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Trump's Stance On Migrant Caravan Energizes White Evangelical Voters

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For years now, President Trump has cultivated support among white, evangelical voters. Some that we interviewed in recent weeks were still with him, saying they felt more respected as Christians since his election. And the president has delivered Supreme Court choices that many white evangelicals like. Ed Stetzer, our next guest, has a more complex picture of the president. He directs the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, one of the country's leading evangelical schools. He has also been critical of the president on some issues. And he's on the line.

Good morning.

ED STETZER: Good morning. Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did you think in the last days of the election when the president drilled in on this caravan, which is still some distance from the U.S.-Mexico border, of migrants. But he said it was a grave threat. And he made that really the closing argument for him.

STETZER: Yeah. Of course, it's not a grave threat. And I think, ultimately, it's a shame to see that many people were drawn to that argument to the point where many Republicans actually were saying - like Paul Ryan and others - please, stop. And I think it had electoral consequences. But also, I would say, too, I - one who's said to my fellow evangelicals that we ought not to be fooled that this is a danger that requires military response and more. But that's what politicians do. They often try to gin up support by bringing things forward that will motivate the base. We know that evangelicals - well, white evangelicals - vote typically Republican, and they voted according to exit polls at about the same level here. And so this seemed to be a motivating force. I'd hoped it wouldn't be, but it was.

INSKEEP: Can I just note that when we talk about evangelicals - people often say in the media evangelicals, but what they mean is white evangelicals because, according to surveys, something like a third of people who identify as evangelical are people of color? Is the president driving away voters that he might otherwise have a chance with because of the way that he talks about race?

STETZER: Well, I don't know for sure that - from these exit polls yet. We haven't got to that level of granularity. But, you know, I live in the 6th District in Illinois - Henry Hyde's old district - and it flipped Democrat. And I think, early on, the polls sort of pointed to the fact that though this nationalistic, you know, anti-immigrant rhetoric seemed to have mobilized people maybe in Montana and Tennessee, it seemed to turn off people in many of the suburbs and maybe even turn off some evangelicals. We don't know yet. We don't have that level of granularity.

INSKEEP: Well, that's really interesting. So you live in one of the suburban districts where the House of Representatives was decided. Do you feel that you understand why that was?

STETZER: Well, I think if we look beforehand, what we find is is that many evangelicals already were a little bit hesitant about, well, Donald Trump as a person. And of course here, if you watch the ads on my television, he was largely running in this local election. And so, of course, that's what happened in many of these suburban, Republican districts. And so I do think that it had an impact. We at least think that from beforehand, particularly because many evangelicals did have a - kind of an ill-ease with supporting the president. But again, in the last election, they had two choices. And in this election, they still seemed to support many of his policies, but in districts like this, maybe not as much that nationalism that did not resonate well.

INSKEEP: In just a few seconds, Ed Stetzer, the president, of course, won the presidency while having a minority of the popular vote. Now, a majority of the popular vote in the various House districts has gone for Democrats, and it seems to be an anti-Trump vote in a way. Are evangelicals hitching their wagon to a horse that is going to lose for them over time?

STETZER: Well, I think it's a fair question. And I do think the challenge is a lot of people are being discipled - or spiritually shaped - by their cable news choices. I think, ultimately, evangelicals need to be known what they are for rather than what they're against. And showing and sharing the love of Jesus sure seems like a better thing to hitch ourselves to long-term as evangelical Christians.

INSKEEP: Ed Stetzer of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. Always a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much.

STETZER: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.