Even as his position grows increasingly isolated, President Donald Trump is not walking alone in his suspended state of disbelief about the results of the 2020 election. He is being propped up, as he has for years, by his loyal evangelical Christian fans.
While some evangelical leaders and institutions have congratulated President-elect Joe Biden on his win, there is a large segment of the group that is staying mum on the issue ― or clinging to the Trump campaign’s unproven claims of widespread fraud.
The president’s closest evangelical advisers are split between those who are actively promoting the election fraud narrative, those who are subtly suggesting to their followers that there was fraud, and those who are silent, according to John Fea, a history professor at Messiah University who has been blogging about these Trump allies.
Fea told HuffPost he doesn’t know of any of these “court evangelicals” ― his label for the modern equivalent of the religious courtiers who once surrounded kings ― who have openly rejected the voter fraud claims. The ally who got the closest to publicly acknowledging the election results was Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress. In a Nov. 7 Fox News op-ed, Jeffress wrote that Biden “appears” to be the president-elect, unless Trump wins his legal challenges. That op-ed made headlines and, after it became clear that Jeffress’ stance was not shared by his peers, the pastor tweeted a condemnation of “false media reports” that he’d broken with the president. Over the last few weeks, Jeffress, who spent the past four years vigorously defending some of Trump’s most controversial policies, has been largely silent about the election on Twitter.
Some of Trump’s close evangelical allies have suggested they are waiting for the “truth” to be made known about the election ― including Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham; Paula White, Trump’s spiritual adviser; and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
“In other words, they are giving credence to this whole election fraud narrative by virtue of their silence and carefully worded tweets that suggest there might be fraud,” Fea told HuffPost.
Other evangelical figures have been eager to be part of the vanguard pursuing Trump’s claims of fraud. Much of this advocacy has come from Liberty University’s Falkirk Center, which counts Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis and right-wing activist Charlie Kirk among its fellows. Another fellow, Christian author Eric Metaxas, has been alleging on Twitter that the election was stolen ― at one point comparing alleged election fraud to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I’d be happy to die in this fight,” Metaxas told Trump on his radio show on Monday. “This is a fight for everything. God is with us.”
This support has stayed strong even as nearly three dozen election-related lawsuits filed by Trump’s campaign have been thrown out or withdrawn. Two more key states ― Wisconsin and Arizona ― certified Biden’s victory on Monday. The campaign’s claims have even been rebuked by Attorney General William Barr, who told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the Justice Department has not uncovered evidence of widespread fraud that would change the outcome of the election.
Evangelical leaders’ refusal to acknowledge the election results could be a product of their allegiance to the GOP. White evangelicals, in particular, are the most solidly Republican major religious group in the country. They could be simply following the example set by many Republican politicians who have refused to accept Biden’s win.
The “alternate reality” embraced by some evangelicals could also stem from a “parallel culture” that the religious group has built in recent decades, according to Randall Stephens, a historian at the University of Oslo who has studied American evangelicalism. Evangelicals have established their own homeschooling curricula, higher education institutions and accreditation bodies. They’ve created a separate world of entertainment and consumer culture. They have their own alternative experts and fields of knowledge that are largely cut off from the wider academic and intellectual community in the U.S., Stephens said.
“This parallel culture certainly now seems like it was primed for a figure like Trump to play a leading role in it,” he told HuffPost in an email. “Like so many believers, Trump was also skeptical of mainstream knowledge, climate science, vaccines, or the national origins of America’s first black president.”
For some conservative Christians, it seems nearly impossible that Trump could actually have lost the election, Stephens said.
“They might ask themselves why this could possibly happen. Surely, many are thinking, it must be by some malevolent design on the part of Democrats,” Stephens said. “To think that the election was rigged and stolen is a way for them to frame this without completely losing face.”
Religious beliefs about Trump could also be at play. In the eyes of some Christians, his time at the White House has been touched with divine significance. At a moment when conservative Christians felt as if they were losing the culture wars, Trump was seen as a champion hand-selected by God. He may have been an outsider to the evangelical world, but his personal moral failings could be forgiven because of how he fought for causes dear to evangelicals. His actions evoked comparisons to kings in the Bible who, although they didn’t share the Jewish faith, treated the Jewish people with benevolence.
