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Evangelicals opposed to Trump step out of the shadows with new groups and ads

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·8-min read

President Trump “attempts to hijack our faith for votes,” the writer Jerusha Duford — Billy Graham’s granddaughter — said Thursday in a Zoom call sponsored by one of a growing number of evangelical groups that have formed to encourage Christians to vote for Joe Biden.

Trump’s “attempts to hijack our faith for votes, and evangelical leaders’ silence on his actions and behavior, has presented a picture of what our faith looks like that is so erroneous that it has done significant damage to the way people view Jesus,” said Duford on the call, which was sponsored by Not Our Faith PAC, a bipartisan group formed just this week with the explicit goal of trying to defeat Trump.

“I spent the better part of my life watching my grandfather look to be an example of Jesus, to how to conduct himself and how to treat people. Scripture talks about doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly, and these are tenets of our faith that I do not believe our president demonstrates in any way,” she said.

Her grandfather, the most famous evangelist of the 20th century, was friends with presidents of both parties and avoided direct involvement in electoral politics. Her uncle Franklin Graham is one of Trump’s most prominent backers on the Christian right.

A screengrab from the Not Our Faith PAC ad. (YouTube)
A screengrab from the Not Our Faith PAC ad. (YouTube)

White evangelicals backing Biden are still a small minority of a group that supported Trump overwhelmingly in 2016. Eighty-one percent overlooked his boasts about sexually assaulting women, his documented history of adultery, his association with the casino industry and his proclivity for golfing over church attendance on Sundays to vote for him. As recently as August he had actually improved his standing with evangelicals, to 83 percent, although more recent polling by the Pew Research Center showed it had slipped somewhat, to 78. Even a small falloff in evangelical support could have a major effect on Trump’s reelection prospects, which is what groups like Not Our Faith are hoping to achieve.

In a phone call to constituents that was leaked to the Washington Examiner on Thursday, a prominent Republican senator who is also a conservative evangelical Christian, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, succinctly outlined the case against Trump.

“He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors,” Sasse said, in remarks that a spokesman for the senator confirmed. “His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.”

Duford said that in her experience, many evangelicals who might have voted for Trump in 2016 “went to the polls crossing their fingers, maybe holding their breath.”

But, she said, “now that we’ve had four years of it ... I think that’s going to change their perceptions.”

The most noticeable change from four years ago among some number of white evangelicals is their willingness to vote for a Democrat. In 2016 they might not have voted for Trump, but they were deeply uncomfortable voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Biden doesn’t inspire the same discomfort.

A screengrab from the Not Our Faith PAC ad. (YouTube)
Screengrab from the Not Our Faith PAC ad. (YouTube)

Not Our Faith was formed earlier this week by Michael Wear, a former faith adviser to President Barack Obama, and Autumn Vandehei, a former Republican congressional staffer for Tom DeLay, who was House majority leader from 2003 to 2005. (Vandehei is also married to Jim Vandehei, the co-founder of the political news website Axios.)

The PAC’s first digital ad is targeted to likely voters in Michigan and Pennsylvania. “Christians don’t need Trump to save them,” the ad says. “The truth is that Trump needs Christians to save his flailing campaign.”

Another organization, Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden, was formed earlier this month by a group including senior officials at several influential conservative evangelical seminaries and from Christianity Today magazine.

“As pro-life evangelicals, we disagree with Vice President Biden and the Democratic platform on the issue of abortion. But we believe a biblically shaped commitment to the sanctity of human life compels us to a consistent ethic of life that affirms the sanctity of human life from beginning to end,” the group states on its website. “We believe that on balance, Joe Biden’s policies are more consistent with the biblically shaped ethic of life than those of Donald Trump. Therefore, even as we continue to urge different policies on abortion, we urge evangelicals to elect Joe Biden as president.”

That announcement was mocked by the conservative satirical website the Babylon Bee, which ran an Onion-like item about a fictional group called “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Moloch” — a heathen deity in the Old Testament who is associated with demands for child sacrifice.

