Trump Didn't Think He Could Ever Lose the Evangelical Vote — but Then He Abandoned the Kurds

For the first time since entering the White House, Donald Trump has encountered significant criticism from evangelical leaders. Does the president have reason to worry about his own ‘base’?

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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A protester among a crowd of over 500 people demonstrating in support of Kurds after the Trump administration changed its policy in Syria, in front of the federal courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, October 11, 2019.
A protester among a crowd of over 500 people demonstrating in support of Syria's Kurds, in front of the federal courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, October 11, 2019.Credit: HARRISON MCCLARY/REUTERS
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

Something unusual happened in American politics this week: President Donald Trump was criticized by leading figures in the evangelical community. One after another, prominent pastors and activists denounced his decision to remove U.S. troops from northeastern Syria and to stand aside as Turkey attacked Kurdish cities in the region. One pastor called the Turkish attack on the Kurds “a disgrace”; another warned Trump he could be “losing the mandate of heaven” over the decision.

It was the first time since Trump entered the White House in 2017 that he had to endure such a strong level of criticism from evangelical leaders. They had stood by him throughout the worst scandals of his presidency: The Stormy Daniels affair; his racist attacks on black members of Congress; his attempts to recruit foreign governments to aid his 2020 reelection campaign. In fact, evangelical leaders were often criticized for failing to denounce Trump and for continuing to express blind support for him.

In the 2016 election, white evangelicals cast approximately a quarter of all ballots in the presidential race, with 80 percent of them voting for Trump — which played a key role in his victory over Hillary Clinton.

An important part of their support has to do with domestic priorities — mostly, the appointment of conservative judges to federal courts in order to overturn existing policies on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. But foreign policy is also very influential in their support of Trump. In particular, most evangelicals were thrilled by his election promises to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Trump followed through on those pledges after becoming president and made no effort to conceal the political considerations toward the evangelicals behind those decisions. He eked out a victory in 2016, despite losing the popular vote, thanks to narrow victories in three Midwestern states where there are significant evangelical populations. He will need the support of those voters again in order to win a second term in the White House next year.

For that reason, several leading U.S. news outlets reported this week on the unprecedented wave of evangelical criticism over Trump’s Syria decision. They quoted pastor Franklin Graham’s tweet on the subject, in which he directly addressed Trump and asked him to “reconsider” the decision. They also noted that Pat Robertson, an influential televangelist, warned on air that “the president of the United States is in danger of losing the mandate of heaven if he permits this to happen.” Both men are extremely loyal Trump supporters, who have so far rejected almost any kind of criticism aimed at the president and fiercely defended him.

Mike Evans, a member of Trump’s evangelical faith initiative (a group of evangelical leaders who advise the president), published an article under the headline “Kurds Are the Evangelicals of the Muslim World.” In it, he implored the president to change course, writing, “America never had stronger supporters in the region.”

The Rev. Franklin Graham leading the audience in prayer as he speaks at his Decision America event at the Pitt County Fairgrounds in North Carolina on October 2, 2019.Credit: Chris Seward/AP

His article didn’t directly criticize Trump, but instead ended with a plea aimed at the president: “Why can’t we just listen to the Kurds?”

Russell Moore, an influential pastor who, unlike others, has been highly critical of Trump in the past — and even published articles against voting for him in 2016 — also offered strong criticism. “What a disgrace,” he wrote on his Twitter account. “Kurdish Christians (and others among the brave Kurds) have stood up for the United States and for freedom and human dignity against ISIS terrorism and the bloodthirsty Assad regime. What they are now facing from Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey is horrifying beyond words.”

Evangelical support for the Kurds is less well-known than the community’s support for Israel, and the two phenomena are very different from each other in terms of scope, history and levels of commitment. Support for Israel is a top priority for most evangelical voters and stems from religious beliefs about biblical prophecies. Support for the Kurds, meanwhile, is a relatively new phenomenon in the evangelical world and is mostly a result of the role Kurdish fighters have played in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That is why media outlets in the United States were surprised by the evangelical leaders’ harsh responses to Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds.

Political implications?

The content and magnitude of the evangelical criticism was indeed highly unusual, but will it also have political implications?

