Kathy* never thought in her wildest dreams that she’d be on the “Trump train.” As a devout evangelical Christian grandmother from Indiana, she wasn’t exactly convinced of his piety, and even blocked him on Twitter two years ago because of his notoriously crass behavior. But she found herself more and more torn during the antics of 2016 primary season. She began praying to God for answers on who to vote for. One night, the answer came to her.
“I woke up from a dead sleep at 2 a.m. and immediately opened YouTube,” she said. She glimpsed a video called Trump prophecy that had been circulating since April, when a firefighter named Mark Taylor claimed that God had given him a prophecy about Donald Trump in 2011. In it, he says that Trump will be the next president and make America the most prosperous nation on earth, strengthen the dollar against all other currencies, protect Israel, and bring about a “financial harvest” for Americans. Those words were enough to change Kathy’s perspective completely.
“I usually never believe in any kind of prophecy but this was different,” she told me. “It was something I felt I needed to watch over and over. Since that time, I am Trump all the way!” She believes that “Trump is the only one and the strongest to lead this country toward a safer and more peaceful nation.”
In the haze of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando, Kathy has remained loyal to her candidate—despite the fact that, unlike many other conservative leaders, he’s explicitly condemned the same anti-LGBTQ attitudes that many evangelicals still hold dear. Donald Trump’s Monday speech addressing the shooting was as controversial as ever, riddled with xenophobic and Islamophobic rants. Still, he repeatedly expressed support for the gay community, and even claimed that Hillary Clinton’s policies would be more harmful to LBGTQ people than his would. The next day, he reiterated his support on Twitter.
It’s not the first time that Trump has broken away from the conservative base and been fairly liberal on social stances. He supported trans bathroom access before tweaking his position to say that it should be up to the states. His position on abortion is far from constant, and he has previously expressed pro-choice sentiments. He’s been married three times and has bragged about his infidelities, for which he has, apparently, never even sought forgiveness.
However, despite all this, he has a 59-point-lead over Hillary Clinton with white evangelicals, polling favorably with about 76% of voters who self-identify that way. Several evangelical leaders, such as Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition (which recently had a conference in which Trump received a minute-long standing ovation) and Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, have heartily endorsed him.
So why are these evangelicals going against their own deeply-held values to endorse Trump? As a recovering evangelical who still has ample Trump supporters in her Facebook feed, I decided to find out.
Mike Jones, a 56-year-old Republican evangelical Christian from Illinois who has family members in Orlando, is voting for Trump despite his reservations. “As a conservative Christian, I believe that homosexuality is a sin but what happened [in Orlando] is an abomination,” he told me. “No Christian could be happy about it.” Jones firmly believes that whatever stances conservative Christians may hold against homosexuality, Islam is worse: “You have Muslims throwing homosexuals off buildings. It’s not just the radicals either. It is taught in the Koran and the Hadith that the punishment for homosexuality is death.”
The denouncements of extremism and support for LGBTQ Muslims by American Muslim leaders have been drowned out by Trump wrongly claiming that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was “born an Afghan” despite the fact that he was an American citizen. For the majority of evangelicals, it doesn’t matter either way: Trump is their man. And, in some cases, they believe it’s a matter of life and death.
To Kathy, fear of ISIS trumps concern about Trump's liberal ways. “As far as LBGT/Gays/Christians, we are all different but yet the same,” she wrote to me in a direct message on Twitter. “We are all targets of ISIS.” Though she admits that Trump “may not be an everyday every Sunday Christian,” she does believe that he is a Christian man who loves the Lord.
But not all evangelical Christians are convinced by Trump’s platform. Jennifer Bickley, a young stay-at-home mom from Tallahassee, Fla., finds herself conflicted this election season. “Ultimately the candidates that I stood beside and aligned with my beliefs on abortion and gay marriage/rights are no longer in the race, so Trump was never my first pick,” she says. She considers herself pro-life and believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, and while she says Trump’s stances on those issues are “roadblocks” to her vote, she is more concerned about his public appearances.
“His lifestyle doesn't present a life lived out of biblical Christian principles,” Bickley says. “I'd like to vote, because to not vote would be a shame to what America is. But if I vote for a man or woman that could cause shame to America, how is that any better?”
Her concerns are not unique among Christian voters. Despite the lead among white evangelicals, many—especially those of color—are still skeptical. Because while 87% of self-described Republican evangelicals are white, most of the non-white evangelicals tend to lean Democrat, even in cases where they are pro-life and against same-sex marriage. So, to court them, Trump supporter and former Republican presidential nominee Ben Carson plans to hold a closed-door meeting on June 21 in New York City with Trump and around 500 conservative evangelical leaders.
Carson and Trump hope these leaders can be convinced to endorse the contentious Republican candidate and openly show their support for him, especially since he has recently lost the support of Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Council. Rodriguez now refuses to endorse either Clinton or Trump after the latter’s comments on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, in which Trump insisted that the Latino judge could not fairly arbitrate on his Trump University case due to his “Mexican heritage” (despite the fact that Curiel was born in Indiana).
Some Republican evangelicals won’t be voting for him no matter what, and not because of religious reasons. So is the case with 32-year-old Florida resident Matt Behnke, who once served as president of College Republicans at Tallahassee Community College.
“Trump is very shifty and seems to be double-minded,” he says. “He also seems to demean and degrade minority groups and women and I don't agree with that. He mocked a disabled reporter and I thought that was horrible.”
Behnke plans to vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the fall, and does not believe Trump will win. In fact, he is convinced that Trump is only in the race to help Clinton win. “I personally think Bill and Hillary put Donald Trump up to running as a Republican for president to help her win in November,” he says. “He is purposefully fitting many of the stereotypes of Republicans as being racist, sexist, xenophobic, and bigoted to help Hillary.”
When I was growing up in a conservative evangelical home in the south, it always seemed that a Republican identity was almost as important as a Christian identity, because it meant one believed in the correct godly convictions, especially when it came to social issues. Until I was a teenager, I wasn’t aware that Christian liberals even existed, and thought all Democrats were simply non-believers. I was afraid of other cultures and other beliefs than my own, because I didn’t know them and I didn’t understand them. I felt like I was constantly being pitted in an “us vs. them” battle, with conservative evangelicals fighting against the impending army of a worldly culture that killed babies and hated Jesus and trashed the Bible.
I wasn’t alone. For so many evangelicals, fear of the unknown is exactly what leads them to support Republican, authoritarian candidates over Democratic ones. The GOP has long been able to tap into that fear by making people feel territorial and threatened, and the greatest threat of 2016 is ISIS. To these evangelicals, ISIS is a thriving, growing force that has to be snuffed out at any cost. Many white evangelicals in particular feel threatened not only by the fact that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world, but also because the Hispanic population is the fastest-growing in the United States. Enter Trump’s policy platform.
White evangelicals have had enormous political power for the past few decades, and have dictated the direction of politics for half a century. So for many, their fear of losing grip on the changing tide of American culture means they might have to make ideological sacrifices. In this case, it’s Trump’s social liberalism—both in his policies and his everyday life.
“I [have] found in presidential races, I rarely totally agree with any candidate,” says Mike Jones. “Obviously Trump’s had moral failings, but I think if we were all honest, including Christians, we all have. But overall, I think I have more agreement with him than disagreement.”
Kathy concurs. “I believe Trump will do what is right for our nation—not one individual group or platform, but what is right for the totality of Americans.”
*Kathy requested her last name not be used because she fears her family being attacked for coming out in support of Trump.
Jennifer C. Martin is a writer based in Richmond, VA. Her work has previously been featured on Gawker, UPROXX, xoJane, and Time, among others.