Jan 12, 2024 - Politics & Policy

"Tectonic shift in power": How MAGA pastors boost Trump's campaign

Photo Illustration of Ben Carson, Darrell Scott, Michael Flynn, Paula White-Caine, Mark Burns and Greg Locke within the silhouette of Donald Trump

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios. Photo: Mark Wilson, Paras Griffin, Ida Mae Astute, Al Drago, Dustin Franz, William DeShazer, Suzanne Cordeiro/Getty

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Donald Trump doesn't have the support of Iowa's most prominent evangelical leader in Monday's caucuses. But in Iowa and across the country, MAGA pastors are among Trump's most loyal backers.

Why it matters: It's not just that they like the former president for appointing three Supreme Court justices who helped overturn abortion rights.

  • Some of Trump's most enthusiastic believers are pastors who share his dark view of U.S. politics — or who've touted him as they've risen to prominence on social media.

Zoom in: Faith leaders who've endorsed Trump include hundreds of traditional conservatives a lot like Bob Vander Plaats — the influential Iowa evangelical leader who's backing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

  • They also include MAGA pastors who, in speeches and podcasts, offer an apocalyptic view of U.S. politics — casting Democrats as demonic, promoting Christian nationalism and touting Trump as chosen by God to save Christianity.
  • Many also echo Trump's claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

Details: They include Joel Tenney, a 27-year-old Iowan primarily known for his Armenian advocacy work, and Jentezen Franklin, pastor of the 25,000-member megachurch Free Chapel in Georgia. Franklin has 1 million followers on X and has been a spiritual adviser to Trump.

  • "You cannot be Christian and vote for a Democrat," Tenney, who spoke at a recent Trump rally in Coralville, Iowa, told Axios.

Trump's team of faith leaders includes former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who has been stumping for Trump in Iowa.

  • In a packed Grace Family Church in Davenport on Wednesday night, Carson — a Seventh-day Adventist — sought to assure anyone in the crowd who had misgivings about Trump's salty rhetoric.
  • "Would you rather have somebody whose tongue is maybe a little wild but has incredibly good policies that make your life better," Carson thundered, "or somebody who has a silver tongue but terrible policy?"

Between the lines: MAGA pastors have defended Trump on TV, amassed large followings online, been key advocates for the former president in swing states and, in some cases, influenced Trump's thinking.

  • Trump has said one of his priorities if he's re-elected would be to establish a task force to fight "anti-Christian" bias in American life, an idea pushed by some MAGA pastors.

Prominent Trump backers also include Paula White-Cain, who's popular in the Christian prosperity movement; South Carolina televangelist Mark Burns; and Ohio pastor and radio host Darrell Scott.

  • Preachers popular on social media — Sean Feucht (304,000 followers on Instagram) and Greg Locke (226,000 followers) — also tout Trump, as does North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who has a large religious following.

The intrigue: Trump has an easier time reaching evangelicals now than in the past two election cycles, in part because of changes in the evangelical world, Tim Alberta, author of "The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory," told Axios.

  • "He once needed the name-brand Christian conservatives to vouch for him," Alberta said.
  • But thanks partly to the demand for content on social media, "Trump benefits today from a decentralized cast of less-established, more-online influencers."

It's a development that has helped to boost the influence of far-right pastors such as Jackson Lahmeyer of Tulsa. He founded a group called Pastors4Trump.

  • Lahmeyer often takes Trump's most incendiary rhetoric and adds religious fuel to the fire. He has cast Democrats as "demons" and promoted Christian nationalism.
  • He held a "national prayer call" last spring to rally support for Trump. The former president called in to chat.

Trump's sons Don Jr. and Eric — along with Eric's wife, Lara — have spoken at rallies held by the ReAwaken America Tour, a Christian nationalist movement led by former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and frequented by several MAGA pastors.

How we got here: "It's a tectonic shift in power," said Matt Taylor, a scholar at the Baltimore-based Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, who has a book coming this fall on charismatic evangelicals and their ties to Trump.

  • "You have all these pastors who would have been laughed out of the room 20 years ago," Taylor said.
  • Now, they're "driving the dynamics."

Stef Kight contributed reporting.

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