SIOUX CENTER, Iowa — They walked to the sanctuary in the frozen silence before dawn, footsteps crunching over the snow. Soon, hundreds joined in line. It was January 2016, and the unlikely Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, had come to town.
He was the boastful, thrice-married, foul-mouthed star of “The Apprentice.” They were one of the most conservative Christian communities in the nation, with 19 churches in a town of about 7,500 people.
The 67-minute speech Trump gave that day at Dordt University, a Christian college in Sioux Center, would become infamous, instantly covered on cable news and to this day still invoked by his critics. But the line that gained notoriety — the promise that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “wouldn’t lose any voters” — overshadowed another message that morning.
“I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it,” Trump said.
Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”
If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.
“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
Nine days later, the Iowa caucuses kicked off the most polarizing road to the White House in memory. Trump largely lost the evangelicals of Sioux County that day: Only 11% of Republicans caucused for him. But when November came, they stood by him en masse: 81% of the county voted for him. And so did 81% of white evangelical voters nationwide.
Now, this group could be Trump’s best chance at reelection. The president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has battered his political standing: He has trailed Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, by nearly double digits for a month in national polls. Even among white evangelicals, his approval rating has dipped slightly. But 82% say they intend to vote for him, according to the Pew Research Center.
To the outside observer, the relationship between white evangelical Christians and Trump can seem mystifying.
From the start it appeared an impossible contradiction. Evangelicals for years have defined themselves as the values voters, people who prized the Bible and sexual morality — and loving your neighbor as yourself — above all.
Trump was the opposite. He bragged about assaulting women. He got divorced, twice. He built a career off gambling. He cozied up to bigots. He rarely went to church. He refused to ask for forgiveness.
It is a contradiction that has held for four years. They stood by him when he shut out Muslim refugees. When he separated children from their parents at the border. When he issued brash insults over social media. When he uttered falsehoods as if they were true. When he was impeached.
Theories, and rationalizations, abound:
— That evangelical support was purely transactional.
— That they saw him as their best chance in decades to end legalized abortion.
— That the opportunity to nominate conservative justices to the Supreme Court was paramount.
— That they hated Hillary Clinton, or felt torn to pick the lesser of two evils.
— That they held their noses and voted, hoping he would advance their policy priorities and accomplish their goals.
But beneath all this, there is another explanation. One that is more raw and fundamental.
Evangelicals did not support Trump despite who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Trump offered to restore them to power, as if they have not been in power all along.
“You are always only one generation away from losing Christianity,” said Micah Schouten, who was born and raised in Sioux Center, recalling something a former pastor used to say. “If you don’t teach it to your children it ends. It stops right there.”
The speech in Sioux Center symbolized why there has been so much confusion about evangelical support for Trump. From the beginning, the outside world focused on the comment about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Those in the town, though, ultimately heard something else entirely. What mattered was not just what Trump said. It was where he said it. And to whom.
And so to understand the relationship, one has to go back to Jan. 23, 2016. One has to hear the speech at Dordt the way the evangelical community heard it.
‘A Christian Nation’
The day Trump spoke at Dordt, Rob Driesen sat in the very front. He supported Ted Cruz at the time. But now, four years later, his eyes light up when he talks about Trump.
He brought out two photographs, framed, one of him and Trump, and one of him with Mike Pence before he became vice president.
“I guess the biggest concern for me is trying to keep our country the way it was. Conservative. The values. For us, I mean, this is as good as it gets. We can do whatever we want,” said Driesen, 56, sitting at his kitchen table this spring with his wife, Cheryl, 52.
Driesen works for the utility company, and his wife is a nurse. They have raised their five children in the area, where they grew up.
Church is still what really holds the community together. A day earlier, on Sunday, the Driesens had gone to services in the morning and at night. They unplugged the router and turned off their cellphones. They read the Bible.
Rob Driesen spoke of the policies that were important to him, all the usual conservative issues. Small government. Ending abortion. Judges who share his political views. “Traditional families,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there’s just more divorce than there used to be,” he said. “There’s more cohabitating. I think it is detrimental to the family. I just think kids do better in a two-parent home, with a mom and a dad.”
