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If one asked a neutral observer in late 2015 or early 2016 which Republican candidate would have the backing of evangelical Christians, it’s hard to imagine anyone stacking up with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Political experts were caught off-guard when evangelical Christians not only threw their support behind Donald Trump in early 2016, but did so in a big way. That strong support continues today with evangelical voters and prominent Christian leaders alike. The roots of that support — which Trump sees as “loyalty” — help to drive significant parts of Trump’s agenda.

It became clear early on in 2016 that white evangelical voters, particularly in the South, didn’t care that Donald Trump was the embodiment of what they supposedly disdained à la Bill Clinton. The twice-divorced real estate developer said he’s never asked God for forgiveness despite its central tenet to the faith. Born and raised in a wealthy enclave in Queens, New York, Trump became the quintessential Manhattanite who looks down his nose at the rubes who read bibles and talk about Jesus.

However, those same evangelicals saw Trump as someone willing to fight for them even if they didn’t see eye to eye with him personally. Trump easily won most of the Southern state primaries, with white evangelical Christians making up the bulk of his support, choosing him over Ted Cruz.

It wasn’t just voters. Trump gained early support from evangelical Christian leaders. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas, while never officially endorsing Trump—a big no-no that could cost his church its tax-exempt status—walked a fine line by saying in a February 2016 Fort Worth appearance with Trump that Christians would “have a true friend in the White House” should he win the nomination and election.

Jeffress’ support for Trump strengthened throughout 2016, and his rhetoric only grew more ridiculous. In September 2016, Jeffress lashed out at fellow Christians, saying in an interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, “I am getting sick and tired of these namby-pamby, pantywaisted, weak-kneed Christians who say they are going to stay home in November out of moral principle.” Jeffress also called Christians who identified as conservative “fools” and “hypocrites” if they did not cast a vote for Trump.

Such rhetoric is disgraceful coming from someone who proclaims to be an ambassador for Jesus and His teachings. Jeffress comes off more like a person engaging in idolatry, ironically attacking fellow believers for choosing to put spiritual integrity ahead of a temporal political force.

It wasn’t just Jeffress. Christian leaders such as Franklin Graham and James Dobson backed Trump, shrugging off his boastful sexual exploits and infidelity, his insults over the appearance of others, as well as the disgraceful rhetoric he espoused about John McCain’s time as a POW in Vietnam.

It only got worse as Jeffress’ overt support of Trump became apologia once Trump took office. When Trump made his infamous “shithole” comment when describing immigration from countries such as Haiti, Jeffress said Trump was “right on target in his sentiment,” despite Trump’s potty-mouth language. Jeffress recently said Christians were not “compromising their beliefs in order to support this great president.” Franklin Graham joined in on the inanity when he preposterously suggested Trump might become the victim of a “deep-state coup.”


Fealty, Not Loyalty

“I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”

Those are the words Donald Trump said to former FBI director James Comey at a private dinner in the White House Green Room one week after his inauguration in 2017. It’s not unheard of for political leaders or even presidents to want loyalty from their staff. But loyalty comes with limits, and the best leaders trust that the most loyal members of their inner circle will express themselves with honesty and not just blow smoke up their rear ends.

Trump, on the other hand, sees loyalty not necessarily as strong support or allegiance, but a pathetic slavish devotion that includes agreeing with him on all issues without question and praising him in public. In a June 2017 cabinet meeting, those in attendance unleashed a torrent of obsequious statements one would expect to hear in a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

It started with then Chief of Staff Reince Priebus saying, “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.” It didn’t stop. Trump watched with a goofy, syrupy grin and a look of smug satisfaction as the praise went around the table, with cabinet members announcing their “privilege” to serve in his administration.

Understanding how Trump’s twisted view of loyalty works, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he chose none other than Pastor Jeffress to deliver the opening prayer at the new American embassy in Jerusalem.

The choice of Jeffress caused groans not only because of his near cultlike support of Donald Trump, but also because of inflammatory comments he’s made in the past about other religions. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Christians believe the only path to heaven is through salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Therefore, pastors in Christian churches across America will say faiths such as Judaism and Islam, as well as Mormonism, do not offer that path.

Jeffress, however, didn’t leave such sentiments in the pulpit. In a 2010 interview with the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Jeffress stated, “Islam is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell. Mormonism is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell.” In the same interview he claimed, “[Y]ou can’t be saved being a Jew.”

That’s not exactly something taken from the pages of How to Win Friends and Influence People.

For almost any other president, choosing Jeffress would have been a nonstarter. But Trump looks through a lens that views a situation only in how it reflects upon him. Trump couldn’t care less about what Jeffress said in 2010. He just knows that Jeffress backs him and defends him at every turn, and that was enough.

Unfortunately, it’s rare to see a public figure or politician who can seemingly cross Trump’s line of disloyalty and still maintain a measure of respect from Trump. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the GOP party leaders in Congress, always take a “see no evil, hear no evil” approach to Trump’s behavior.

One politician who offers strong rebukes of Trump while maintaining his respect (in a sense) is Mitt Romney. The 2012 GOP nominee and 2018 Utah Senate candidate blasted the choice of Jeffress to lead the opening prayer in Jerusalem, calling the pastor a “religious bigot” in a tweet. In March 2016, Romney delivered a blistering speech against Trump. Romney said of Trump, “He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.” Romney routinely called Trump a “fraud,” and Trump responded in kind, calling Romney a “choke artist” due to his failed presidential bid against Barack Obama.

Despite such sentiments, Trump chose to interview Romney as a possible choice for secretary of state and publicly courted him before ultimately settling on former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. When Romney announced he would seek to win retiring Republican Senator Orrin Hatch’s seat, Trump tweeted a hearty endorsement of Romney, and despite the criticism of Jeffress, Romney shouldn’t expect a change of heart.

Whether Romney’s ability to stroke Trump’s ego while not backing away from tough criticism is strategic or just dumb luck remains to be seen. There is still the risk of a Trump Twitter eruption.

One thing is for certain: People who want to find favor with Trump only have to emulate the behavior of Pastor Robert Jeffress. If one chooses to go that route, they’ll find earthly rewards even when it compels them to agree with the sentiment that the country of Haiti is a “shithole.”