U.S. evangelical and Christian groups are standing behind President Trump despite their opposition to his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, which they see as putting Syrian Christian and religious minorities under threat from Turkish-backed Islamist forces and a potential ISIS resurgence.
Evangelicals opposed to Trump’s move say the decision is a departure from an otherwise stellar record fulfilling a conservative and religious values agenda.
“We thought the troop withdrawal and failure to protect and ensure northeast Syria’s burgeoning self-governance was a religious freedom mistake,” said Travis Weber, the vice president for policy and government affairs at the Family Research Council, a conservative evangelical advocacy group. “We thought it was a departure of President Trump’s fantastic record on religious freedom.”
The Syria decision was initially met with alarm among influential evangelical leaders, but they have backed sanctions imposed on Turkey as well as the temporary cease-fire negotiated by Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“My support is behind the president,” the Rev. Franklin Graham, the president of the evangelical humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse and the son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, told The Hill.
Firm support from religious conservatives has been a surprising hallmark since Trump’s success in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.
Evangelicals have stuck with Trump through controversy after controversy, from the payouts for adult-film actress Stormy Daniels’s silence about an alleged affair to the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump was heard bragging about grabbing women by the genitalia.
“I don’t understand every decision he makes, but I’m not in the room. … I just have to trust and believe that he’s made the right decision on behalf of the American people,” Graham said of his support for Trump after the Syria move.
Evangelicals have been a steady bulwark for the president even when GOP lawmakers have wavered in their support, making it more difficult for most of those lawmakers to think of a more serious break with Trump.
They have also helped keep Trump’s approval ratings from ever falling too low, particularly among the GOP base.
Trump’s job performance averages about a 40 percent approval rating among the American public but is 80 percent with Republicans.
Support among evangelicals for Trump has remained consistently high over his three-year presidency.
In a poll conducted between August and September by the Public Religion Research Institute — a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute on politics, religion and culture — about 77 percent of evangelicals approve of the president’s job performance, while 63 percent said the president has “not damaged the dignity of the office.” More than 80 percent support him as the Republican presidential nominee.
The support from evangelicals after Trump left the Kurds alone to fight Turkey is significant given the group’s support for the Kurds.
Evangelicals hold up the Kurds as heroes in the fight against ISIS and protectors of minority ethnic groups, particularly for Christians with a history in the Middle East that goes back 2,000 years.
They also condemn Turkey as being untrustworthy and a human rights abuser. This month marked the first anniversary of the freeing of Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor who was imprisoned in Turkey for more than two years.
“I don’t have a whole lot of trust in what Turkey says,” said Graham, who leads an organization that is increasing operations to help hundreds of thousands of people displaced in northeastern Syria.
“I don’t trust them, don’t believe them. I would encourage people to pray,” Graham said of Turkey. “This is a very volatile situation.”
The release of Brunson is a hallmark of Trump’s commitment to evangelicals, and his domestic agenda further cements their support.
Evangelicals praise Trump for filling federal benches with conservative judges and a commitment to protecting freedom of religious expression, particularly in the issues related to restricting federal money for abortion and rolling back rights for the LGBT community. Evangelicals feel little pressure to abandon the president.
“The fact that he made the decision to remove American troops from Syria is not a deal-breaker for the evangelical community, not even a little,” said Mark Burns, a conservative evangelical pastor and founder of a Christian television network.
“As the Democratic Party has moved more and more to the left, and that is essentially cutting out some of our religious freedoms, that was the biggest reason the evangelical community supported him,” Burns said. “This president has clearly been a friend to the evangelical community.”
Trump reveled in that support last week, speaking at the Values Voter summit in Washington, D.C., a conference organized by the Family Research Council.