Evangelical support for Donald Trump may be on the decline. According to a Pew Research Center poll released at the end of last year, the president’s approval rating among white evangelicals dropped 17 percentage points during his first year in office, from 78 percent in February to 61 percent in December. White women’s support for the president is also slipping, threatening his majority with these voters, 53 percent of whom cast their ballots for him in 2016.
The question, of course, is what this will mean for this year’s midterm elections. Will Trump’s declining popularity among these groups translate into more Democratic seats in Congress? A look at the nation’s leading advocacy group for conservative evangelical women reveals deep-seated ambivalence toward Donald Trump, but almost certainly not enough to push these voters across the aisle.
Visit the Concerned Women for American (CWA) website, and you will be greeted by a bold declaration: “This is our Esther moment! Now is the time to stand together and leverage this God-given influence!”
This is the core of CWA’s newest campaign, launched to raise funds and bolster support, in part by highlighting the relationship between this organization and the Trump administration. At the same time, the language of this campaign continues a pattern of CWA support for Trump that is provisional at best and premised almost entirely on the notion that a Republican administration—any Republican administration—is CWA’s best bet for advancing its policy goals.
The banner on the CWA homepage is superimposed over a photo of a White House dinner party, which Trump hosted last September. Each of the thirteen guests is the head of a prominent conservative organization: Americans for Prosperity, the Susan B. Anthony list, the Heritage Foundation, and others. Sitting on Trump’s right—literally at his right hand—is CWA president Penny Nance.
Framed as it is by the announcement of CWA’s newest campaign, this photograph seems to cast Nance in the role of the biblical Queen Esther. A familiar role model for evangelical women, Esther is often invoked as an example of the positive influence that Christian women can wield.
In the biblical story, Esther is a Jewish orphan and second wife of the Persian king Xerxes. (He threw out his first wife, angry at her insubordination). While in the palace, Esther discovers that one of Xerxes’s closest advisors is hatching a plot to exterminate the Jews. Using her influence with the king, she foils the plan and saves her people.
For centuries, Christian women have invoked Esther to demonstrate scriptural precedent for women’s leadership, usually to justify their own leadership in their churches and communities. This story has proven to be an especially powerful strategy for women in conservative communities that emphasize both biblical literalism and traditionalist gender roles.
Nance’s own 2016 book Feisty and Feminine uses the Esther story as a framework for calling conservative women to action. Foreshadowing the language of the current CWA campaign, Nance draws a parallel between the biblical queen and modern Christian women. “The author of the book of Esther reminds us that perhaps we were born ‘for such a time as this’ (4:14),” she writes, “a time to stand tall and explain to a broken culture who we are and what we believe. A time to advocate for all that is true and pure and good.” In other words, an “Esther woman”—according to Nance—is a model CWA member, active in the organization and in her community.
This idea will be familiar for most of Nance’s audience. When CWA began its work in 1979, founder Beverly LaHaye struggled to assure her audience of conservative Christian women that they could be politically active and still be obedient to God. Scriptural examples of women’s leadership helped her to persuade hundreds of thousands of women that their activism was not only permissible—it was a religious duty.
In claiming their right to leadership, some evangelical women have also used the Esther example to throw shade at the men in their communities. Around the same time that CWA was founded, Anita Bryant—best known as a pop singer and spokeswoman for Florida Orange Juice—became the face of a national backlash against the gay liberation movement. In justifying this change in her public role, she invoked Esther and accused conservative Christian men of inaction, saying: “Anytime, throughout the Bible, when God’s men didn’t take their stand … He raised up a woman.”
Though not as explicit, there is also shade in CWA’s “Esther moment.” After all, the Esther story is not only about a strong woman. It is also about a king, with questionable moral judgement, who did not share Esther’s religion, but who could be influenced when it mattered most. By and large, CWA’s rhetoric since 2016 has cast Trump as this kind of king: not ideal based on his own merits but amenable to persuasion from conservative Christian organizations and activists.
