WASHINGTON — On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump attracted thousands of supporters to the National Mall to celebrate the Fourth of July. The event generated lots of media coverage, but it won’t be the most important gathering of Trump supporters in Washington this summer.
That title is more appropriate for the annual Washington D.C. Summit of the group Christians United for Israel, which takes place Monday and Tuesday. Thousands of evangelical Christians from across the country are expected to attend the event, which will include speeches by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (both evangelicals), as well as by Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, his special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.
Christians United for Israel describes itself as a bipartisan organization and the largest pro-Israel group in America. Its founder, Texas pastor John Hagee, gave a speech at the Trump administration’s ceremony last year when it moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. He has said that “there has never been a more pro-Israeli president than Donald Trump.”
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According to the organization’s website, also speaking at the event will be Republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Tim Scott of South Carolina. As of early Saturday morning Washington time, no Democratic senators were listed as speakers. The group is promoting this year’s summit as “the most exciting” since its foundation in 2006.
It’s no coincidence that Trump plans to send at least five senior administration officials to the two-day summit. Evangelicals, the backbone of Christians United for Israel, are a key voting bloc for Trump and the Republicans. Around 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, helping him secure victories in several swing states. The consensus among U.S. political analysts is that the president will need similar or greater support among evangelicals to win a second term next year.
Last week, the news website Axios reported that Trump’s reelection campaign “is developing an aggressive, state-by-state plan to mobilize even more evangelical voters than supported him last time.” This will include, according to the report, “voter registration drives at churches in battleground states such as Ohio, Nevada and Florida,” which will promote Trump’s record on issues important to evangelical voters.
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Several issues fall into this category, such as pushing back against abortion and LGBT rights. Support for the Israeli government is very high on the list for many evangelical voters. Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv helped him win the trust of many evangelicals. Hagee and other prominent evangelical pastors have praised him for keeping that pledge.
In May, evangelical pastor Robert Stearns, who has led dozens of Christian delegations to Israel, told Haaretz that he believes Trump’s record levels of support among evangelical voters will further grow in 2020, and that the embassy move will be “the number one reason” for that.
“I think Trump’s [evangelical] base is not only holding but it’s actually growing,” he said. “People see what he has done for Israel. It’s not something they are going to forget.”
End of Days
Evangelicals may not forget this, but the parade of Trump administration officials who will speak at the summit will certainly try to remind them. Trump has also hosted evangelical leaders at the White House several times to discuss his Middle East policy, including Hagee. The administration also wants to secure a positive reaction from evangelical groups for its plan for Middle East peace, which could be presented before the end of the year.
There are several reasons why a majority of U.S. evangelicals are very supportive of Israel. For some, support for Israel comes from a religious belief that the country’s foundation in 1948 is proof of biblical prophecy – and that therefore Israel is bringing the world closer to the End of Days and the Battle of Armageddon.
For others, the pro-Israel view is mostly based on a religious belief that support for Israel will bring a blessing for the United States. In addition, Israel has moved further to the right politically over the past decade, and many white evangelicals, the most right-wing voting bloc in America, admire Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and identify with his politics. Israel is also seen by many evangelicals as a partner in a global war on terrorism.
For all those reasons, evangelicals rejoiced when Trump moved the embassy, and applauded many of his other Middle East policies such as withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal and cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
Still, while support for these steps is very common among U.S. evangelicals, a growing segment of the community does not support Trump and Netanyahu’s policies. They are a minority but, according to opinion polls, their share of the evangelical population is on the rise, especially among the young.
For Trump, the support of the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals – those who voted for him in 2016 and who love his Israel policies – is crucial. Over the past two years, U.S. opinion polls have consistently shown that Trump is not broadening his support among the general public but is hanging on strongly to his base, which includes a large evangelical component.
“He knows that he needs those voters, and they also know that he needs them,” said historian Frances FitzGerald, author of the 2017 book “The Evangelicals: The Battle to Shape America.” She told Haaretz last month that “the evangelical approach to Trump is mostly – we don’t care who the guys is, we care what he does for us. And that definitely includes Israel.”
In her book, FitzGerald wrote that evangelicals played a key role in securing the 2004 reelection of President George W. Bush. She believes Trump’s advisers are probably studying how Bush energized evangelicals in that vote by emphasizing his stance on religious issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
“Bush also got their support for the war in Iraq, and for many of them, this was connected, at some level, to Israel,” she told Haaretz. “They thought he was going to reshape the Middle East and that Iraq would only be the prelude to taking on Iran. So Trump could try the same playbook this time around.”
FitzGerald noted, however, that Trump has pleased the evangelical voters who hold right-wing views on Israel, much more than Bush. “You can say that Bush was different from Obama and Bill Clinton on Israel, but he was also very different from Trump,” she said. “He didn’t do these things on Jerusalem, and he did speak about giving a state to the Palestinians. Trump is much more aligned with the Evangelical groups on these issues.”
For Democrats, Trump’s evangelical support poses a tactical dilemma: Should they try to compete with him in this arena? The Democrats can’t even get close to half the white evangelical vote, but some people in the party believe they can cause Trump serious damage if they merely cut his evangelical support just a bit.
Michael Wear, who worked on Christian outreach for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, wrote after the 2016 election how Obama received more support among evangelicals than Hillary Clinton. Wear wrote in The Washington Post that while Clinton received won only 16 percent of the evangelical vote, Obama won 21 percent in 2012 and 26 percent in 2008.
Evangelicals are estimated to make up a quarter of the electorate; there are around 60 million of them in the United States. Thus even a movement of just a few percentage points within this demographic could influence millions of people in different states.
Wear wrote at the time that “if Clinton had received Barack Obama’s 2012 percentage of the white evangelical vote in Michigan, she would have received more than 125,000 additional votes (in a state where Trump won by barely 10,000). In Florida, she would have received about 141,000 more votes, surpassing Trump’s margin of victory in that state.”
Wear added that the Clinton campaign did not invest in outreach to evangelicals, while the Obama campaign did. He argued: “It is political malpractice to completely write off a constituency that represents more than a quarter of the electorate regardless of the candidate’s difficulties reaching them.”
Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who is considered a centrist, argued in The Atlantic last month that if Democratic politicians – including presidential candidates – spoke more about religion they would improve their party’s electoral chances. “Democrats can fight for our progressive values while also identifying with the religious backgrounds that are so important to tens of millions of Americans,” he wrote.
Still, the task of limiting Trump’s support among evangelicals in 2020 will be extremely difficult – and his Israel policy is a major reason. “Bill Clinton was the last Democrat who really had a connection with the white evangelical population, and part of it was because he was a Southern Baptist,” FitzGerald said.
“Obama was also better at understanding them, and appealing to some of them, than Hillary. But Trump has a lock on them right now. They know about the mistresses and the cheating but they ignore it, because of the Supreme Court and because of Israel.”
FitzGerald believes the Democrats will be able to improve their standing with evangelicals as a more progressive generation in the community takes hold. “This is a generation that connects religion to social justice and community building, not to right-wing politics,” she said.
That change could also affect Israel. One poll last year showed that among younger evangelicals, support for Israel is less common and not as automatic as among the older generations. “There is going to be a change with this voting group in the future,” FitzGerald predicted, “but I’m not sure if we’ll see it in the upcoming election.”