Why do evangelicals stand by Trump when Mike Pence is in the wings?

Why do evangelicals stand by Trump when Mike Pence is in the wings?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore

As the investigation into Russian collusion and more general corruption gets closer to the president, the one group that is standing by him no matter what are white evangelicals. Although support for Trump has revealed underlying tensions among the group as a whole, for the most part their support for Trump is unshakeable. Stormy Daniels’ revelations haven’t made a dent, and there’s little reason to believe that James Comey’s memoirs or Robert Mueller’s investigation will either.

Ostensibly the reason for evangelicals’ support for Trump is his willingness to deliver what they want, most notably a Supreme Court tilted in their favor. But the question is, why stick with someone as blatantly unethical as Trump when someone better is in the wings?

Unlike “baby Christian” Trump, Mike Pence is the real deal. Religious right leaders can’t praise him enough for his commitment to their causes. Trump’s selection of Pence as his vice presidential pick erased any doubts that the religious right had about a thrice-married casino owner. Pence was not only a straight arrow–he famously won’t dine alone with another woman not his wife–but he had a track record of carrying water for conservative Christians. Indeed, his support for a religious liberty bill as governor of Indiana created such a backlash for the state that Pence’s career seemed finished until Trump tapped him for the ticket.

“Mike Pence is the 24-karat-gold model of what we want in an evangelical politician,” Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, has said. “I don’t know anyone who’s more consistent in bringing his evangelical-Christian worldview to public policy.”

So, why hasn’t Pence emerged as the credible alternative to Trump among his core supporters. There are a few possible explanations. For one, the attacks on Trump have only reinforced the victimhood mentality that often surrounds evangelicals. (In fact, evangelicals believe that they are more discriminated against than Muslims.) Under attack, they circle the wagons.

More fundamental is that Trump’s view of white nationalism strikes a chord among conservative Christians. Researchers have found that evangelicals who voted for Trump view the U.S. as a Christian nation and see Trump’s statements as support of that belief.

In all of this, Pence has been noticeably complicit and subservient to Trump. He has defended Trump against criticism of the president’s immigration ban, failure to condemn white nationalists and firing of James Comey. When word got out that he had taken the unusual step of forming a PAC for himself just months after assuming the vice presidency, Pence immediately downplayed speculation that he was positioning himself to prepare for Trump’s early departure.

So if evangelicals haven’t baled on Trump for Pence, it may be that Pence hasn’t signalled he’s ready for such a move. Indeed, evangelicals may just be biding their time for the right moment. “It’s not a matter of when Republicans are ready to turn on Trump,” one unnamed Senate aide told The Atlantic. “It’s about when they decide they’re ready for President Pence.” And that may depend on when Pence’s ambitions finally get the better of him.


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