In August, John Kingston, a former corporate lawyer and executive who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts two years ago, formed a group called Christians Against Trumpism and Political Extremism, along with Joel Searby, a Republican political strategist who worked on Evan McMullin’s independent candidacy for president in 2016.

John Kingston in 2018. (Winslow Townson/AP)
John Kingston in 2018. (Winslow Townson/AP)

“Right now we are bound up as people of faith in this Trumpist sort of prison, sort of thinking, ‘Oh, if we only get that much more political power, if we only get that much more, if we’re willing to compromise this much, then we can actually get someplace,’” Kingston said in an interview. “That triumphalist approach is antithetical to the sacrificial Christianity, the way of the cross which Jesus teaches us.”

Kingston and Searby’s group has a sizable leadership committee that includes several well-known figures inside evangelical Christianity, such as the authors Lisa Sharon Harper, Nancy French and D.L. Mayfield; Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine; former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C.; and Wheaton College professor of theology Vincent Bacote.

“Even if the president loses in November, I think we’re in a multi-year fight over what has now been unleashed,” Kingston said.

Amy Sullivan, an author and journalist who worked for Yahoo News from 2015 to 2017, has started an organization called This Is My Story, focused on giving Christian women a platform to express independence.

“Many conservative Christian leaders have told women for decades that their faithfulness was demonstrated through purity and character. But when they had a choice between protecting their power or standing up for the women in their pews, they threw women under the ‘Access Hollywood’ bus,” Sullivan told Yahoo News. “So now women are speaking for themselves.”

Sullivan, author of a 2008 book on Christianity and the Democratic Party called “The Party Faithful,” produced and released a video on Friday morning showing several evangelical women, including Jerusha Duford, repeating in their own voices what Trump was recorded saying in the “Access Hollywood” tape that emerged four years ago. In that video, Trump boasts in vulgar language about how as “a star” he can get away with kissing and groping women.

Jerusha Duford in an new ad "Speak For Yourself". (This is My Story/YouTube)
Jerusha Duford in a new ad, "Speak for Yourself." (This is My Story/YouTube)

After the women in Sullivan’s video repeat Trump’s words, the text on screen says, “Even after hearing these words, Christian pastors and leaders told women it was our duty to support Trump. They made it clear what they really valued. It wasn’t us. It’s time we speak for ourselves.”

All of these groups are made up largely of Christians who come from a theologically, culturally and politically conservative milieu.

There are also a number of groups headed by Christian leaders who are more politically progressive, such as Vote Common Good, the New Moral Majority PAC and Faith 2020.

Those groups are seeking to influence more conservative Christians too. New Moral Majority PAC is organizing Operation Family Meeting, asking Christians who grew up as pastors’ kids or missionary kids, or who were youth group leaders or worship leaders, to talk with immediate family members who might be supporting Trump.

“We want to believe that many of the values that we were raised with still matter. That honesty and kindness are still the hallmark of leadership and that we are called to look after the least among us. But the rise of Trump has caused painful divisions in our families and many of us have quietly distanced ourselves from the communities we came from out of hurt and embarrassment,” the group says.

“We need to engage with them over the hurt their allegiance to the President has caused us because we are the only ones they might listen to.”

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House  on June 1, 2020, in Washington. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
President Trump holds a Bible outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House on June 1. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Even secular groups like Republican Voters Against Trump have enlisted Christians to make faith-based appeals for Biden.

Elizabeth Neumann, who was an assistant secretary for counterterrorism at the Department of Homeland Security until this past year, introduces herself in one video as “first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ.”

“I’m a wife and a proud mom. I voted for Trump in 2016 primarily because of the pro-life issue,” Neumann says.

But Neumann says she concluded that Trump’s rhetoric has increased the threat of white supremacist terrorism. “We are less safe today because of his leadership. We will continue to be less safe as long as he is in control. And this year, I’ll be voting for Joe Biden,” she says.

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