His wife had been quiet, letting him do the talking. She did not go to Trump’s speech, and politics were not her thing. Now she spoke up.
“The religious part is huge for us, as we see religious freedoms being taken away,” Cheryl Driesen said. “If you don’t believe in homosexuality or something, you lose your business because of it. And that’s a core part of your faith. Whereas I see Trump as defending that. He’s actually made that executive order to put the Bibles back in the public schools. That is something very worrisome and dear to us, our religious freedom.”
They want the Christian education for their children “so we don’t have to have them indoctrinated with all these different things,” Rob Driesen said. “We are free to teach them our values.”
“So far,” Cheryl Driesen clarified. “That’s where we see Trump as a key figure to keep that freedom.”
She worried that the school might be forced to let in students who were not Christian, or hire teachers who were gay.
They want America to be a Christian nation for their children. “We started out as a Christian nation,” she said.
The Dordt Defenders
Micah Schouten cannot remember exactly why he did not go to hear Trump that morning. Probably it was just too cold, or maybe he was working.
At the time, he supported Ben Carson. But Trump was a celebrity, and Dordt University, 10 minutes down the road, was Schouten’s alma mater. The school was named for a major church assembly in 1618 and 1619 that declared salvation was only for God’s chosen ones, and expelled from Dutch territory anyone who disagreed. Its students are “Dordt Defenders,” represented by a knight in gray armor, wielding a sword like a cross.
So that night, after his three children went to bed, Schouten pulled up YouTube to hear it for himself.
Soon Trump made him laugh. The candidate bashed the media. He said the thing about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. But the thing Schouten remembered most was that he defended Christianity.
On a Sunday in March, Schouten worshipped at United Reformed Church with neighbors he has known for years. They all knew the harmonies by heart. They were one choir, in sync on yellow quilted pews.
When the service ended, the church served cookies. Schouten caught up with some friends, all fathers in their 30s wearing blue collared shirts and khaki pants.
“Trump’s an outsider, like the rest of us,” he said. “We might not respect Trump, but we still love the guy for who he is.”
“Is he a man of integrity? Absolutely not,” he went on. “Does he stand up for some of our moral Christian values? Yes.”
Schouten’s wife, Caryn, had walked over with the other wives. After the election of President Barack Obama, the country seemed to undergo a cultural shift, she said. “It was dangerous to voice your Christianity,” she said. “Because we were viewed as bigots, as racists — we were labeled as the haters and the ones who are causing all the derision and all of the problems in America. Blame it on the white believers.”
When the Schoutens got home, Caryn Schouten, 36, scooped a chip into sour cream dip and plopped into a chair in her living room.
The years of the Obama presidency were confusing to her. She said she heard talk of giving freedoms to gay people and members of minority groups. But to her it felt like her freedoms were being taken away. And that she was turning into the minority.
“I do not love Trump. I think Trump is good for America as a country. I think Trump is going to restore our freedoms, where we spent eight years, if not more, with our freedoms slowly being taken away under the guise of giving freedoms to all,” she said. “Caucasian Americans are becoming a minority. Rapidly.”
She explained what she meant. “If you are a hardworking Caucasian American, your rights are being limited because you are seen as against all the races or against women,” she said. “Or there are people who think that because we have conservative values and we value the family and I value submitting to my husband, I must be against women’s rights.”
The Line to Lafayette
There is a straight line from that day at Dordt four years ago to a recent scene at a chapel in Washington, where armed officers tear-gassed peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square and shot them with rubber pellets. They were clearing the way for Trump to march from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church and hold up a Bible, a declaration of Christian power.
“We have the greatest country in the world,” he said. “We’re going to keep it nice and safe.”
It was another instantly infamous moment, covered by cable news and decried by Democrats as an unseemly photo op. But in Sioux Center, many evangelicals once again received a different message, one that echoed the words uttered by a long shot presidential candidate in a sanctuary on a cold winter morning.
“To me it was like, that’s great. Trump is recognizing the Bible, we are one nation under God,” Micah Schouten said. “He is willing to stand out there and take a picture of it for the country to see.”
He added: “Trump was standing up for Christianity.”
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