Trump scores big points with the evangelical base on Brunson case

Trump’s actions on the Brunson case will further cement the bond and paper over Trump’s various perceived sins and legal troubles.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Winning card. US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson (R), escorted by a Turkish plainclothes policeman, arrives at his house in Izmir, last July. (AFP)
Winning card. US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson (R), escorted by a Turkish plainclothes policeman, arrives at his house in Izmir, last July. (AFP)

Beginning in April, US President Donald Trump began tweeting about a particular American citizen imprisoned in Turkey since shortly before Trump’s 2016 election victory.

Andrew Brunson is one of several Americans imprisoned after the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, charged with supporting the Islamist Gulen movement that is accused of carrying out the military bid to overthrow the Turkish government or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an armed group that has been fighting in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east since 1984.

However, only Brunson’s case garnered belated public outrage on the part of the US administration. Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence have used the Brunson case to rally and solidify support among their base ahead of November midterm elections. Many prominent white evangelical leaders have been very vocal and visible in their support of Brunson and the Trump administration’s efforts to free him.

The domestic politics behind Brunson’s rise to cause celebre are quite straightforward. An evangelical pastor who presided over a small congregation in Izmir for more than 20 years, his status as a persecuted Christian appeals to the identity politics of the powerful white evangelical Christian voting bloc, 81% of whom voted for the Trump/Pence ticket.

Despite the fact that white Christians make up the majority of the American population and the vast majority of those with political power, 80% of white evangelical Americans say they are subject to religious persecution.

John Fea, a professor at Messiah College and author of the book “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” which documents and analyses white evangelical support for Trump, answered “Absolutely, yes” when asked if Trump’s handling of the Brunson case has proved Trump’s Christian bona fides to his evangelical base.

“Religious liberty was one of Trump’s most important campaign promises to American evangelicals. Every time he and Mike Pence weigh in on the Brunson case they score points with this part of his political base,” Fea said.

Stephen Mansfield, a former evangelical pastor and author of a book that also focuses on white, Christian support for Trump, “Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him,” said Trump’s commitment to Brunson’s case was more than evangelicals had hoped for.

Trump and Pence have leveraged Brunson’s identity at every turn when discussing his case and calling for his release. They emphasise his identity, calling him a “wonderful Christian pastor,” “Christian leader” and “a fine gentleman and a Christian who is being persecuted for no reason.”

Mansfield said a significant percentage of American evangelicals were concerned about Brunson’s case before it was taken up by the Trump administration. “Those who pay attention to religious liberty issues around the world were aware,” Mansfield said. “I would say this is about a third of all evangelicals and perhaps half of all evangelical leaders.” Fea said it was evangelical leaders who brought the case to the attention of the Trump administration.

Now that Brunson is all over the mainstream media, in large part thanks to the Trump administration, his profile has risen. Mansfield said, “Churches commonly pray for him by name in their services and post his photo in their lobbies or in printed handouts. Any news about him is mentioned in the social media feeds of prominent religious leaders, both evangelical and mainline.”

Fea mentioned Johnnie Moore, an evangelical public relations and consulting professional and Tony Perkins, of the Christian conservative think-tank and lobbying organisation the Family Research Council, as prominent evangelicals who have tweeted about Brunson. The Family Research Council posted a video about Brunson and Perkin’s advocacy on his behalf to its YouTube page.

Franklin Graham, evangelical missionary, speaker and son of the late Billy Graham, has been one of the most outspoken and active social media advocates for Brunson, tweeting and posting to his Facebook page about Brunson multiple times .

Robert Jeffress, evangelical pastor and radio personality, appeared on the Fox Business Network to speak about Brunson. Both Jeffress and the host, Lou Dobbs, praised Trump’s handling of the case and, while seemingly unaware of the other Americans imprisoned in Turkey, agreed that “an attack on one American is an attack on all Americans.”

Dobbs said that “any American, he or she, abroad should expect their country to stand with them, as this president is obviously doing for pastor Andrew Brunson.”

Mansfield and Fea said evangelicals were happy with the way Trump was handling the Brunson case. “Most evangelicals are surprised at Trump’s fierceness in calling for Brunson’s freedom but they welcome it,” said Mansfield. “Trump has a great deal of support on this issue.” Particularly, he said, because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “is such a despised figure here.”

There do seem to be exceptions to evangelical enthusiasm for the Brunson case. All of the outspoken supporters of Trump represent the white evangelical community. For example, few black or Latino evangelical pastors have taken up Brunson’s cause. However, white evangelicals are Trump’s base and thus it matters little politically if the Brunson case is not resonating with other demographics in the evangelical community.

Trump’s actions on the Brunson case will further cement the bond and paper over Trump’s various perceived sins and legal troubles. White evangelical support was a major factor in Trump winning the presidency and his vociferous support of Brunson may be a deciding factor in handing his party another congressional majority in November.

(This article was initially published by Reprinted with permission)