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Evangelical Vote, Once Solid For Trump, Shows Fractures

Lakewood Church worship, 2013
Lakewood Church worship, 2013

The evangelical Protestant community, which makes up nearly one out of every three Texans, remains largely in President Donald Trump’s corner – but there are signs of generational division that could hurt Republicans.

Nearly a third of all Texans are evangelicals, according to one count. President Donald Trump is counting on this base to stay with him to win in November, especially evangelical women in the suburbs.

But conversations with some of those voters found that support isn't absolute.

Ever since she turned 18, Sarah Damoff has voted her faith. She considered herself a single-issue voter on abortion and supported Republicans.

When the Dallas resident couldn’t bring herself to vote for Trump in 2016, she wound up voting for a third party instead. After Trump won, she swore she wouldn't do that in 2020.

"But here I am again, certain that I do not want to see a second term with Trump, but also not really a fan of the Biden-Harris candidacy, so I again feel torn between a third party and a Democratic vote," Damoff said.

For decades, most evangelicals have voted Republican, absorbing the lesson from their communities that the Democratic Party is hostile to their beliefs.

"The evangelical vote really needs to vote for Trump because if we vote for Biden, we're voting for a secular ideology, which goes against everything that our country was founded on," said Cathie Locetta of The Woodlands. “Our country was not founded as a Christian nation, but it was founded on moral principles that followed biblical principles."

For some of his supporters, it seems Trump's policies count more than his character.

"Trump has protected the unborn. He appointed conservative judges to the judiciary. He supported Israel. And he advocates for religious freedom. And that is something that...I believe that the word of God tells us that we should be supporting," said Kristin Cobb of Northwest Houston.

And if Trump isn't a perfect vessel, well, no human being is perfect, says Melissa Conway of Friendswood.

Conway says she has personally witnessed Trump "growing in his Christian walk."

"Is President Trump personally, and through his social media use and his colorful language, a work in progress based on who Christ is in comparison?" Conway said. "Yes, he is. But so am I as a believer."

For many evangelicals, therefore, the choice between Trump and Joe Biden is no choice at all. But not all evangelicals see Trump as advancing the word of God.

"It says in Luke that [Jesus] came to proclaim Good News to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free. So, I as an Evangelical care about voting for politicians and policies that align with that very simple thing that Jesus, that that Good News was to and for," said Lesa Engelthaler of Garland, who voted Republican until 2008, when she supported Barack Obama for president.

This year, she's voting for former Vice President Joe Biden.

Some younger women in their 20s and 30s are wrestling with their vote and their faith this presidential election.

Tess Clarke of Dallas was a lifelong Republican. She did not vote in 2016, because she couldn't support Trump, but also didn't want to vote for Hillary Clinton because of her views on abortion.

Clarke says the Bible urges people to care for the foreigner, the stranger, the poor, and that matters just as much as Trump's stance on abortion.

"You know I kept seeing this over and over again and thinking, ‘man, how could I vote for the current administration when all I see them doing is pushing those specific people and those specific categories further into the margins?'" Clarke said.

This time, Clarke says she's voting for Biden.

In fact, there may be a generational dispute developing among evangelicals. Stephanie Martin, a professor at Southern Methodist University, calls this trend "the rot in the basement" of the Republican Party.

"If just 10% or 15% of younger evangelicals get in the habit of voting for Democrats, that would be ruinous to the Republican Party going forward, because it required 80%, 78%, of evangelical voters to get Donald Trump elected," Martin said.

But turning your back on a party tied to your faith isn't easy.

That's what Tess Clarke learned when she voted for Beto O'Rourke for the Senate in 2018.

"I've been called by people that I personally know a baby killer. You know, I've been told I can't be a Christian and vote for Joe Biden," Clark said. "I've been told lots of things by fellow believers who've decided that they get to decide where my faith lands."

Clarke said it's been hard, but she believes if the Gospel isn't Good News for the poor and the marginalized, then it's not the Gospel.