Pastor Robert Jeffress and President Donald Trump pray after Trump...

Pastor Robert Jeffress and President Donald Trump pray after Trump signed a full pardon for Alice Johnson in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington. Jeffress, pastor of an evangelical megachurch in Dallas, has been a staunch supporter of Trump since his first campaign for president. “Conservative Christians continue to overwhelmingly support Donald Trump because of his biblical policies, not his personal piety,” Jeffress told The Associated Press via email. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

For eight years, Donald Trump has managed to secure the support of many evangelical and conservative Christians despite behavior that often seemed at odds with teachings espoused by Christ in the Gospels.

If some observers initially viewed this as an unsustainable alliance, it’s different now.

Certain achievements during Trump’s presidency – notably appointments that shifted the Supreme Court to the right – have solidified that support. He’s now the clear front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, even after he recently was found liable for sexually abusing a New York woman in 1996 and was indicted in a criminal case related to hush money payments to a porn actress.

Robert Jeffress, pastor of an evangelical megachurch in Dallas, has been a staunch supporter of Trump since his first campaign for president and is sticking by him even as rivals like South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence tout their Christian faith.

“Conservative Christians continue to overwhelmingly support Donald Trump because of his biblical policies, not his personal piety,” Jeffress told The Associated Press via email. “They are smart enough to know the difference between choosing a president and choosing a pastor.”

“In many ways, Christians feel like they are in an existential cultural war between good and evil, and they want a warrior like Donald Trump who can win,” Jeffress added.

In rural southwest Missouri, pastor Mike Leake of Calvary of Neosho – a Southern Baptist church – says support for Trump within the mostly conservative congregation seems to strengthen the more he is criticized and investigated.

People lay hands on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as...

People lay hands on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as they pray during a visit to the Pastors Leadership Conference at New Spirit Revival Center, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

“It further convinces them of their rhetoric that there is a leftist plot to undermine our nation,” Leake said. “So if everybody from the Left hates Trump, well, he must be on to something.”

Leake said many of his congregation members who strongly support Trump “are not our most dedicated members.”

“Anytime we’ve seen someone go full on MAGA, we lose them,” Leake added. “Attendance and involvement drops. Giving drops. It’s all consuming -- just as with any other idol.”

Robert Franklin, professor of moral leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, said Trump benefits from a perception among some of his followers that he is suffering on their behalf.

People raise their arms in prayer during a rally for...

People raise their arms in prayer during a rally for evangelical supporters of President Donald Trump at the King Jesus International Ministry church, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami. Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

“The more he complains of persecution, the more people dig in to support him, and for a few, fight for him and make personal sacrifices (of money and freedom) for his advancement,” Franklin said via email.

Franklin also noted that some evangelicals, since early in Trump’s presidency, have likened him to Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who, according to the Bible, enabled Jews to return to Israel from their exile in Babylon.

“This is a powerful trope, the bad man who makes good things possible, and is hence praised as a hero,” Franklin said. “Unfortunately, under this narrative, Trump can literally do no wrong. His wrong is right. No other politician gets that kind of pass.”

Trump’s great achievements, in the eyes of many evangelicals, include moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and – more profoundly – appointing three Supreme Justices who have helped repeal the nationwide right to abortion and broaden religious-freedom protections in several cases involving conservative Christians.

Trump is eager to tout his faith-based record.

“No president has ever fought for Christians as hard as I have,” he told the Faith & Freedom gala in Washington in June. "I’ll fight hard until I’m back behind that desk in the Oval Office.”

The political results are widely viewed as the key to Trump's evangelical support.

“I am certain that many Christians in the MAGA movement earnestly believe Trump has been ‘anointed’ for this purpose — to bring about certain political outcomes they desire,” said Steven Millies, a Chicago-based Catholic scholar whose books include “Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump.”

“The embrace of Trump is really, finally a cynical calculation concerned with power, one that has the thinnest of possible Scriptural justifications,” Millies added.

Back in February 2017, just two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, the Rev. Peter Daly – a retired Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Washington – wrote a column for the National Catholic Reporter titled “Donald Trump’s gospel is not the Gospel of Jesus.”

In the piece, Daly depicted Trump as an uncharitable bully, prone to lying, lacking in empathy and tolerance.

“He sees every opponent as someone to be shouted down or roughed up,” Daly wrote. “He is not a peacemaker.”

Six years later, Daly tries to comprehend why so many conservative Christians remain in Trump’s camp despite behavior and rhetoric “that are antithetical to everything they stand for.”

Some pro-Trump pastors have relished the proximity to power afforded during White House visits or special political events, Daly said.

And some rural, white Christians “feel like nobody speaks for them,” Daly added. “They think, ’Here’s Donald Trump. He’ll be our champion' … It has nothing to do with being Christian. It’s the politics of grievance.”

Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, which describes itself as “a progressive religious institution with many LGBTQ students.”

Asked about Trump’s popularity among conservative Christians, Jones evoked the numerous recent victories for evangelical and conservative causes in the courts and Republican-controlled state legislatures.

“Our nation is seeing a rampage of attacks on reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and the separation of church and state,” Jones said via email. “Even though certain evangelical Christians might harbor some discomfort about particular politicians, they may believe these social and political successes far outweigh the concerns.”

In Iowa, where evangelical support is crucial in the caucuses that launch the GOP nomination process, Trump seems far better positioned than in 2016.

A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in March found that he was viewed favorably by 58% of evangelicals, compared to 19% ahead of the 2016 caucuses.

“President Trump has stood up for the values that we hold dear,” Brad Sherman, a pastor from Williamsburg, Iowa, told The Associated Press in April. “Then we need to pray for him that his personal life comes in line with that.”

As strong as Trump’s support is among conservative Christians, some prominent figures in those ranks are seeking alternatives in the GOP campaign.

The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, backed Trump in 2020 but said recently on his radio show that he’s now had enough.

“Christians begin with the clear biblical truth that no sinful human being has a perfect character, but even as we grade presidents on something of a curve, some stand out as particularly lacking in character,” Mohler said. “Donald J. Trump is certainly one of those presidents.”

“I do not want Donald J. Trump to be the 2024 Republican nominee,” Mohler added. “There is simply too much baggage ... A statesman would realize that fact and make way for someone else to lead. That does not appear likely.”

Trump was raised as a Presbyterian, but told Religion News Service in 2020 that he had shifted to identifying as a nondenominational Christian. He has not claimed membership in any particular congregation, and during his presidency he attended worship services infrequently.

When in Florida, Trump has sometimes attended an Episcopal church in Palm Beach for Easter and Christmas Eve services. On the campaign trail, he has visited churches of various denominations, including some new-age churches with music and dancing.

Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor, admires Trump as a political battler. But Jeffress says that during eight years of friendship, “I have seen a side to him that many people never see. I’ve watched him interact with strangers, as well as his own family, with warmth and kindness.”

___

Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Iowa and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.

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This corrects first name of Chicago-based Catholic scholar Steven Millies.

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