Sarah Posner is a journalist at the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute who reports on religion and politics. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, Salon, The Washington Post, and The Nation, among other places. She’s the author of God’s Prophet: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values and Voters. This interview has been edited and condensed
JW: Return with us now to August 2015, six months before the first primary, when Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were considered by most people to be a joke. What did Trump look like at that point to evangelical leaders?
SP: Evangelical leaders were pretty skeptical of him. They’ve had a playbook for some decades by which they vetted presidential candidates, and that playbook required the presidential candidates to describe their own religious piety, to describe their own salvation in Jesus Christ, and to also adhere to several litmus tests relating to their opposition to LGBTQ rights, their opposition to abortion, and, currently, their dedication to what the religious right frames as “religious freedom”—to exemptions from having to comply with, for example, the contraception requirement under the Affordable Care Act, or LGBTQ rights, because of their supposed religious objections to those things. Trump has none of those qualities. He was not a religious man. He could not cite a Bible verse to save his life. He’d been married three times. He was a known philanderer and he had only very recently come to his “pro-life” position. He seemed liked an incredibly unlikely candidate for the religious right, particularly because the rest of the field had many evangelical favorites in it—including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, among others.
JW: At the beginning of the primary season, how was Trump doing with evangelical voters?
SP: Evangelical voters were going for him. Of course the field was split among 17 candidates. Back in the early days of the primaries, 20 percent of white evangelical voters were supporting him, which was pretty good—considering the field was so big. One of the earliest evangelical leaders to endorse him was Jerry Falwell Jr., the heir to his father’s Liberty University empire. Falwell endorsed Trump despite the fact that he didn’t adhere to the religious-right playbook. When I interviewed Falwell last spring, he told me that he was following the lead of rank-and-file evangelical voters, who felt it was more important to make America great again than to worry about the other issues that the religious right had traditionally pursued.
JW: When November 8 came and it was a choice between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, how did white evangelicals vote?