I was standing outside the Capitol at the post-Carolina Values Summit Franklin Graham rally Thursday morning, attempting to interview Christian conservatives about their political views, when a seventy-year-old man in a cowboy hat called me a "fucking sodomite" after I asked why he was shouting about HB 2 being "essential." A few moments later, a forty-six-year-old heard me interviewing his mother and said to her, "Look at his nose. He's a fucking Jew-boy." Another attendee opined that the INDY was "fag propaganda." Yet another told me that the freedom this group was demanding didn't apply to people like me (whatever that means).
Not everyone in the crowd—which some estimates put in the thousands, and almost all of whom were white—was hostile, but they were all fired up. That was Graham's point: to gin up religious conservatives' enthusiasm in a battleground state. Still, the vitriol took me aback. It's not that rancor in politics is unusual; in fact, it's been a hallmark of Donald Trump's rallies.
But what place does this toxicity have among followers of Franklin Graham, a man whose father, the evangelical heavyweight Billy Graham, served as a spiritual counsel to Hillary Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal? More to the point, what drives this white evangelical hatred of Clinton—and, by extension, anyone (journalists included) lumped under the umbrella of "the liberal left"? And what has led them to line up behind Trump, a thrice-married libertine philanderer and confessed sexual predator?
According to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, more than 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants are backing Trump. And many evangelical leaders have doubled down in recent days, including Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., who said that Trump was a "blue-collar billionaire" who "resembles Winston Churchill." The younger Graham, while he danced around formally endorsing Trump last week in Raleigh, made it clear that the election was about ending abortion and protecting the "sanctity of the Supreme Court." He instructed his followers to "hold your nose" and vote. (It's worth noting that, in 2012, the Trump Foundation wrote the Billy Graham Evangelical Association a $100,000 check.)
But that's not the only thing driving white evangelicals toward Trump. According to a recent Pew poll, 75 percent of evangelicals said a major reason they're committed to Trump is that they dislike Clinton. It's been this way for decades. The late Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr. quipped in 2006 that "nothing would energize my [constituency] like Hillary Clinton. If Lucifer ran, he wouldn't."
But what made Clinton such a polarizing figure among white evangelicals? Many political observers say it started in 1992, when, in response to attacks related to her husband's role in her legal career, Clinton said, "Those of us who have tried to have a career, tried to have an independent life, certainly somebody like myself, you know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession." The statement became a rallying cry among evangelical women, who viewed her comments as a slap in the face to stay-at-home mothers.
The sentiment has only metastasized. Clinton's favorability rating among evangelicals now sits at 17 percent.
Even so, not all evangelicals are in Trump's corner. In fact, students at Liberty University took a stand last week, issuing a petition that has, to date, been signed by thousands. The statement reads: "We are Liberty students who are disappointed with President Falwell's endorsement and are tired of being associated with one of the worst presidential candidates in American history. Donald Trump does not represent our values and we want nothing to do with him."
Indeed, younger evangelicals, while still generally Republican, tend to be more moderate (or even liberal) than their parents, especially on issues related to social and economic justice. But the old guard isn't deterred. Falwell was quick to dismiss the petition, issuing a statement claiming that the group "represents a very small percentage of the Liberty student body."
But there's clearly dissension in the ranks. Long before the "grab 'em by the pussy" tape surfaced, Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore took to Twitter, writing, "If racial division, misogyny, sexual debauchery, authoritarianism are secondary issues for you, that's not 'values voting.'"
Despite how the religious right feels about her, Clinton is still in the driver's seat, holding a seven-point lead three weeks out. As The Wall Street Journal has noted, the "clearest dividing line" this year is that "whites without a college degree have consolidated behind Donald Trump," while college-educated people are more likely to back Clinton.
And while it's lazy—and inaccurate—to dismiss swaths of people as knuckle-draggers just because they don't have a bachelor's degree, the political science literature suggests a correlation between lower education levels, authoritarianism, and religiosity. This might explain why many deeply religious people are lining up behind a man who embodies the antithesis of what they hold dear.
But it doesn't explain what unfolded at the Graham event—or at Trump's rallies. Alexander Haslam, an expert in crowd psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia and coauthor of The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power, told the website Quartz earlier this year that he believes the confrontations that have taken place at these events are a result of a shared identity Trump has created with his base—the manifestation of an "us versus them" mentality.
Last week, by virtue of my profession, I was a them. The members of the us crowd—those fierce defenders of a freedom that doesn't apply to me—could learn something from the man Falwell likened their candidate to. It was, after all, Churchill who said that the "best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter." After an hour at the Graham rally, I'm inclined to agree. Graham, Pundit
Franklin Graham has some thoughts about politics. Here are five recent examples.
Feb. 24, 2014 (from BillyGraham.org): "To be clear, I am not endorsing President Putin. To survive in the KGB and rise to power in Russia, you have to be tough. His enemies say he is ruthless. To some, he is a modern version of a czar. His personal life has its own controversies. Isn't it sad, though, that America's own morality has fallen so far that on this issue—protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda—Russia's standard is higher than our own?"
July 17, 2015 (from Facebook): "We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized—and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad."
Sept. 15 (letter to ACC commissioner John Swofford): "I am a big sports fan. ... But I would rather defend the biological definition of the two genders as created by the Creator of the universe than to attend—or even watch on TV—a football or basketball game to determine the ACC champion."
Sept. 26 (from Facebook): "The Obama administration is morally bankrupt and is pushing the lesbian/gay/transgender agenda on our nation. And it's time the church recognizes this—we'd better wake up, and we'd better stand up against it while we can."
Oct. 3 (from Facebook): "The media keeps talking about it, but to be honest with you, nobody gives a rip about Donald J. Trump's taxes. What people do care about is their own taxes. And when I read about the government spending $8.4 million of taxpayers' money a year—starting today—for things like gender reassignment and hormone therapy for military personnel, I'm disgusted! Aren't you?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Onward Christian Soldiers"