December 2020 Church & State Magazine | Cover Story

Paula White, a television preach­­­­er who serves as President Donald Trump’s spiritual adviser, didn’t like the way the presidential race was looking the day after the election, so she called on some outside help: an army of angels to carry Trump to victory.

Denouncing “demonic confederacies” that were allegedly working against Trump, White beseeched “angels from Africa, from South America” to come to his aid.

“You will give us victory,” White preached from the pulpit of her Orlando church. “I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory. … The Lord says it is done. The Lord says it is done. The Lord says it is done. For I hear victory, victory, victory, victory.”

Unfortunately for White and Trump, the angels apparently had better things to do, and the only words Trump was hearing by Nov. 6 were “defeat, defeat, defeat, defeat.”

Trump, White and their Christian nationalist backers had good reason to feel optimistic at first. On the night of the Nov. 3 election, many Americans went to bed believing that Trump had been re-elected. Despite polls predicting a “blue wave” that would carry Democrat Joe Biden to an easy victory, the initial returns weighed heavily toward Trump and showed him triumphing in several battleground states.

But by the next morning, it was clear that Trump had benefitted only temporarily from what journalists had taken to calling a “red mirage.” Concerned about coronavirus, many Dem­o­crats had cast their ballots early by mail, leaving many states with an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots they couldn’t start counting until Election Day. Most Trump supporters, on the other hand, showed up to vote in person. Thus, exit polls oversampled Trump’s vote and showed him tearing through the electoral map.

The mirage quickly faded. As states began counting the mail-in ballots, Trump’s lead in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and eventually the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, which Trump counted on for victory, evaporated. While Trump did pick off several other battleground states – notably Florida, Texas, Ohio and North Carolina – they weren’t enough to carry him over the top.

Trump was soon ranting about the fact that many states were still counting ballots beyond Election Day – a perfectly legal and normal thing to do. He insisted that the U.S. Supreme Court should somehow come to his aid and held a rambling press conference Nov. 5 during which he insisted, though putting forth absolutely no evidence, that there had been wides­pread election fraud. (The press conference was so over the top and full of lies and distortions that many networks that were airing it live quickly pulled away, and reporters wrote stories noting that Trump had not even a scintilla of evidence for his reckless charges.)

On Nov. 7, Trump attorney Ru­dolph Giuliani and other Trump team members held a press conference outside a landscaping com­­pany office in a gritty industrial area of Philadelphia during which they again made claims of voter fraud while presenting no evidence. Simultaneously, the Associated Press (AP) and several major news outlets declared Biden had won enough electoral votes to become the next president.

As the dust settled in the days after the election, Americans United began laying the groundwork for what comes next. Shortly after the election was called for Biden, AU issued “An Agenda to Restore and Protect Religious Freedom.” The document lists 10 things the Biden-Harris administration can do to shore up the church-state wall. (Read more about it on page 7 of this issue.)

“The Biden-Harris administration has the opportunity and the moral obligation to right the wrongs of the Trump administration and build a better future – one that values religious freedom and equality for all,” declares the report, produced by AU’s Public Policy Department. “We call on the Biden-Harris administration to take immediate action to restore the separation of church and state, a core constitutional principle and the cornerstone of religious freedom.”

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, issued a statement calling for an end to the Trump administration’s weaponized vision of religious freedom.

“The people have spoken,” Laser said. “Americans voted for democracy, diversity and the Constitution. Voters have reasserted our ownership over our core American values, including religious freedom for all of us and not just some of us. The days of tear-gassing peaceful protestors in order to brandish a Bible in front of a church as a dog-whistle to Christian nationalists are over.”

She added, “The Trump administration’s misuse of religious freedom to harm others was unprecedented. During the last four years, the Trump administration corrupted the concept of religious freedom, using it to sanction discrimination, deny access to health care and require taxpayers to fund religion. We call on President Biden to take immediate action to reverse Trump’s harmful policies and adopt policies that respect the separation of church and state.”

Religious Right groups had a much different view of things. These organi­za­tions still back Trump to the hilt despite his lack of personal ethics and fre­quently deranged behavior, and for them his defeat was a bitter pill – one they had worked hard to avoid swallowing.

In the weeks before the election, Christian nationalist groups joined Trump in desperate measures: accusing Biden, whose long career in the U.S. Senate was marked by a plethora of moderate stands on issues, of being a socialist; spreading wild conspiracy theories about Biden’s son Hunter; and warning darkly that a Biden victory would usher in everything the Religious Right hates – LGBTQ rights, reproductive freedom and secular government, among other things.

The strategy worked to the extent that it helped Trump hold on to his white evangelical base. Data released by the AP found that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump – essentially the same figure as in 2016 – although other polls put the number slightly lower at 76%. The problem for Trump is that he was trounced by other demographic groups, especially Black voters who turned out in large numbers to vote against him.

Unlike white evangelicals, some other religious groups showed movement away from Trump. In Rust Belt states, many of which have large Cath­olic populations, Biden ran ads highlighting his Catholic faith, which may have paid off for him. AP’s data found that Catholic voters split down the middle, half going for Trump, who now refers to himself as a non-denominational Christian, and half for Biden.

A closer look at the data reveals interesting trends: White Catholics still backed Trump by 57%, but less so than in 2016, when 64% supported him. Latinx Catholics were more likely to vote for Biden, and 67% did so. 

Polling data from other groups found that 53% of white Protestants voted for Trump, but among Black Protestants the figure was lopsidedly against – 90% cast ballots for Biden.

Jews backed Biden by 70%, while 69% of Muslims supported him. Similarly, 72% of the religiously unaffiliated voted for the former vice president. (Because many people voted by mail, exit polling this year was not considered precise, and you might see slightly different figures elsewhere.)

The situation remained in flux as this issue of Church & State went to press. Trump continued to insist that he had actually won the election, and issued tweets charging widespread voter fraud – while providing no evidence. (One especially Trumpian tweet read, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!”) His legal team bombarded courts with lawsuits most legal scholars say have no merit.

While some Christian nationalist leaders urged Trump to accept defeat and move on, others prodded Trump, who has doggedly refused to concede, to resist the results. Among them was White. On Nov. 7, she tweeted a famous photo, taken late on election night in 1948, of President Harry Truman hoisting a copy of a newspaper with the notorious banner headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” That one paper, the Chicago Daily Tribune, got it wrong – and White apparently believes every news outlet in America did the same this time.

That seems very unlikely. What seems more likely is that White and others in her cohort will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the reality of Trump’s defeat.

As AU’s Laser noted, there is cause for optimism.

“Now more than ever, we need to take a stand for church-state separation,” she said. “Americans United looks forward to working with the Biden administration to make sure the United States lives up to its ideals of be­ing a place where people of all faiths and none are welcome, equal and free to practice their beliefs as they choose, as long as they don’t harm others.”