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Chris Martinson placed his bible in his car as he left Familiar Grounds Coffee Shop and made his way to Victory Church for Sunday service.
Chris Martinson placed his bible in his car as he left Familiar Grounds Coffee Shop and made his way to Victory Church for Sunday service. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff
Chris Martinson placed his bible in his car as he left Familiar Grounds Coffee Shop and made his way to Victory Church for Sunday service. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Trump’s evangelical support mystifies his critics, but in Wisconsin, it looks stronger than ever

Photographs by Jessica Rinaldi

NEW LONDON, Wis.—After it was clear that neither of her preferred candidates, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, was going to be elected president in 2016, Linda Behm prayed.

Behm is an evangelical Christian and keeps a calendar filled with volunteer shifts at a thrift store and a food pantry in this small community an hour away from Green Bay. She wasn’t sure about supporting Donald J. Trump, the New York business magnate with a penchant for insults and crude behavior. But after asking God whether she should back him or Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election, she decided Trump was the lesser of two evils.

These days, Behm, 69, finds the president to be coarse and exasperating, especially his tweets — and she took issue with his summertime missive urging four Democratic congresswoman of color to “go back” to other countries.

“We should be treating them like Christ should treat them,” Behm said. “Trump has to figure that out.”

Religious and political items were tacked up inside of Chris Martinson's home office.
Religious and political items were tacked up inside of Chris Martinson's home office. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

But still, she feels better than ever about her decision to vote for the president, because she thinks he has delivered on the two issues she cares most about: curtailing abortion rights and protecting Israel. Behm expects to vote for Trump again in 2020.

“He’s our only choice,” she said.

In 2016, Trump’s alliance with white evangelical voters was obvious — 80 percent of white, self-identified born-again or evangelical Christians supported him, according to exit polls — but, for some of those voters, it was also uneasy. The president’s personal behavior and some of his core political beliefs, including his hostility toward refugees, seem at odds with the major moral tenets of Christianity. What’s more, many of his evangelical supporters weren’t exactly sure what they were getting from a nominee who was neither deeply religious nor a lifelong Republican and who described himself some years ago as “very pro-choice.”

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Before the start of service, members of Victory Church who helped run the service gathered with the Pastor.
Before the start of service, members of Victory Church who helped run the service gathered with the Pastor. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Three years, later, Trump’s bond with evangelicals has proven to be remarkably resilient. After a Democratic presidency that left some evangelical voters feeling besieged, many have come to see Trump as a defender of religious liberty, a champion of conservative judges, and a brake on the advances of abortion and transgender rights.

White evangelicals back Trump more fiercely than other religious or unaffiliated groups, and, in one poll, 99 percent of white evangelical Republicans oppose his impeachment and removal. White evangelicals make up about 17 percent of Wisconsin’s voters; in a state Trump won in 2016 only by 23,000 votes, their steadfast support could be the difference between winning and losing next year.

There are other factors that could buoy Trump in Wisconsin. A contentious state Supreme Court race this year fired up evangelicals in support of a Christian judge. Julaine Appling, the president of the Wisconsin Family Action, which advocates for conservative Christian policy, said her group will support Trump in 2020 after not explicitly endorsing him in the 2016 general election.

Chris Martinson and his friend, Linda Behm, chatted together about politics over coffee at Familiar Grounds.
Chris Martinson and his friend, Linda Behm, chatted together about politics over coffee at Familiar Grounds. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Trump’s appeal among evangelicals mystifies his critics, yet Behm’s community and church offer a window into how he has consolidated their support. New London, a city of 7,000 straddling two counties that backed Cruz in the 2016 primary, did not immediately warm to Trump. And Behm’s church here is not particularly political. But voters here said they have come to view the president as an unlikely savior for a country they felt was morally broken and hostile to Christians like them — even though some admit their personal reservations about him have only grown.

Dusk is reflected in the storefronts of New London, a community of about 7,000 in northern Wisconsin.
Dusk is reflected in the storefronts of New London, a community of about 7,000 in northern Wisconsin. The Boston Globe

“We’re hiring a president, we’re not hiring the pastor of a church,” said Chris Martinson, 68, a hardwood lumber wholesaler who is a strong Trump supporter. “We’re hiring someone to lead our country in a tough battle. It’s not always going to be pretty.”

There are times when Ellen Martinson wishes her husband would leave his bright red “Trump 2020” hat at home, even though she supports the president, too. “Some people will see it, and they already judge you before they know you,” she said with a sigh.

But to Chris Martinson, the hat, along with the cross around his neck, is a way of sparking conversation with fellow Trump supporters. He often keeps more in the car to sell for $10 each as a fund-raiser for the local Tea Party, of which he has been an active member since helping found its local chapter in 2012. If you want a Trump yard sign, Martinson is also your guy; in late September, he had 50 “Trump 2020” signs at home, waiting to be staked in the ground.