So far, no major public opinion poll has measured the impact of the Syria decision on Trump’s support among evangelicals. One survey, released Wednesday by Fox News, did show that a relatively high number of evangelicals polled, 31 percent, support the impeachment inquiry against Trump opened by the House of Representatives. Yet no firm conclusions can be drawn from a single poll, especially one that didn’t contain any questions about Syria and the Middle East.

“Trump is still very popular in the evangelical community, and people remember all he’s done for Israel,” says Joel Rosenberg, an author and activist who has led several high profile evangelical delegations to Arab countries in recent years. Rosenberg tells Haaretz that “Trump is seen by most evangelicals as the most pro-Israel president ever, and as someone who has moved American policy in the Middle East in a good direction.”

A worshipper wearing an "In God We Trust" wristband before evangelist The Rev. Franklin Graham speaks at the Decision America event in Greenville, North Carolina, October 2, 2019.Credit: Chris Seward/AP

But despite that strong level of support, Rosenberg cautions that Trump and his advisers should definitely be concerned by the reaction to the Syria decision. “It’s hard to make a case that this will have any political consequences for the president in the immediate future,” he says. “But it’s worth noting that this is the first time such criticism has been leveled at him from the evangelical community. I don’t think it would be wise to just ignore it.”

The fact that this rare wave of evangelical criticism is happening at the same time as an impeachment inquiry against Trump is starting in the House of Representatives further complicates matters. In order to survive the impeachment process, Trump will rely on the support of Republicans in the Senate. But several GOP senators who are usually very supportive of Trump, and who have large evangelical constituencies in their states, came out strongly against his Syria move. “He needs those senators right now,” says Rosenberg.

According to Rosenberg, “It shouldn’t be a surprise that evangelicals care so much for the Kurdish people. The Kurds are loyal allies who fought bravely to defeat ISIS and have protected Christians in the region. They also have a history of working with Israel.” He says that evangelicals aren’t only pressuring Trump on this issue: Many were also highly critical of how the Obama administration, in his words, “abandoned the Kurds” during their fight against ISIS.

Rosenberg adds that many evangelicals are concerned about the precedent set by Trump’s decision to turn his back on a Middle East ally. “People are asking themselves, ‘Could he also turn his back on other allies in the future?’ Of course, most people when they ask that question are thinking about Israel.”

Similar concerns have already been raised by Israeli officials, albeit not in public. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday denounced the Turkish attack on the Kurds and pledged to offer humanitarian assistance, but stopped short of mentioning Trump’s role or criticizing the United States.

Rosenberg tells Haaretz that the evangelical leaders’ calls for Trump to change course were “enormously significant” for another reason. “One criticism that evangelicals have constantly faced in the Trump era is that they’re so close to Trump and are never willing to contradict him or call him out. There are very good reasons for evangelicals who care about Israel to strongly support President Trump, but you can clearly see, based on the events of this week, that some evangelical leaders are also willing to criticize the president if they disagree with his policies.”

Kurds living in Cyprus take part in a demonstration against Turkey's military action in northeastern Syria, outside the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus, October 10, 2019. Credit: YIANNIS KOURTOGLOU/REUTERS

An aide to a Republican senator tells Haaretz that despite the criticism toward Trump within the party, it’s “still too early” to say what the political impact will be. “There’s a possibility the Turkish attack leads to horrifying pictures conquering the news cycle, and Trump gets a ton of criticism for it,” the aide says. “But it’s also possible this story is forgotten in two weeks, and we’re back to fighting the Democrats over impeachment and the party unites around him.”

Trump, according to this aide, “probably doesn’t think he can really lose the evangelical voters. He thinks to himself, ‘What are these people going to do if they don’t like what I did with the Kurds? Are they going to vote for Elizabeth Warren?’”

Rosenberg, however, warns about taking the evangelical vote for granted. “The risk for President Trump isn’t that evangelicals will turn against him,” he says. “The risk is that a small percentage of the evangelicals who voted for him in 2016 will stay home next November [2020] if they’re not happy about what’s going on in the country and the world.

“If evangelical turnout goes down by even 1 percent,” he continues, “that could be enough to have an impact in key battleground states. We have more than a year until the election, and no one can say what will happen until then. But it would be good for the president to listen to those who are urging him to reconsider this policy.”

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