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This pastor is telling evangelicals that Trump isn't their only option

Donald Trump
Donald Trump in July 2023.

Donald Trump owes much of his presidential win in 2016 to evangelical Christian voters, who overwhelmingly supported him, despite the fact that he’s not an evangelical and often fails to uphold their purported values. 

He did it in a few ways, but Doug Pagitt says it had a lot to do with who he said he would appoint to his cabinet — from Betsy DeVos, to Ben Carson, to Mike Pence.

Pagitt is an evangelical pastor who has spent the years since Trump was elected traveling the country, trying to convince evangelicals that they don’t have to vote for him. He’s the executive director of the group Vote Common Good, and they’ll be in Arizona on the border hosting events next month

The Show spoke with Pagitt about his work, his motivation and the issues at hand — including abortion. The conversation was recorded before Trump changed his position on abortion laws and said he supports letting the states decide the issue. Pagitt also talked about how Trump gained the trust of evangelicals who were initially very skeptical of him.

Full interview

DOUG PAGITT: Evangelicals don't just want their candidate to be like them. In fact, Donald Trump in so many ways is nothing like an evangelical, culturally, religiously socially. But they do want, evangelicals do want candidates to like them and to pay attention to them and to reach out to them.  And now that's just true for everybody, you know, all of us. And so Donald Trump communicated very clearly to this group that he needed them and that they needed him. And so he's willing to make a bargain. Now, what that did for evangelicals was just fueled them to a whole new, whole new level.

LAUREN GILGER: Hmm. So now you're finding it seems that many in this religious community, in this evangelical community in particular are, are what you're calling politically homeless, right? Which is a phrase we've heard a lot in the last several years in politics. But I wonder why you think this particular population seems to have moved away, at least some people in it have moved away from Trump. What do you think's driven that?

PAGITT: Yeah, we think that 10% maybe, maybe 15% of those evangelicals have moved away from support, supporting Donald Trump. We know that happens in pockets of support for Donald Trump around the country, like in west Michigan, in the suburbs of, of Phoenix and places in Pennsylvania moved away from Donald Trump at a higher rate, 10 or 15% and enough for Donald Trump to gain somewhere between 72 and 74%. Some people want to argue 76% of evangelical support in 2020, compared to nearly 81% in 2016.

Well, first of all, that percentage drop is a big number because there's just a lot of self identified evangelicals, and Donald Trump needed every one of them and he lost them. Now, now part of what was going on and we asked voters who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 as Christians and self identified evangelicals, why they were not going to support him in the coming election in 2020. And they all gave us their reasons. And basically, it came down to, I didn't think I had another choice in 2016. I had never not voted for a Republican. I'd never considered voting for a Democrat. So I was in a bit of a pickle. And secondly, they would say I didn't think he would actually do and say the things as president that he was doing and saying as the candidate. We thought he would become more presidential. And just enough of these folks started to feel like I don't feel very good knowing now what I know compared to what I knew in 2016.

And then we also did a poll, we did a big survey in 2020 of these voters. And the thing that came up mostly was Donald Trump's lack of kindness as president. So we know that politics is so much an identity issue, not so much a policy issue or a topic issue or an idea issue. And that's what started to strike so close. 

GILGER: So you started this organization, you start vote common good to sort of speak to those voters and let them know that there, there are other alternatives, right? Like they do not have to default, vote for the Republican candidate. I want to know. And you've been traveling the country doing this, you've been in Arizona on the border, which we'll talk more about. But tell me just a little bit about the kind of religious conversations you have with people. I'm interested in the maybe the moral or the values kinds of conversations you have with these religious voters when it comes to trying to open them up to this other possibility.

PAGITT: I was talking to one voter at about the border and we were down at the border and protesters were there and, and this person said to me, how come those these other people from the town there who were visiting, how come these, these folks think badly of me as a Trump supporter? Like they really didn't understand it. And I said, well, I think on this issue it's because Donald Trump says things like immigrants are poisoning the blood line of America. And the person said, well, Trump didn't say that. I said, oh, yeah, no, he did like just this last week and, and he said, oh, show me where, where, where he said that you have a phone in your hand, show me. So I pulled up an article with a quote and showed it to him and he said, well, that's someone saying that he said that, but that's not him saying it. So then I got the video, showed him the video and then he said, OK, he said that once, but that might not have been what he meant.

Now, in one way, I could take that as here's someone who's just in what is referred to often as cognitive dissidents, right? If they hear something, see something that doesn't match what they believe to be true and they just set aside or, and this is not only I think the more charitable way to think of it, but I think the more accurate way they fundamentally do not want to believe that Donald Trump does those things, says those things intends those things acts in a way that's violent. And why don't they? Because they know that that's immoral or wrong and it starts to violate their own conscience.

GILGER: Hmm. How does something like abortion play into this, Doug?

PAGITT: It's the primary value system that says to someone I'm a good person and, and I get that, you know,, you, you pick your topic and if you think, and believe very deeply that you're supporting the most vulnerable by your opinions about, you know, you would call pro-life or anti abortion opinions. Well, that, that's really important. Like I, I really hope people are defending the vulnerable, you know, and if, if they have a world and a system that tells them that this is the only way that it makes sense. That's, that's what they're doing. Now, unfortunately, it serves as a stand in for being moral.

And then when you ask these same voters, hey, abortion is your number one issue. So, other than voting for a Republican, whenever possible or not, voting for a Democrat, what else do you do on this issue? If you believe it is a moral crisis of our age and your only response to a moral crisis is to not vote for a Democrat. That could be the most immoral response to a moral crisis I could think of. And, and I have a, I have friends who are big in the, you know, the, the pro-life movement and the pregnancy center movement and all that. And they're begging all these people who say they're single issue voters to help them and to support them and to support, you know, women and girls who, who need support after choosing to allow a pregnancy to continue on, they're begging for that help and they don't get it.

So rather than our approach is not to call people hypocrites. But what you can do is say to people, could you expand your sense of what's good and right. So we have helped a lot of people think differently about their view on abortion because for many of them, if they're gonna act different politically, they really do have to resolve that issue. They, they, it's for some, it's just too much and they can't leave it out there.

GILGER: So I want to ask you then. So if you were going around the country and you're spending a lot of time in these places, particularly on, in these Arizona border towns talking to people who are Trump voters, right, who are evangelical trying to turn them away from that? Do you get met with a lot of hostility?

PAGITT: Some, some hostility, a lot of doubt and a lot of dismissal, and we tend to put ourselves in situations where it could be hostile. We've been on the border in Arizona when the, the self appointed militia want to put themselves there. And we, we, we engage in those, in those situations, and shockingly to me, and I think comes as a bit of a surprise to others, there is still room for very meaningful conversation with these people. And very often these folks have never spoken to someone who holds their religious orientation and thinks differently on these issues than they do now there.

It, it, it has been hostile. We've had people interrupt our events that we do. We had to, you know, negotiate with Proud Boys and then sit in a bar and do a long conversation with them about all this stuff. So like we're in the situa, we're, we're not dodging them. And even in those circumstances, there is a way for human connection and empathy and finding the shared experience that we are all in. 

GILGER: All right, we will leave it there. That is Doug Pagitt, evangelical pastor and executive director of Vote Common Good, joining us. Doug thank you so much for taking the time. It's been a really interesting conversation.

PAGITT: It's been a real pleasure speaking with you. Thanks so much.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.