In the days following Donald Trump’s shocking win four years ago, experts scoured exit polls to figure out what the hell had just happened. What they learned is that evangelicals were a major driving force behind the improbable political rise of a narcissistic and philandering reality TV star. White evangelical voters overwhelmingly broke for Trump. Dating back to Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority, which ignited a political fire in the evangelical camp in the early ’80s, evangelicals have historically leaned Republican. And despite his sketchy public persona, Trump seems to have formed a special bond with these voters, whom he appears set to rely on yet again come November 3. “His view was ‘I’ve been talking to these people for years; I’ve let them stay at my hotels—they’re gonna endorse me,’” a former Trump campaign adviser, who opted to remain anonymous, told The Atlantic. “‘I played the game.’”
During his time as a serious political player, the president has worked to capture the hearts of Southern Baptists, conservative Presbyterians, and nondenominational megachurch-goers. He has held a number of closed-door meetings with evangelical leaders, declared at a rally that he believes “God [is] on our side,” and put on his best behavior to address Christian colleges of all sizes, ranging from the Lynchburg, Virginia behemoth Liberty University to the small Reformed Dordt University in Iowa. But Trump’s promises to protect religious freedom, his nomination of pro-life judges, and his gushing—“I love the evangelicals. And they love me,” he said in a 2016 line that he repeated last year—is not a sentiment he consistently upholds in private. He reportedly revealed as much in 2015, commenting on a story about an Atlanta millionaire televangelist who turned to his followers to raise the $60 million it costs to own a Gulfstream private jet. “They’re all hustlers,” Trump reportedly told Michael Cohen, who recalled the conversation in an interview with The Atlantic. Trump apparently wasn’t disgusted by Creflo Dollar, the aptly named preacher in question. Instead, Cohen recalled, Trump appeared delighted by the “scam” and amused by how “full of shit” the pastor was. (After Dollar was widely criticized for his proposed use of tithes to buy the G650, the minister fired back by citing his faith, saying, “If I want to believe God for a $65 million plane, you cannot stop me. You cannot stop me from dreaming.”)
One former Trump campaign adviser told The Atlantic that Trump has expressed how impressed he is by megachurch magnate Joel Osteen and the massive televangelist operation that he runs out of the Houston Rockets’ old NBA arena. Another former adviser recalled that after they played a clip of an Israeli televangelist practicing “faith healing,” which typically involves congregation leaders encircling an afflicted person while placing their hands on them and shouting prayers, Trump laughed and said, “Man, that’s some racket.”
Trump’s seeming respect for those he calls “hustlers”—or at least his admiration of their chutzpah—makes sense; it would be more shocking if he were to voice his appreciation for faith leaders who take on their roles out of genuine religious conviction. In Trump’s mind, the payoff is everything, as evidenced by him reportedly referring to military service members as “losers” and “suckers.” “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” he reportedly told his former White House chief of staff John Kelly while the two visited Arlington National Cemetery, the burial site of Kelly’s gold star son who was killed in Afghanistan.