On August 27, 2018, US President Donald Trump met with evangelical leaders at the White House and asked them for their political support and said the upcoming elections were a “referendum on your religion.”
As reported by several media outlets during a recording made following his official remarks, the President said, “This November 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion, it’s a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment. It’s a referendum on so much.”
Trump also said, “You have to hopefully get out and get people to support us. If you don’t, that will be the beginning of ending everything that you’ve gotten. The polls might be good, but a lot of them say they are going to vote in 2020, but they’re not going to vote if I’m not on a ballot. I think we’re doing well, I think we’re popular, but there’s a real question as to whether people are going to vote if I’m not on the ballot. And I’m not on the ballot.”
He continued, “I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote. Because if they don’t — it’s November 6 — if they don’t vote, we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time. You’re one election away from losing everything that you’ve gotten. Little thing: Merry Christmas, right? You couldn’t say ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Dallas megachurch Pastor Robert Jeffress said that during the event, attended by 100 evangelical leaders, “Leader after leader stood up and started talking about why they supported President Trump.” He continued, “The headline of the evening would be: ‘Evangelicals remain enthusiastically supportive of President Trump.”
Although the Johnson Amendment, prohibiting non-profit organizations from engaging in partisan politics on behalf of or against specific candidates, is still in effect, with the Senate failing to repeal it, the President has directed the IRS to move away from enforcing the existing law.
Despite Trump’s unclear credentials, some influential evangelical leaders see his administration as a pathway to political power. The current group of hard-right politicians are abandoning moderate conservatives, as seen in the example of John McCain and the distance from the Bush administration, while a smaller, but much harder base is being forged. As the Trump administration faces legal and international challenges, it will become more and more dependent on this right-wing evangelical base of supporters, some of whom view Donald Trump as the fulfillment of prophecy.
While this may not have occurred previously in the United States, we are not uncharted waters in terms of global history. The linkage of secular political and religious power previously occurred when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and integrated the Imperial government with the Church beginning with the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. While the bishops defined doctrine in the Nicaean Creed, the emperor’s role was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity.
The President’s threat that the November election will be a “referendum on your religion” is troubling because it assumes that the success of Christianity is dependent on the result of a political vote. The fact that some very influential Christian leaders are buying into this argument and will throw their congregations behind this political movement is even more concerning.