White Evangelical Women, Core Supporters of Trump, Begin Tiptoeing Away

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Carol Rains, left, an evangelical Christian in Texas, doesn’t regret her vote for President Trump but would like to see another Republican run against him in 2020. Her friend Linda Leonhart agrees: “I will definitely take a look to see who has the courage to take on a job like this and do what needs to be done.”

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Allison V. Smith for The New York Times

GRAPEVINE, Tex. — Carol Rains, a white evangelical Christian, has no regrets over her vote for President Trump. She likes most of his policies and would still support him over any Democrat. But she is open to another Republican.

“I would like for someone to challenge him,” Ms. Rains said, as she sipped wine recently with two other evangelical Christian women at a suburban restaurant north of Dallas. “But it needs to be somebody that’s strong enough to go against the Democrats.” Her preferred alternative: Nikki R. Haley, the United Nations ambassador and former South Carolina governor.

One of her friends, Linda Leonhart, agreed. “I will definitely take a look to see who has the courage to take on a job like this and do what needs to be done,” she said.

While the men in the pulpits of evangelical churches remain among Mr. Trump’s most stalwart supporters, some of the women in the pews may be having second thoughts. As the White House fights to silence a pornographic actress claiming an affair with Mr. Trump, and a jailed Belarusian escort claims evidence against the American president, Mr. Trump’s hold on white evangelical women may be slipping.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, support among white evangelical women in recent surveys has dropped about 13 percentage points, to 60 percent, compared with about a year ago. That is even greater than the eight-point drop among all women.

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“That change is statistically significant,” said Gregory A. Smith, Pew’s associate director of research, who also noted a nine-point drop among evangelical men. “Both groups have become less approving over time.”

If that drop in support translates into a lack of enthusiasm among core Trump supporters in the midterm elections in November, as it did for many of President Barack Obama’s voters in 2010, the Republican Party could be more vulnerable in its efforts to maintain control of Congress. In 2020, it would also possibly open a lane for a primary challenger to the president.

The women in suburban Dallas all conceded they have cringed sometimes at Mr. Trump, citing his pettiness, impulsiveness, profanity and name calling. Still, they defended him because he delivered on issues they cared most about, such as the appointment of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

“Certainly we are all embarrassed, but for the most part he represents what we stand for,” said Ms. Leonhart, who is active in the women’s ministry at her church.

A clear majority of white evangelical women, even in the face of the #MeToo movement and renewed claims of marital infidelity against the president, continue, along with white evangelical men, to form Mr. Trump’s most cohesive block of support.

Mr. Trump’s ability to connect so strongly with evangelical voters was among the most notable surprises of the 2016 campaign. Since his election, he has courted evangelical leaders aggressively and, more important, has delivered on promises to appoint conservatives like Justice Gorsuch to federal courts. Men who see themselves as leaders of religious conservatives, such as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, have remained doggedly supportive.

And the majority of evangelical women remain in his corner.

But it has not been easy.

“I don’t know any evangelical woman who is going to defend the character of the president,” said Carmen Fowler LaBerge, host of “The Reconnect,” an evangelical-centered radio show.

“Many things the president says and does are things that many evangelicals use as examples with our kids of what should not do,” added Ms. LaBerge, who did not support Mr. Trump in 2016. “This is not who we are as evangelicals. This is not how we treat people.”

Some evangelical women simply keep their views private. Gathered at a well-appointed home in Falls Church, Va., last week, eight Christian women agreed to talk about their feelings about the president, on one condition: that they not be identified.

They feared reprisal in the workplace, at their children’s schools, even at their church. They meet in secret and have a private Facebook group, which its organizer said has about 160 members, to talk about their support for Mr. Trump.

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They said that Christian voters who backed Trump had been derided as unthinking, unsophisticated hypocrites, but for many of them that only affirmed their resolve. One of the women said that her parents had come to the United States illegally from El Salvador and that she was born a short time later. Her father is now a citizen. She supports Mr. Trump and his hard-line plans on immigration.

“I would say that this year has only made me more of a certain supporter,” said another of the women, Joanna, who agreed to be identified only be her first name. “I’ve been really excited to see him come through with his promises, one by one, against incredible odds.”

Still, there is a tension among evangelical women. They said they largely cast their votes against Hillary Clinton more than for Mr. Trump.

“At least in my experience, it was more of an anti-Hillary vote than a pro-Trump vote,” Ms. LaBerge said.

Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University who opposed Mr. Trump and voted for a third-party candidate, said, “Now that Trump is in office and we are evaluating his performance then, I am glad to see that people are less in lock step and thinking critically about him as a leader, and it doesn’t surprise me that his overall support would decline from 80 percent.”

“I was one of those culture war evangelicals in the ’80s and ’90s,” Ms. Swallow Prior said. “I was appalled by the candidacy and presidency of Bill Clinton. It was hammered into my mind that character mattered, and that did change when Trump came along. In some ways, I felt betrayed by my evangelical peers who taught me and cemented in me the idea that character matters. I didn’t abandon that belief. I feel like some evangelicals did.”

Her outspoken criticism is all the more notable given that the president of Liberty University, Mr. Falwell, remains one of the president’s most vocal defenders.

Evangelical voters, often portrayed as a monolith, are becoming increasingly difficult to define. The support for Mr. Trump reflects a growing pragmatism among evangelical voters who are willing to accept a less than ideal model of Christian faith in exchange for policies that they endorse.

“I think they’ve become experienced and very practical,” said Frances FitzGerald, the author of the recent book “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.” “By large majorities they used to believe that to be elected, you had to be of good character. No longer. It’s ‘We want a president to do what we want him to do, and he’s going to do it if we turn out and vote.’”

Mr. Trump also appeals to white evangelicals in other ways with his strong language, disruptive view of presidential norms and his policies on taxes. “Religious right rhetoric has always been very martial, isolationist and martial at the same time,” Ms. FitzGerald said.

In surveys conducted by LifeWay Research in Nashville, evangelical voters in 2016 cited the economy (30 percent) and national security (26 percent) as their top two issues. Abortion was cited by just 4 percent, said Scott McConnell, the company’s executive director.

Evangelical voters began to emerge as a political force with their support for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and became a more coherent movement with the 1988 presidential campaign of the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and the rise of Christian Coalition. But there are now few obvious leaders of religious conservatism and voters have become more conventional in their assessment of candidates.

And even among religious conservatives, the Pew poll suggests tolerance for Mr. Trump has its limits.

“It may simply be that there’s not a single breaking point as much as a tipping point, the ‘Oh Lord, I can’t stand another one of these,’” said William Martin, a scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and author of “With God on Our Side,” which charted the political rise of the religious right.

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