Following the recent escalation between Turkey and the U.S., the influence of evangelical groups have on U.S. foreign policy during Donald Trump's term have been brought to the fore, yet again.
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Tensions between Ankara and Washington were triggered by arrest of American evangelist pastor Andrew Craig Brunson. Evangelists, who are considered among the significant political figures in the U.S., have become the most debated group after the U.S. decided to relocate its embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and a Turkey-U.S. crisis that occurred following the trial of Andrew Brunson, who faces terrorism charges in Turkey.
While President Trump was voted in office by a deeply religious Christian group, the influence Vice President Mike Pence, who is an evangelist, has in the White House and, the approaching midterm elections are the leading subjects pondered by evangelists and their influence in the U.S.
- What is Evangelism?
Evangelism, which means "teaching and spreading the Bible" in Christianity, is regarded as one of the most common sects among Christians in the U.S. While the evangelists compose 25 percent of population, they are also known as Christian Zionists.
White evangelists traditionally support the Republican Party for being “more religious". The greatest support they have provided in recent elections was to Trump.
Evangelical support during the 2004 presidential elections was 78 percent in favor of George Bush while 74 percent voted for John McCain in 2008. Mitt Romney was received 78 percent in the 2012 elections. On the other hand, Donald Trump had received 81 percent from evangelicals in the 2016 elections.
In the U.S. where Republican candidates are viewed as more religious in comparison with Democrats, it was quite remarkable that evangelicals provided the greatest support to Donald Trump, who was speculated not to know "a single verse of the Bible".
- Ethical debate over evangelical support for Trump
That the unconventional Republican candidate Donald Trump was backed by Christians -- "who live by directly following the Bible" -- despite the claims accusing him of immorality, lying and bribing led to the ethical discussion among evangelical.
Priest Jim Wallis, an evangelical leader in the U.S, in one of his critical commentaries said: "Supporting Trump is a moral struggle for Christians. I didn't back him up so that he would commit immorality."
On the other hand, some evangelical priests claim that "the president was forgiven." Jerry Falwell in a statement to CNN called on Christians to "forgive the president", saying that the claims against him were based on events of years ago.
Priest Tony Perkins, speaking to Politico magazine, said: "The President should be given a second chance because he led the agenda of Evangelists."
- Approach on Israel and Jerusalem
On the other side, it is evaluated that evangelicals played a huge role in the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Yariv Levin, the Israeli Minister of Tourism, in a statement in April said tourism in Israel broke records. He said Israel was visited by 3.6 million people in 2017. According to the information by the U.S. press, nearly 800,000 Americans visited Israel in 2017 and most of the visitors were evangelicals.
- Theological basis of evangelicals
Evangelicals believe that Israel, in 1948, was established "in accordance with the teachings of Bible" and "Jesus Christ would again come back to life in these lands" then "the end of the world" would appear this way.
Based on these theological reasons, evangelicals are regarded as the most significant political elements of the "sharp" policy the Trump administration has followed on Jerusalem and Israel topics.
Evangelist Priest Robert Jeffress, who performed prayers during the ceremony after the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem, told CNN that "throughout the history, Jerusalem has been a target for Jews and Christians."
Donald Trump promised during his election campaign that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem "as the capital of Israel" once he was elected. After the support Trump obtained from evangelicals, he fulfilled his promise.
Speaking to Vox news portal, Elizabeth Oldmixon, a professor at North Texas University, said "Trump's decision to relocate the U.S. embassy was not political, but related to Evangelists' religious reasons."
"In the belief of the Christian Zionists [Evangelicals], it is believed that God gave the sacred lands to Jews, forever," she said.
- Influence of Mike Pence
That evangelicals have such direct influence over the Trump administration is also directly related to Vice President Mike Pence.
Having identified himself as an "Evangelist Catholic" during his time as Governor of Indiana, Pence recently called himself as a "Christian, Conservative and Republican", appealing to wider portion of the population.
The American public defines Pence as a man who is "religious", "conservative", "hateful towards homosexuals". He is regarded as one of the "most opposing figures against abortion in the U.S." and a person "who doesn't enjoy being alone with women apart from his wife".
Undoubtedly, Pence's position in the office as vice president pleased the religious communities in the U.S., particularly evangelists. In fact, Richard Land, one of Trump's advisors, who also serves as the principal of the Southern Evangelist Priest School, addressed Pence as "24-carat gold who contains what they [evangelists] want to see in a politician."
Therefore, having influence over the White House and Trump through Pence, evangelicals are "pressuring" to have a result on the Brunson issue.
- Upcoming midterm Congress elections
However, the evangelical nature of Pence is not the sole reason for the "crooked" scene that appeared following the Brunson issue. With midterm elections in November approaching, the Brunson topic serves as a significant "domestic policy dynamic".
Given that Trump has passed 1.5 years in the office, the Republicans have to be successful in November elections so that Trump could continue his policies smoothly and gain an advantage in the 2020 presidential elections.
In this crucial period, Trump and Pence do not want to seem unsuccessful in the eyes of religious voters who turned the Brunson issue into "a matter of pride", and pay the price in the congress elections.
In addition, U.S. media outlets' coverage of the story suggests another perspective on the issue. It is claimed that "Trump and Pence will save Brunson, who has become a symbol for evangelists, from prison and create a perception of success before the voters and gain points by bringing him to the U.S."