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Since the heady days of Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, Caleb Campbell’s congregation has been split in two. The pastor of an evangelical church in the northern suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, he has watched his flock both energised and repulsed by the real estate tycoon’s political rise.
“When Trump would come to town, we had members of our congregation inside the building for the rally and some outside the building protesting,” he tells The Independent. “I was naive. I remember thinking that obviously people see right through this. I was shocked to discover that most people really earnestly supported not only his policies, but also his cruel and dehumanising rhetoric.”
Evangelical support for Trump was crucial to his 2016 presidential victory and has remained stubbornly high despite his consistent proximity to scandal. Pastor Campbell, who grew up as a John McCain Republican, was not one of those supporters. He has spent much of his time since that first victory trying to guide his fellow evangelicals away from Trump and the MAGA movement, often to little avail.
Now, six years later, he believes cracks are beginning to show.
“I think what we’re seeing is people who were speaking out against it quietly four years ago are now saying the quiet part out loud,” he says.
In the last few months and weeks, a number of prominent evangelical leaders have signalled publicly that they may be willing to move on from Trump. Taken together, they make for worrying reading for the newly announced Trump 2024 campaign.
David Lane, the leader of the American Renewal Project, which is dedicated to mobilising evangelical pastors to run for office, wrote in an email to some 70,000 evangelicals following the midterm elections that Trump’s original “mission and the message are now subordinate to personal grievances and self-importance.”
Mike Evans, a Christian Zionist and former member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board, wrote in an essay sent to the Washington Post that “Donald Trump can’t save America. He can’t even save himself.”
Several evangelical leaders told Semafor that they too may be looking elsewhere, among them Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader. Tony Perkins, the influential president of the Family Research Council who said in 2018 that evangelicals allowed Trump a “do-over” for his past behaviour, recently told Politico that the former president doesn’t have a lock on evangelical support.
One might think Pastor Campbell would celebrate the cracks on the wall of Trump’s support among his fellow evangelicals, but he believes the problem is bigger than any one man. It is Christian nationalism that worries him today.
The ideology that believes Christianity is the foundation of the United States and government should be Christian in nature and laws is by no means new, but experts say that Trump’s ascendancy brought with it a rise of its adherents in the Republican Party.
The movement often overlaps with other right-wing ideologies and conspiracy theories. A significant number of those who took part in the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, espoused Christian nationalist symbols and speeches.
Campbell describes himself as a “missionary to Christian nationalists,” and sees it as his job to convince evangelicals to turn their backs on the toxic mix of religion and politics as it has been practised in the US today.
“Christian nationalism promises power by the sword,” he says, “and the way of Jesus is not the sword, it’s the cross. So for me, as an evangelical pastor, the thing at stake is the message of the Gospel. You just look at people using Jesus’ name to grab government power, it’s directly antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”
He’s certainly in the right place to do something about it. Just five miles down the road from where he pastors is the Dream City Church, a giant megachurch with a claimed average weekly attendance of more than 16,000 people that has become a centre of Christian nationalism in the US. The church regularly plays host to Turning Point USA, a conservative political activist organisation, and in July 2020 hosted a Trump rally.
For the pastor of a congregation of around 600, it is something of a David vs Goliath battle, but Campbell believes it’s one worth fighting. Much of his work today is focused on outreach to the kind of parishioners who might attend the Dream City Church up the road.
Support from white evangelicals was a major factor in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign success. He won around 81 per cent of the demographic in 2016, and 75 per cent in 2020, despite a sordid personal history of extra-marital affairs and un-Christian behaviour.
Christian nationalism, he argues, used Trump as a vehicle to attain political power, just as Trump used evangelicals for the same. Campbell describes it as “a Machiavellian exchange.”
But Campbell said Trump’s arrival ushered in a period of huge division in his congregation.
“Our families were splitting in two. The church was splitting in two. It exposed a huge rift within the church. We had groups of people that would meet in homes that just couldn’t even stomach each other anymore,” he says.
Even though there may have been a small shift away from Trump in the last year or so, it came about not due to a change of heart or because an argument was won. It came about because his political power has diminished. In the recent midterm elections, Democrats defied political gravity to keep control of the Senate or ensure the House remained close. Many Republicans pointed the finger of blame at Trump and saw the results as a sign of his increasing toxicity.
“Frankly, I think it’s because he lost,” says Campbell. “And even though I think there are some leaders who are backing away from Trump, I don’t think they’re backing away from the power source. I think they’re just looking for a different headliner.”
Campbell says that even if evangelicals move away from Trump, the divisions that were exposed by Trump’s arrival are likely to endure.
“Within evangelical spaces, especially since 2020, there has been a huge shift of congregations basically going to churches where they believe the pastor aligns with their politics. There’s this homogenisation within evangelicalism where you’re getting less and less political diversity within each congregation,” he says.
“Most of my work is pastoring people through the pain of split families. I have a laundry list of deep relationships that have either been frayed or fractured or no longer exist because of this stuff,” he adds. “For us, the work is just beginning.”