Only a month before Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee in May 2016, Nance personally endorsed his rival Ted Cruz. She told HuffPost in April of 2016 that the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be a “horrible” one for conservative women. Responding to Trump’s claim that he would protect Americans from terrorists, Nance retorted: “My question is, who’s gonna protect us from him?”
Once it became clear that Trump would be the Republican candidate for president, Nance softened her rhetoric. In July 2016, she told Politico that she was “supporting” Trump, although she also acknowledged that “it took some time to get here.” She notably did not praise Trump at any point during the interview. Instead, she highlighted her opposition to Clinton and the limits of the two choices that the election offered. (She did not mention the campaign’s third-party candidates.). “We can’t just stand by and allow Hillary Clinton to be our next president,” she insisted.
CWA’s email newsletters followed a similar pattern in the lead-up to the election. They focused on down-ballot races and on CWA’s longstanding partnerships with Republican legislators. They highlighted important issues like abortion and the open Supreme Court seat. Occasionally, they criticized Hillary Clinton directly. They did all of this without ever mentioning Trump by name. Taken as a whole, their message was clear: Voting for the Republican nominee was imperative, regardless of who that nominee was.
When Trump was inaugurated, Nance was there. Her “favorite moment,” she reported in an email to supporters, “was seeing the great conservative Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas, administer the oath of office to Vice President Mike Pence, using President Ronald Reagan’s Bible.” Trump is notably absent from this moment, and from its list of conservative heavy hitters.
When Nance mentioned Trump later in the same email, it was to muse about whether he would “keep his promise to name a true pro-life conservative” to the Supreme Court. Nance reported being hopeful, but concluded: “And yet, our job is to be ever vigilant.”
Just over a year later, Trump has earned some respect from Nance and her organization. In nominating Neil Gorsuch, Trump fulfilled his promise regarding the Supreme Court. In addition, he has continued to nominate conservative judges throughout the lower courts. Nance has also celebrated the president’s positions on transgender issues, from his tweeted remarks about trans military personnel to his decision rescinding the Obama-era directive regarding trans students and bathroom choice in public schools. Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city aligns closely with CWA’s own staunch support of Israel.
But even as the organization has lauded specific achievements under this administration, CWA publications and spokespeople have totally sidestepped the issue of Trump’s character. CWA constantly monitors mainstream and left-leaning media, and often publishes direct responses to stories with which it disagrees. In August, for example, Nance took to the CWA blog to ridicule Newsweek for a story on Ivanka and Melania Trump’s preference for stiletto heels. It’s notable, then, that there have been no similar attempts to defend Trump’s honor despite frequently raised questions about his moral fortitude, most recently the scandal surrounding his alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels.
Back in July 2016, Nance told Politico: “None of us are deluded into thinking [Trump is] a Bible-banging evangelical.” She made it very clear that her support for Trump was premised on pragmatism, and not on any kind of affinity for the man himself. Nearly a year and a half later, Nance and CWA have moved toward a closer relationship with the Trump administration but there is nothing in any of their rhetoric to indicate that they have left their personal qualms about Trump behind. Even in the photo on the CWA homepage, which features Trump front and center, his back is to the camera. He is unmistakable, but it is his role as president that is the point here, along with Nance’s proximity to power. Any Republican president could occupy the seat at the head of that table, and the effect would be the same.
And this is why the language of CWA’s Esther campaign is so instructive. It notably does not ask evangelical women to accept Trump’s more questionable behavior—wherever individual supporters may draw that line. Instead, it tells them that they can make substantial political gains by working with this White House, even if they have to hold their noses while they do it. In other words, this campaign tells CWA’s conservative evangelical base that they do not need to approve of Trump in order to keep supporting the Trump administration. Any Republican is better than any Democrat, it insists. And a less-than-ideal king can be influenced by the right women in “such a time as this.”
Emily S. Johnson is assistant professor of U.S. history at Ball State University. Her research focuses on evangelical women’s political leadership since the 1970s.