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A sudden shift in support for Donald Trump among religious conservatives is triggering alarm bells inside his reelection campaign, where top aides have long banked on expanding the president’s evangelical base as a key part of their strategy for victory this November.
The anxiety over Trump’s standing with the Christian right surfaced after a pair of surveys by reputable outfits earlier this month found waning confidence in the administration’s coronavirus response among key religious groups, with a staggering decline in the president’s favorability among white evangelicals and white Catholics. Both are crucial constituencies that supported Trump by wide margins in 2016 and could sink his reelection prospects if their turnout shrinks this fall.
The polls paint a bleak picture for Trump, who has counted on broadening his religious support by at least a few percentage points to compensate for weakened appeal with women and suburban populations. One GOP official said the dip in the president’s evangelical support also appeared in internal party polling, but disputed the notion that it had caused panic. Another person close to the campaign described an April survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, which showed a double-digit decline in Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals (-11), white Catholics (-12) and white mainline protestants (-18) from the previous month, as “pretty concerning.”
To safeguard his relationship with religious conservatives, Trump on Friday demanded that America‘s governors permit houses of worship to immediately reopen, and threatened to “override“ state leaders who decline to obey his directive. The announcement — which came days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention omitted religious institutions in new guidance about industry reopenings — featured clear appeals to white evangelicals, many of whom have long supported Trump's socially conservative agenda.
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential, but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It's not right. So, I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential,“ Trump said.
Some allies have taken it upon themselves to warn donors and grassroots volunteers not to fret about Trump’s softened support among religious conservatives, downplaying its significance on his overall shot at a second term.
“I did a number of briefings with donors and key stakeholders and said the longer this goes on, there’s going to be a perceptible and predictable float-down once you get past the initial rally-around-the-flag upswing,” said Ralph Reed, a top Trump surrogate and director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“Now you’re in this trough and what voters are going to do is they’re going to wait and render a verdict once they’ve assessed the job President Trump has done to bring the economy back into recovery coming out of the pandemic,” he added.
Following the PRRI survey, which was conducted while Trump was a dominant presence at televised daily briefings by his administration's coronavirus task force, Pew Research Center released new data last week that showed a 7-point increase from April to May in white Catholics who disapprove of Trump’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and a 6-point decline among white evangelicals who previously gave him positive marks.
Trump campaign aides, White House officials and outside allies are responding to the threat by boosting their outreach to religious voters and promising to prioritize religious gatherings as they push to reopen the U.S. economy. Administration officials have conducted multiple calls with conservative Christian groups to ensure their support over the past two months. Trump himself recently attended an online worship service hosted by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. And Vice President Mike Pence held a roundtable with faith leaders in Iowa earlier this month. Reed said his organization is planning a get-out-the-vote campaign three times as large as its effort in 2016.
The president’s reelection operation “will engage the Christian community nationwide to overwhelmingly reelect President Trump in 2020,” Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said in a statement.
“In addition to his extraordinary record on conservative and faith-based issues, he has appointed well over 180 solid, conservative federal judges … defended religious freedoms and has stood as the most pro-life president we’ve ever had,” Farnaso added.
On Thursday, Trump also floated a potential move by his administration to reopen houses of worship in the near future.
“The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of Democratic governors,” Trump said as he left the White House to visit a ventilator factory in Michigan. “I want to get our churches open. We will take a very strong position on that very soon.”
Some Trump allies have attributed the recent slump in the president’s support to the closure of churches that Trump addressed on Friday. Social-distancing guidelines forced most churches to suspend in-person worship or move Sunday services into the virtual sphere, and one member of the Trump campaign’s “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition suggested that faith leaders and parishioners who have been frustrated by the limitations are mistakenly blaming Trump. (Religious institutions in Kentucky, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana and California have all brought legal challenges against their states for restrictions on religious activities and gatherings.)
“Those who don’t understand the legalities of the process could be blaming the president or the administration when the federal government is dealing with states’ rights issues,” said Mark Burns, a South Carolina pastor and prominent Trump supporter.
It was not immediately clear whether the president's order on Friday — that state and local officials must take immediate action to reopen religious institutions — was legally permissible, nor was it clear how administration officials planned to enforce the guidance.
Guidelines released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about reopening certain establishments — including schools, public transit systems and child care facilities — did not mention how religious institutions should go about returning to in-person worship services and ministry opportunities. One senior administration official said the guidance was omitted due to concerns that the prescriptions CDC staffers planned to provide were too restrictive.
It’s unlikely that critics of church closings alone are responsible for the decline in Trump’s favorability among critical religious demographics. According to the Pew survey, 43 percent of white evangelicals and 52 percent of white Catholics think the current restrictions on public activity in their areas are appropriate versus 42 percent and 31 percent, respectively, who think fewer restrictions would be better. Greater shares of white evangelicals and white Catholics also said they are more afraid about their state governments lifting restrictions on public activity too soon than they are about leaving the restrictions in place for too long.
As the coronavirus-related death toll approaches 100,000 and outbreaks emerge in locations where social distancing is more difficult, Laura Gifford, a historian of politics and religion at George Fox University, said it’s likely become harder for the president’s supporters to embrace his plans for an accelerated reopening of the country. The more Trump contradicts health officials who have warned against reopening schools and nonessential businesses, she suggested, the less accepting his usual supporters might become of his overall response.
“If grandma’s retirement home is suffering from an outbreak, there’s pretty good evidence that something is awry and it makes it difficult to ignore what public health experts are saying,” Gifford said. “This is something where that is harder to ignore than previous controversies or crises because it has life-and-death consequences for congregations and religious populations.”
Part of the strategy Trump allies have adopted to protect his relationship with conservative Christians is to frame the novel coronavirus — and church closures in response to social distancing restrictions — as a threat to religious freedom. The president’s religious supporters routinely cite religious liberty as one of their top priorities and an area in which they believe the Trump administration has been exceptionally receptive.
Speaking about the impact public activity limitations have had on houses of worship, Pence told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier this month that “the liberties enshrined in the Constitution still apply to every American, even in the middle of a national emergency.”
The Justice Department has also gotten involved. In a letter sent Tuesday to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, department officials warned the prominent Democrat that his measures to relax social-distancing guidelines in the Golden State cannot discriminate against religious groups and institutions.
“Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who accused Newsom of showing “unequal treatment of faith communities” by preventing them from reopening while other businesses were given the green light.
But the religious freedom framing might not matter if the economy remains in free fall through the November election, even after churches are permitted to reopen and conservative outside groups ramp up their outreach to religious voters.
Burns, the Trump-supporting pastor, said he and others who are “screaming from the mountaintop for America to reopen” still realize significant obstacles lie ahead.
“This is a challenge for everybody,” he said. “The president definitely has an uphill battle.”