In God’s country

When my airplane dipped beneath the clouds, I could finally see the earth: interminable horizon, crisscrossing bands of interstate, the cities of the plains, home to more than 7 million souls. Landing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex feels like drifting down to reality; if everything is bigger in Texas, it’s also more intense — the light brighter, the shadows deeper. I was particularly grateful for all that harsh relief in April, because I had come to take stock of a spiritual situation tailor-made to emphasize every challenge in the contest of conscience between heaven and earth. How are evangelical Christians faring in the age of Trump, and will they elect him anew in 2020?

Evangelicals — typically activist, biblically focused Protestants with an emphasis on conversion, or being born again in Christ, as it’s often put — span several denominations, all races and plenty of American territory. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of Texans consider themselves evangelical, forming the largest bloc of religious voters in the state of more than 28 million. A full 65 percent of those voters are white, 22 percent are Latino, and 8 percent are black.

Exit polls show that Trump carried 85 percent of evangelical voters here in 2016, a touch higher than the national white evangelical average of 81 percent. That in itself wasn’t surprising: For decades, evangelicals have been a reliable Republican constituency.

More intriguing was that a segment of white evangelicals had supported Trump all along — even during the Republican primaries, when more logical evangelical candidates, such as Texas’s own Sen. Ted Cruz, were still viable. At first, their numbers were relatively small and ill-represented among regular churchgoers. But since coalescing in 2016, evangelical support for Trump has remained consistently high — even among regular churchgoers, who started out skeptical but now approve of Trump at rates identical to or higher than less regular attendees.

White evangelicals’ electoral drift toward Trump added an element of mystery to a story that was already startling. That the thrice-wed, dirty-talking, sex-scandal-plagued businessman actually managed to win the steadfast moral support of America’s values voters, as expressed in routinely high approval ratings, posed an even stranger question: What happened?