Claire Sadar
Aug 30 2018

Trump scores big points with the Evangelical base over pastor Brunson case - experts

Beginning in April of this year, U.S. President Donald Trump began tweeting about a particular American citizen who had been imprisoned in Turkey since shortly his 2016 election victory.

Andrew Brunson is just one of several Americans who were arrested and imprisoned in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, charged with supporting the Islamist Gülen movement that is accused of carrying out the military bid to overthrow the Turkish government, and/or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since 1984.

But only Brunson’s case has garnered belated public outrage on the part of the current U.S. administration. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have used the Brunson case as an opportunity 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 being a 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 percent of whom voted for the Trump/Pence ticket in the last election. Despite the fact that white Christians make up the majority of the American population, and the vast majority of those with political power, 80 percent of white evangelical Americans believe they are subject to religious persecution.

John Fea, 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 told Ahval.

Stephen Mansfield, a former evangelical pastor and author, most recently of the book that also focuses on white, Christian support for Trump, “Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him”, told Ahval that 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. Not only do they always refer to him as pastor, they further 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.”

According to Mansfield, a significant percentage of American evangelicals were aware of and concerned about Brunson’s case before it was taken up by the current 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 first 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 even further. 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 two prominent evangelicals who have tweeted about Brunson. The Family Research Council also posted a video about Brunson and Perkin’s advocacy on his behalf to their 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 Fox Business 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 currently imprisoned in Turkey, agreed that “an attack on one Americans is an attack on all Americans.” Dobbs went on to say 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.”

Both Mansfield and Fea said that Jeffress and Dobbs were not alone and that 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, since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “is such a despised figure here”.

Franklin Graham

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. But white evangelicals are Trump’s base and thus it matters little politically if the Brunson case is not resonating with other demographics within 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.