhetoric and agenda of Christian nationalism, which typically includes a belief that America was founded to be a Christian nation and seeks to privilege Christianity in public life.

Trump endorsed a Bible edition that includes U.S. founding documents and the lyrics to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

“This is a Bible specifically for a kind of white evangelical audience that sees themselves as the rightful inheritors of the country,” Jones said, citing a 2023 PRRI poll in which about half of white evangelicals agreed that God intended America as a promised land for European Christians.

At the Ohio rally, some attendees said they believed the nation or its founding documents, such as the Bill of Rights, had Christian origins, though historians dispute such assertions.

Some Trump supporters voiced hope for a more Christian America.

Thomas Isbell of Greensboro, North Carolina, who has set up vending booths at many Trump rallies, said his “God, Guns & Trump” shirts are a top seller.

“It’s a Christian country,” he said, adding that if he were president, he would only allow public worship by Christians.

“We’re not going to set up a temple to no other gods in our land,” he said.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

By PETER SMITH
Associated Press

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