Doug Pagitt, a 50-something-year-old preacher from Minnesota with a penchant for hipster fedoras and skinny purple jeans, has one of the hardest jobs in American politics.
Pagitt, along with a handful of other evangelical Christians, has been roaming the United States in a bright orange bus trying to convince his fellow believers that President Donald Trump is unworthy of their adulation. His tour has so far taken him to all early-vote states and about a dozen others. He wants to hit all 50 states before November’s general election.
At a Presbyterian church in the suburbs of Washington, DC, just days before Virginia’s Super Tuesday primary, Pagitt, between gospel songs by a former professional cheerleader and a Methodist minister with a long grey ponytail, told the roughly three dozen attendees at one of his rallies that he understands he is preaching to the choir – and that it is long overdue.
“It’s easy as a choir member to lose your song,” he told the crowd. “It’s easy to lose your voice. It’s easy to feel dispirited. We have a whole choir of faith in this country that has lost its song sheet … and we want them to rise up and start singing a new song.”
The song he wants US Christians to sing is about the convictions of their faith. The president’s behaviour, he says, is so far out of synch with the teachings of Jesus Christ that they have a moral imperative to vote him out of office. He wants white evangelicals to set aside their reservations and do the unthinkable – vote Democrat.
“We’re not here to convince somebody who supports Donald Trump that they should not support Donald Trump,” he said in the church’s foyer before the night’s events. “If Donald Trump doesn’t cause you to not support Donald Trump, there’s nothing we can do that’s going to convince you of that.”
It remains to be seen, however, if anyone in the US evangelical Christian community is listening, or wants to hear Pagitt’s message.
Trump, despite flouting traditional Christian values in his personal life, enjoys solid support among white American evangelicals. More than 80 percent of them voted for him in 2016, and seven-in-10 said they still approve of his job performance. That compares with about 50 percent of mainline Protestants who said they approve of Trump, and 36 percent of Catholics.
“Evangelicals seemed the least likely among Republicans to support Trump back in 2015. But they have become his most faithful base of support because they fear what he opposes more than favour what he supports,” said Ryan Streeter, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. “They are not economically motivated, they are culturally motivated.”
In recent years, many conservative Christians in the US have come to feel backed into a corner. The number of faithful, while remaining high relative to other Western democracies, has been in decline since the 1960s. One Pew Research poll in 2019 counted 65 percent of American as Christians, a number that has declined by 12 points in the last decade.
For many in the movement, the haemorrhaging is not self-inflicted.
“This is not decay; it is organised destruction,” Attorney General William Barr, a convert to Catholicism, proclaimed in a widely noted speech at Notre Dame University in October 2019. “Secularists, and their allies among the ‘progressives’, have marshalled all the forces of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”
Barr and some other conservatives believe Christians have been unduly restrained in their struggle against progressives, and in Trump, they see a street fighter with few restraints willing to punch back in a manner few have been willing or able to in the past. God, they believe, is making America great again through an imperfect vessel.