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Evangelical Voters Weigh In On What's At Stake In November's Election

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Vice President Mike Pence often quotes the Bible in his speeches. Pence referenced this passage in the Old Testament during a surprise visit to the Republican National Convention on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: I just can't help but think of those ancient words. Who am I? And who is my family that you've brought us this far? And I want to thank you for the honor of this day.

(APPLAUSE)

GREENE: Pence has helped President Trump shore up white evangelical voters. And as the vice president gets ready to address the GOP convention tonight, NPR's Sarah McCammon speaks with some of those evangelical voters.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: It's Sunday morning before the Republican National Convention, a time when many delegates would be in church. So they're doing the next best thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's do a little pray song, "God Is So Good."

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) God is good. God is so good.

MCCAMMON: A couple dozen mostly white evangelical delegates are spaced out several feet apart in this hotel conference room in uptown Charlotte, some wearing masks. They sing praise songs and say prayers for the upcoming convention and the November election.

GINGER HOWARD: And, God, Joe Biden has been saying, we're in the battle for the soul of a nation. But, oh, no. We are in the battle between good and evil. And we will not let him hijack that term in the name of Jesus.

MCCAMMON: Ginger Howard, an RNC delegate from Georgia, prays that evangelical voters will turn out in force.

HOWARD: We ask in the name of Jesus that you would touch their hearts and if they are not registered to vote, they would register.

MCCAMMON: Four years ago, many evangelicals expressed misgivings about Trump's moral character and language. But for some, like Janssen Willhoit, a delegate from Vermont, that's changed. In 2016, Willhoit was a delegate for former Ohio Governor John Kasich, a vocal critic of Trump who spoke at the Democratic National Convention this year.

JANSSEN WILLHOIT: My church loved me four years ago for going there and staying strong in my convictions. But I'll be honest with you, they're not Kasich fans now.

MCCAMMON: Willhoit also has come around. Like many evangelicals, he says Trump has followed through on the things he promised four years ago, including efforts to restrict abortion. As a whole, white evangelical voters have largely continued to favor Trump even as his support among other groups has slipped.

WILLHOIT: I do hope and pray that our president is reelected so that what is good, what is right, what is true can prevail.

MCCAMMON: Jason Ballard (ph) is a Southern Baptist pastor at a church outside Charlotte. He also sees the election as an important battle in an escalating war between good and evil. He wasn't an early Trump supporter either. But to him, Trump is holding the line against cultural changes he finds disturbing.

JASON BALLARD: I think our Christian values are being assaulted by culture. And I think we need someone who is willing to stand up and say, this does not reflect what I believe.

MCCAMMON: Ballard and other evangelicals point to things like anti-discrimination protections requiring vendors to provide services for same-sex weddings and social distancing rules that have limited church gatherings during the pandemic.

BALLARD: And, I think, the fear that we have is that, ultimately, that anytime I preach that if you don't believe in Christ and his death on the cross, his resurrection, you're going to hell - that's going to turn into hate speech.

MCCAMMON: Eliana and Jamie Smith (ph) recently moved from Charlotte across the state line to a quiet, semi-rural neighborhood in York, S.C.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Aw, man.

JAMIE SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's peace and quiet when the kids aren't running around.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAMMON: His wife, Eliana Smith, is wearing a shirt that says love life in big letters with a drawing that looks like a fetus in the womb. Smith was disturbed by the Obama administration's efforts to require health insurers to cover contraception. She points to litigation from religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns that has fought for an exception to that rule. That group won their case at the Supreme Court this summer thanks in large part to justices appointed by Trump.

ELIANA SMITH: And I feel like he is the only one that's kind of keeping it at bay and saying, no, no, no. We're going to continue to do Christmas. And we're going to protect religious freedoms. And we're not going to force the Little Sisters to do what they don't feel is right for them to do.

MCCAMMON: Most theologically conservative Trump supporters are white. But there are exceptions. Eliana is Hispanic. She was born in Colombia. And her husband, Jamie, is Black. Eliana says she doesn't see Trump as a racist. Although, she doesn't like everything she hears.

E SMITH: But once again, that goes back to, am I more interested in having a man who's articulate and can tweet everything perfectly? Or am I interested in having a president whose policies will support my Christian agenda?

MCCAMMON: Many conservative evangelical voters feel Trump has delivered on that agenda. And they're even more eager to vote for him this time around and defend the ground they've gained over the last four years.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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