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Evangelical Voters In N.C. Discuss Trump's Divisive Comments On Race


Evangelical Protestants are the nation's largest religious group, and white evangelicals make up 1 out of every 5 voters. This is a group of voters that Trump has spent a lot of time courting. So we went to Fayetteville, N.C., to hear from those voters about how they believe Trump has delivered for them.


DAVID CLARKE: He's building up the military. He's building up the nation. He's building up the churches. He's saying God bless you every now and then.


Most evangelicals are white, but not all. And the voters who met with us at the Arran Lake Baptist Church were a racially mixed group, in agreement on issues like restricting abortion access and LGBTQ rights, divided over Trump's so-called character issues.

DICK BUTTON: We were supposed to be dealing with, how does faith affect our politics? And we've turned it into - in this room, we've started to turn it into a lynch President Trump.

CORNISH: Take that word lynch - perfect example. Seventy-two-year-old Dick Button is using Trump's language about the House impeachment inquiry, the kind of language that doesn't sit well with the black churchgoers in the room.

MARCUS BELT: He makes it extraordinarily hard.


BELT: It's kind of the elephant in the room pertaining to the president.

CORNISH: Marcus Belt is the first to bring this up. He's 48 years old, African American and a recently retired Army special operations veteran.


BELT: If you ask a segment of white evangelicals what they think about him and then you ask a segment of African American or minority evangelicals what they think about him, you might get vastly different opinions.

That's become polarizing even within our congregations, to a certain degree.

CORNISH: Belt actually likes that Trump signed a criminal justice bill shortening sentences for some drug offenders but looks to Trump's track record on race and sees no good. And he's not alone. The Pew Research Center has found that 87% of black Protestants they polled disapproved of the president's performance. But when I try to ask about how these uncomfortable conversations play out in their churches, 89-year-old David Clarke, who is white, says...

CLARKE: If you cut me right down the middle and you cut him right down the middle and pull the skin back, we're the same. We're the same.

CORNISH: But yeah - go ahead.

BELT: No. It's been like a Rorschach test within our congregations, and it very starkly breaks down by ethnicity. And it's amazing because up until the current president, I wouldn't have thought that we would see things so differently because typically, we tend to be about the same socioeconomic status, and we tend to be more alike than dissimilar in all other domains other than, you know, how well we tan. But this particular administration has - but most importantly, it's pointed out that we have some significant work to do within our congregations because we're not a family in the way that we profess that we should be.

CORNISH: This is where David Carlson breaks into the conversation. He's 17, he's white and 2020 will be his first election. He says the media is too focused on what he calls Trump's wild comments.

DAVID CARLSON: The question was talking about whether, you know, we're having to have these uncomfortable conversations. And the answer is, absolutely.

CORNISH: And I don't just mean race, by the way. That came up, but that's not the only thing, you know, you want to bring up.

CARLSON: Absolutely. And I think if he would just shut his mouth, things would be so much better because if you look at the numbers, if you do look at what he's doing, we're seeing African American unemployment - actually, unemployment across the board - incredibly low. We're seeing the economy, the stock market incredibly high. The only problem with the Trump administration right now is really just his speaking.

PEARLIE HODGES: Pearlie Hodges - several times it's been said, if he would just keep his mouth shut. Out of the heart, the mouth speaks.

CORNISH: That's from the Bible in the New Testament, both books Matthew and Luke. Many in the room nod in recognition.

HODGES: It's in his heart. That's why it's coming out. And I think one of the most important issues that we have to address is the divide - the racial divide. Money is good. You know, all of that is fine. But if we are destroyed as a nation, what does it matter? I mean, what really does it matter? It's hurtful. A president doesn't understand or a person from the South doesn't understand what the connotation of a Confederate flag is. It's hurtful. And some don't even want to know. So when you say, oh, it's heritage, no, it's hatred.

CORNISH: So that's another sort of issue of the day.

BELT: Or when the president defines his impeachment proceedings as a lynching.

CARLSON: Lynching is an actual political term.

BELT: I'm sorry. What?

CORNISH: David Carlson jumps in again.

CARLSON: Look. Lynching means a unjustified prosecution. It is not only about...

BELT: Wow, young man. I was absolutely unaware of that. Thank you. Thank you for that bit of information.

CARLSON: It's not only about the absolute, like, hanging of people and, specifically in the past, African American slaves.

BELT: We're not even talking about African American slaves. Do you know who Emmett Till was, young man?


BELT: Emmett Till.

CARLSON: Not off the top of my...

BELT: Every black man in this room knows who Emmett Till is. If you know who Emmett Till is, you would not describe a political process as a lynching.

CORNISH: The context here - there have been decades of efforts to improve racial integration, especially among some newer evangelical churches. But just last year, The New York Times reported on black worshippers leaving their churches, in part, due to the silence on Trump.

In this room, it's Trump's comments on police brutality, protests in the NFL, insults of black lawmakers and the treatment of black demonstrators at his rallies. And the conversation goes back and forth about how and whether churches should address it. Again, black churchgoer Pearlie Hodges.

HODGES: It's so divisive because no one wants to say Donald Trump is this or Donald Trump is that. We're afraid.

CORNISH: All right. Here's 27-year-old youth pastor Andrew Clark. He's our host at Arran Lake Baptist Church. He says it's an open question about how and whether to talk about Trump and race.

ANDREW CLARK: Going back to the original question, you were talking about political lines and then one party affiliating with a group versus another, if I remember correctly. We have to understand, I think, in the evangelical or in the Christian community, there is divisiveness there. There is divisiveness between racial lines. Absolutely. I think that's stuff that has been there, and I think that's stuff that we as - in the Christian community have done a poor job of coming around one another and gathering around the table and having those discussions. I think that racial reconciliation and things like that are very, very important.

And I know we've said it in here. Yeah, there's - we are all and the same. But yeah, there is that tension. But we should run to that tension rather than run from it. And I think a lot of cases in the Christian community - we've ran from that tension rather than to address those issues and how we can be more about coming together.

CORNISH: I end the conversation there because the divisions of race won't be solved here - not on a Tuesday night in the Bible study classroom of Arran Lake Baptist Church. We move on to politics, impeachment, why they fear Democrats. And after we wrap up, I say thanks, and they begin to leave. Then something else happens that I should have expected but, given the tense moments, didn't. They ask if they can pray.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can we have a prayer before we leave?

CORNISH: They join hands. Pastor William Neil takes the lead.

WILLIAM NEIL: Let us pray.

CORNISH: And with heads bowed, they set aside the tensions of the night.

NEIL: We can differ without being indifferent, and we can disagree without being disagreeable. So we ask now that you would touch our hearts, that we leave here - we are free of all malice. We are free of anything that would hinder us from being lovable to one another. It is in that name, Jesus Christ, that we pray. Amen.


CORNISH: That's William Neil, Andrew Clark, David Carlson, Marcus Belt, Pearlie Hodges and David Clarke, evangelical voters. We spoke to them in Fayetteville, N.C. And our stories from North Carolina were produced by Art Silverman.

(SOUNDBITE OF GACHA BAKRADZE'S "RIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.