Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Trump on Tuesday, saying the real estate mogul is the best chance to “lead our country to greatness again.”
How did a candidate whom only 30 percent of Americans view as very or somewhat religious get such a critical endorsement from the evangelical leader? It seems that when it comes to Trump, religion matters less than it does with other candidates.
Among Republicans, only 5 percent say they think Trump is very religious, and an additional 39 percent say he’s somewhat religious. Forty-seven percent say he’s not too religious or not at all religious. By comparison, 70 percent of Republicans think Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is very or somewhat religious, which increases to 76 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and 80 percent for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Despite his low marks on religiosity, 56 percent of Republicans say that Trump would make a good or great president. That proportion rises to 59 percent among white evangelical Protestant Republican voters. Carson and Cruz get slightly higher marks, with 62 percent and 63 percent respectively, but those numbers aren’t significantly higher than Trump’s.
Even if evangelical primary voters don't see Trump as religious, he's worked hard to get into their good graces, casting himself as a defender of Christianity against malign forces.
"Christianity, it's under siege," he recently told a crowd composed mostly of students from Liberty University, the evangelical college where Cruz announced his bid for the presidency last year.
That may appeal to voters who feel increasingly disenfranchised.
“Trump is painting a bigger picture -- a kind of appeal to nostalgia and to a mythical golden age that he wants to bring back in America that is very appealing to evangelicals," Robert Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, told Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent last month. "Evangelicals strongly believe American culture has changed for the worse."
There are some signs that Trump's strategy is working. CBS and YouGov's most recent poll of the Iowa primary finds Trump gaining modestly among evangelical voters, partially at Cruz's expense, although he still lags behind. NBC and SurveyMonkey found a similar shift among white evangelicals nationally.
"A lot of people come to Iowa and try to be evangelical. Voters can see through that. Donald Trump doesn't care about being anything but himself. ... Evangelicals haven't coalesced behind any one candidate, and Trump has capitalized on this," David Andersen, a political science professor at Iowa State University, told Bloomberg News.