Trump prompts soul searching for evangelicals
Michael Demastus, the pastor of a small Christian church a few miles east of Des Moines’ airport, is certain that a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean more abortion, less religious liberty and the end of traditional marriage.
Like most Iowa evangelicals, he is usually a reliable Republican vote. His wife Shannon is backing Donald Trump but Mr Demastus, repelled by the nominee’s character and behaviour, says he will write in an alternative candidate.
“Donald Trump is the worst possible candidate the Republican party could have put forth,” he says. “Donald Trump is a sinking ship and he is taking the Republican party down with him.”
The Demastus household mirrors a widening split among evangelicals that could have consequences for Mr Trump’s fading White House hopes. Following disclosure of a 2005 audio tape featuring Mr Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals and subsequent sexual assault allegations from several women, many Christian conservatives are torn between their antipathy to Mrs Clinton and their recognition that Mr Trump’s lifestyle is far from Christlike.
Just in the past week, the national magazine Christianity Today, prominent evangelical commentator Eric Erickson, and Beth Moore, the founder of a Bible-based ministry for women in Houston, all came out against Mr Trump. Students at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, which aims to develop “Christ-centred men and women”, also penned an open letter castigating the school’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr, for endorsing Mr Trump.
The conflict among Christian conservatives threatens Mr Trump’s chances of winning this swing state, which President Barack Obama carried in 2012. Evangelicals made up 64 per cent of those attending the Republican nominating caucuses in January, according to pollster Ann Selzer. They could amount to nearly 40 per cent of the state’s November electorate.
Local Trump campaign officials, buoyed by a recent poll that found him with a four percentage point lead over Mrs Clinton, are optimistic about carrying Iowa. Mr Trump is backed by several national Christian figures, including James Dobson and Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council. On September 28, the campaign in Iowa unveiled a 650-person Christian coalition including prominent radio host Jan Mickelson.
The Republican’s strongest fuel is the hatred for Mrs Clinton among many evangelicals, who are intensely concerned with issues such as abortion and the likelihood of several vacancies on the Supreme Court.
“He may not be your first choice, but there’s a lot at stake,” says Steve Scheffler, head of Iowa’s Faith and Freedom Coalition. “Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt, ethically flawed candidate ever nominated.”
If Mrs Clinton wins, he says, the country will be on a “path to socialism you’ll never recover from … ruining the republic, losing all our freedoms”.
Yet Mr Trump’s challenge in Iowa is evident in doubts expressed by Robert Vander Plaats, a three-time Republican gubernatorial candidate, and prominent evangelical leader who has met privately with Mr Trump and says he continues to pray about what to do on election day.
“I think he’s lost a lot of support,” Mr Vander Plaats says. “The evangelical community is known for door knocking, getting their people out, making telephone calls. That is not happening at the level it was happening in the past.”
Eric Branstad, the son of Iowa’s Republican governor, heads the Trump campaign’s effort here. He says Republicans are outpacing Democrats in early voting and enjoy an advantage in enthusiasm that is overwhelming concerns over Mr Trump’s treatment of women.
“I haven’t gotten any pushback,” he says. “The national media is pushing that story. In Iowa, we really have not seen that one iota.”
In an August poll by the Pew Research Center, white evangelicals nationally backed Mr Trump by 63 per cent to 17 per cent over Mrs Clinton. Four years ago, however, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney drew 79 per cent of the white evangelical vote.
For many Christians, Mr Trump’s character is the problem. The brash businessman has been married three times, routinely disparages critics including a disabled reporter, and was caught on tape boasting of actions that would constitute sexual assault.
Do I believe things will be worse under Hillary Clinton? Absolutely. But I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. I don’t fear any man — or woman
At Fort Des Moines Church of Christ, Mr Demastus, 45, is dismayed that some Christians excuse Mr Trump’s behaviour and that others let their emotions get the better of them. Following the release of the 2005 video and the subsequent assault allegations, Mr Demastus convinced two worshippers to delete inflammatory Facebook posts.
“It makes me sick what we have begun to justify,” he says. “I can’t wait for this cycle to be over.”
Politics is an unavoidable involvement for the church, which sued state and local officials this year over regulations requiring transgender bathrooms when it uses its building for public functions. Each Sunday, before the regular weekly service, Mr Demastus leads an hour of prayer for state and country. On the Saturday before Election Day, he expects about 100 members of the congregation to hold a 24-hour prayer vigil.
Mr Demastus says it would be a sin not to vote, however dispiriting the choices. But as the election draws near, he has begun sounding a fatalistic note.
“Who cares who sits in the Oval Office? It doesn’t change who sits on the throne,” says Mr Demastus. “Do I believe things will be worse under Hillary Clinton? Absolutely. But I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. I don’t fear any man — or woman.”