For some Christians, the narratives about Trump being chosen for such a time as this weren’t just stories ― they were prophecies from God, waiting to be tested. According to André Gagné, a theological studies professor at Concordia University and an expert on the Christian right, the belief that God has restored the role of the prophet in modern times is most common among evangelicals from the “neo-charismatic” wave of Pentecostalism, which emerged in the 1980s. Neo-charismatic Pentecostals are a minority within American Christianity ― it’s more of a movement than a specific denomination. As a result, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many Americans currently believe prophecies about God wanting Trump to be a two-term president, Gagné said. However, he added, Trump-supporting prophets have amassed substantial followings. They spread their ideas by working with well-established professional networks of like-minded preachers, Gagné said. And now, they are using their platforms to spread theories about election fraud and encourage their audiences to wait just a little longer for the truth to triumph.
“People need to realize that these movements in evangelicalism are not fringe,” Gagné told HuffPost. “These people are really active and they’re successful.”
Lance Wallnau, an evangelical author who has enjoyed access to the White House under the Trump administration, claims that God revealed to him before the 2016 election that Trump would become president and act as a “King Cyrus” ― one of those biblical kings that evangelicals see as benevolent to God’s people. As of this week, Wallnau is still insisting that Trump won the 2020 election by a “landslide.” He has been speculating about election fraud in a series of Facebook live videos for his more than 500,000 followers.
“You’re the smartest audience out there,” Wallnau told his Facebook followers on Monday. “You are the sharpest, you’re the ones that are informed ― you realize that America’s future and the lawlessness that could be released on America is contingent upon this president actually being able to stand in the place that God called him to. And as I believe, God called him to stand longer than what the enemy is trying to do right now.”
Mark Taylor, a retired Florida firefighter, says that God told him in 2011 that Trump would be a two-term president. Taylor’s story inspired a Liberty University-affiliated film, “The Trump Prophecy,” that was released in over 1,000 U.S. theaters. Last week Taylor insisted on his YouTube channel that Trump would be declared president again and that faithful believers just have to be patient and continue praying.
Another prophet, Kris Vallotton of Bethel Church in Redding, California, initially apologized for predicting that Trump would win the election. But he later took that apology down, saying he had decided to “wait until the official vote count is complete.”
Pat Robertson, the 90-year-old founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, is perhaps the prophet with the loudest microphone. His show, “The 700 Club,” reaches about 650,000 U.S. households every day, according to the network, and has over 2.8 million followers on Facebook. A longtime Trump fan, Robertson told his audience in October that God revealed to him that Trump would win the election “without question.” Last week, Robertson said that Trump still had several paths to victory and that there had been election fraud. On Tuesday, he continued to insist that Trump had “probably” won but turned his ire toward the president’s legal team, claiming they had “screwed up” by waiting too long to start challenging the results of the election.
“They just didn’t think it was necessary, they thought it was an honest election, we’ll just go down and take the results, but they should have known,” Robertson said.
Ultimately, Gagné thinks these prophets will have to grapple with the fact that their predictions didn’t come true. At that point, they may turn to their global networks to try to influence politics in other nations with a strong evangelical presence, such as Brazil. But before doing so, members of the movement will likely rely on “loopholes” to explain the failed predictions, he said ― by claiming that the prophets made a mistake or that God wanted Trump to win but decided not to let it happen to teach the American church a lesson.
“So you either blame the prophet, saying he misheard, or you blame the church or Christians, because they didn’t do what they had to do,” Gagné said.
Although he’s the figure at the center of all these prophecies, Trump hasn’t indicated that he is a charismatic Christian who believes in supernatural gifts granted by the Holy Spirit. The religious figure often cited as most influential for Trump was Norman Vincent Peale, a Christian minister who wrote the best-selling book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Trump’s parents joined Peale’s New York City church in the 1970s, and Peale presided at Trump’s wedding to Ivana Trump.
A forefather of the self-help movement, Peale encouraged people to visualize their success and to “never think of yourself as failing.” Negative thoughts would lead to negative outcomes, the minister suggested.
In his 2004 book, “How to Get Rich,” Trump called “The Power of Positive Thinking” one of his favorite books. “Some people may think it’s old-fashioned, but what Peale has written will always be true. He advocates faith over fear. Faith can overcome the paralysis that fear brings with it,” Trump wrote.
Both Gagné and Stephens said they see Peale’s influence in Trump’s inability to admit defeat.
Trump’s approach to the election results is similar to how he has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephens said ― dismissing its severity at every opportunity and admonishing his supporters to not let it dominate their lives.
In “How to Get Rich,” the future president asserted, “To me, germs are just another kind of negativity.”
“That flippant attitude, shocking to many, speaks volumes about how Trump conceives of reality,” Stephens said.