(TNS) — As he travels to preach at small country churches across Alabama, former State Baptist Convention President John Killian hears a lot of talk about President Donald Trump.
"I see overwhelming support," Killian said.
Many Southern Baptists - who number more than a million in Alabama - tend to like Trump and believe he's God's man for the job. Exit polls in 2016 showed that about 80% of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump.
That support is still solid, said Killian, a former pastor and now director of Baptist missions for Fayette County.
But why? Trump is twice divorced, and his attorney claimed to have paid adult film star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about having an affair with Trump. He's been caught on tape speaking in foul-mouthed terms about women. His character flaws could have derailed almost any other politician trying to court the religious right.
"Everybody knows if Barack Obama had done one of these things, he would have been skewered by these folks as unfit for office," said church historian Bill Leonard.
But major evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. defend Trump and see him as an ally in the culture wars.
"Issues matter more than a person's personal life," Killian said. "The two issues that come up are pro-life - appointment of judges (who oppose abortion), and support for Israel."King Cyrus and King David
In defending Trump, religious supporters cite a recurring theme in the Bible that God uses flawed leaders.
In the Book of Ezra, Persian King Cyrus the Great issued a decree to liberate the Jews after the Babylonian captivity and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. "King Cyrus was a friend to the people of God, but he was a heathen king," Killian said.
Alabama Pastor John Kilpatrick, whose call for prayer to stop the spirit of witchcraft attacking Trump went viral on social media, compares Trump to King David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed.
"David committed adultery and had a man killed," Kilpatrick said in his sermon on Aug. 26 at Church of His Presence in Daphne. "God left him as king of Israel."
God is using Trump for his own purposes, Kilpatrick said. Evangelical supporters of Trump hope he will appoint US Supreme Court justices who may overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
"He has defended the womb," Kilpatrick said. "The president has taken a stand for life. Second, the president has taken up for Israel and has declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel. Third, he has chosen Supreme Court justices - that's going to turn this nation around. Those three things are why the spirit of Jezebel hates him and wants him out. We may be on the verge of the greatest revival this world has ever seen."A street fighter
The very soul of America is on the line, Kilpatrick said.
"If we are where I think we are spiritually, we need a street fighter in the White House," said Kilpatrick, who said in an interview with AL.com that he voted for Trump in 2016.
"There's much at stake," Kilpatrick said. "A lot of people are concerned about America right now."
Kilpatrick is not vouching for Trump's faith. "I don't believe Trump is a man of God," he said. But he believes the 2016 election was miraculous. "I have to believe it was the Holy Spirit that turned it," Kilpatrick said. "If the Lord put him in an office, the Lord will sustain him in an office. You better be careful that you don't lay a hand on him."
That's a reference to Psalm 105:15, "Touch not my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm."
Kilpatrick quotes 1 Timothy 2:2, which calls on believers to pray for "kings, and for all that are in authority," as a reason to pray for Trump.
"That doesn't mean I'm a Trump fan," said Kilpatrick, whose congregation is affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination. "I love him
, and I pray for him because he's our president. What God has raised up, you don't want to oppose. Do I believe he's an adulterer? I do. Do I believe he's had these affairs? I do. Do I think he's a liar? I do. If God raised him up, my job is to pray for that man. That's what we're going to do."
Framing a Christian nation
On the campaign trail, Trump often trumpeted support for framing the United States as a Christian nation, staking out an issue that resonates with the same people who supported Judge Roy Moore
's refusal to take down his hand-made plaque of the Ten Commandments in his Etowah County courtroom, and later his refusal as chief justice to remove a 2.6-ton monument of the commandments he had installed in the state judicial building. Many evangelical Christians also yearn for the return of Christian prayer to public schools. It was banned in a 1963 US Supreme Court decision.
In 2016 at the Family Research Council Values Voter Summit, Trump sounded that theme. "A Trump administration, our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you've never seen before. Believe me. I believe it. And you believe it. And you know it. You know it."
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Many of the evangelical supporters of Trump are preachers of the prosperity gospel, who promote the idea that God shows His blessings by making them wealthy. Trump is wealthy, and for them, that's a sign of God's blessing, Leonard said.
"God used him to bless with them with tax cuts," Leonard said.Immigration, faith demographics
There are broader issues at play, too, with Trump's stand on Muslim immigration echoing past religious right alarms against non-Protestant immigrants changing the nation's faith demographics.
"Trump is, at best, racially insensitive, if not racist," said Leonard, a former religion professor at Samford University and retired divinity dean at Wake Forest University.
But many evangelicals like his style, Leonard said.
"Fundamentalists vest great power in the authoritarian leader who brooks no disagreement," Leonard said. "They have an appreciation for Trump as an authoritarian figure."
Baptists traditionally supported the separation of church and state, but shifted with the rise of the Moral Majority in 1979 and the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Despite being divorced, Reagan was the choice of evangelicals over Jimmy Carter, a born-again believer and Baptist Sunday school teacher who did not agree with the religious right on many issues. "Jimmy Carter is a brother in the Lord, but I didn't like him as a president," Killian said.
Evangelicals have abandoned separation of church and state in recent decades as they've seen an opportunity for government to prop them up, Leonard said.
"Their response to Trump as a person who is going to restore Christianity to its proper place is an indication how their approach to Christian conversion has failed," Leonard said. "It is no longer reaching the multitudes as they thought it would. As their evangelistic influence wanes, they go looking to government to support their presence and authority in the country. They want the government to save them."'100 Years From Now'
Trump has been willing to give lip service to their symbolic issues, perhaps on the advice of evangelical leaders who know how to get out their vote.
"They want the return of Protestant privilege in American culture," Leonard said. "The loss of Protestant privilege, and the reality of religious plurality, is driving them crazy."
There's a price to be paid for political pandering by preachers, Leonard said.
"One of the stark realities of this support for Trump is that the moral high ground that this group of people has claimed about human behavior and Christian morality has been radically compromised by their failure to hold Donald Trump to the same standard they held the rest of us to," Leonard said. "Their moral high ground has been compromised beyond measure."
But evangelicals in rural Alabama who back Trump aren't worried about that.
"The Israel issue, moving the embassy, that has a great appeal," Killian said. "I think that's where he's going to go down in history, along with the court appointments. That's something that, 100 years from now, we'll be talking about."©2018 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
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