Trump held up what he said was a bible given to him by his mother. “She wrote the name and my address and it’s just very special to me,” he said, in a quiet voice. He then referred to polls showing his strong support among evangelicals and added: “I want to thank the evangelicals. I will never let you down.”
The following day, Trump went to church in Council Bluffs and confused the silver communion plates that were passed around with the offering plates, reaching for dollar bills from his pocket and leading some to question just how frequently he attended such services.
It did not matter. Trump’s appeal had worked. After he claimed a surprise victory that November, it would emerge he had secured the support of 81 per cent of white evangelicals.
This week, as the US controversially moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and scores of Palestinian protesters were shot dead by Israeli snipers and soldiers, the evangelicals received their reward.
Those seeking to reconcile how a group of conservative Christians could support a thrice-married casino owner who bragged about sexually assaulting women and whose lawyer would feel obliged to pay hush money to an adult actress on the eve of the election, need look no further than the reaction from evangelicals to the embassy’s opening, amid slaughter in Gaza.
“We are deeply grateful to President Trump for finally recognising the reality that Jerusalem is the eternal, indivisible capital of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, and that the United States Embassy belongs in Jerusalem,” wrote evangelical Ralph Read, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and director of the powerful Christian Coalition during the 1990s.
The Rev David Swaggerty, leader of CharismaLife Ministries in Columbus, Ohio, told the Religion News Service, that the embassy relocation was not simply a geopolitical bonus. “We see the embassy as crucial to God’s timing to bring about the revelation of the messiah,” he said.
Robert Jeffress, the controversial pastor who previously suggested Jews and Muslims might be heading to hell, was asked to pray at the embassy’s opening. “Israel has blessed this world by pointing us to you, the one true God, through the message of her prophets, the scriptures, and the messiah,” he said.
In essence, some evangelicals believe the transfer of the embassy and the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will help bring about the so-called rapture, an event in which they believe all Christians, living and dead, will join with God. As news website Vox pointed out, these interpretations based on the books of Revelation and Daniel, suggest the return of Jesus will take place once the Jewish temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt and Israel is made an exclusively Jewish state.
Gazans protest as US embassy moves to Jerusalem – in pictures
Pastor John Hagee told Fox News: “I can assure you that 60 million evangelicals are watching this promise closely because if President Trump moves the embassy into Jerusalem, he will historically step into immortality. He will be remembered for thousands of years for his act of courage to treat Israel like we already treat other nations.”
There may, of course, be other reasons for Trump’s actions. In carrying out a promise he made on the campaign trail, the US president has strengthened his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s hawkish prime minister, who had pushed for the US to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump claims that somehow the move will also help the US broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To anyone who watched the scores of Palestinians killed and the hundreds wounded by Israeli troops, such remarks feel like a preposterous, sick joke. (The White House repeatedly refused to condemn Israel’s actions and instead blamed Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.)
No, it is clear that Trump cares more about the November midterms and his chances of re-election in 2020, than he does about the basic rights or lives of the millions of Palestinians who feel cheated by his move to ignore decades of international agreement and unilaterally recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – something nations collectively believed should be decided by Israelis and Palestinians as part of a broader peace accord.
It is also clear Trump knows he needs those evangelicals to turn out and vote.
A few weeks ago, one unofficial but influential evangelical adviser to Trump, Johnnie Moore, was asked by The Independent to square the community’s support for the president, with his scandalous, seemingly unchristian antics.
“Evangelicals are very focussed on the issues,” he said. “They have a way of not being distracted by what the media may be talking about every day.”