Chris Martinson's 'Make America Great Again' hat was placed on a chair at Victory Church before the start of services.
Chris Martinson’s ‘Make America Great Again’ hat was placed on a chair at Victory Church before the start of services. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“We’re hiring a president, we’re not hiring the pastor of a church. . .We’re hiring someone to lead our country in a tough battle. It’s not always going to be pretty.”

Chris Martinson

He did not always feel so devoted to Trump. Martinson’s initial favorite in the 2016 primary field was Carson, a Seventh-day Adventist who is open about his deep Christian faith. After that campaign sputtered, he drove all over town putting up signs for Cruz, hopeful that the evangelical senator from Texas would protect his values.

Martinson, like many other evangelical Christians, was ready to turn the page on the Obama administration, a period when gay rights and transgender rights expanded. He worried Christians who did not agree with those expansions would be marginalized, citing a famous case of Colorado bakers who were sued when they refused to make a cake for a gay wedding.

“It seems like right now, there’s a movement to try to purge people who have traditional Christian values, that don’t accept more modern definitions of marriage . . . that don’t accept things like that there should be a special set of rights for transgender [people],” Martinson said.

Chris Martinson worked a shift at the GOP booth at the Waupaca County Fair. Trump supporters at the booth asked voters to sign a petition to build the wall on the Mexican border.
Chris Martinson worked a shift at the GOP booth at the Waupaca County Fair. Trump supporters at the booth asked voters to sign a petition to build the wall on the Mexican border. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Martinson has considered himself evangelical since about 1991. He supported Democrat Dick Gephardt for president in 1988 “because he was for tough borders” and Martinson held local office as a Democrat in the 1990s, but has since transformed into a committed conservative activist for whom politics and faith are irrevocably entwined. He has a “choose life” license plate on his car (and got one for his wife for her birthday recently). In 2016, he ran for — and won — a spot on the local school board so that he could “stand up for Judeo-Christian values in the public square.” During his three years on the board, he successfully sued the state’s education department and advocated for bringing back the teaching of cursive writing. He lost his reelection bid by 17 votes.

Cruz won the Wisconsin primary in 2016, but once it was clear he would not get the Republican nomination, Martinson turned apprehensively to Trump. Would an ex-Democrat from New York City really look out for voters like him? “I figured, how conservative can a New York conservative be?” Martinson asked. “I wondered if he truly was pro-life, or if he just says that.”

As president, Trump has managed to ameliorate the doubts of voters like Martinson by stacking his first term with policy moves designed to please them. He reversed the Obama-era policy governing schools’ treatment of transgender students in his second month in office. He has appointed judges and justices who are skeptical of abortion rights, and he is moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He has cultivated support from such mega pastors as Franklin Graham, who worked with his deeply religious vice president, Mike Pence, to promote religious freedom around the world.

“What I’m looking for is someone that stands up for freedom of religion and doesn’t interfere with that,” Martinson said. “What I have liked is how he has made it more free to be a Christian.”

 Chris Martinson held the door open for his wife, Ellen, as they entered the Pine Tree Supper Club in New London.
Chris Martinson held the door open for his wife, Ellen, as they entered the Pine Tree Supper Club in New London. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

For such voters as Ellen Martinson, support for Trump feels like a trade off.

“I’m not excited about Trump,” she said, as she sat in a bar adorned with taxidermied deer and bear heads at a supper club outside New London. “The tweets and other things are kind of disgusting and embarrassing but I think I look at the bigger picture of what he’s done in the country, because I still think he’s a better choice of what we would have had.”

Polling shows white evangelicals to be the president’s most supportive religious demographic, even on issues that would seem at odds with Christian morality. The Public Religion Research Institute found they were the religious group most likely to support the separation of families at the border, with 39 percent of white evangelicals supporting the policy (only 22 percent of Hispanic Protestants and 18 percent of black Protestants supported it). And 85 percent of white evangelicals support restrictive immigration policies, as opposed to 53 percent of Hispanic Protestants and 45 percent of black Protestants.

White evangelicals were also more likely, at 70 percent, to say Trump has not had an impact on white supremacist groups.

There are, however, some signs of trouble for Trump’s relationship with evangelicals. His decision to pull American troops out of Syria — where they supported Kurdish fighters who have protected Christian minorities in the region — drew rare rebukes from evangelical leaders. A poll from NPR and Marist found that 53 percent of white evangelicals approved of his handling of the issue. Still, in that poll, 70 percent of white evangelicals said they definitely planned to vote for Trump.

The motivation among evangelicals to mobilize for conservative leaders in Wisconsin is by no means limited to New London, and some Republicans here say it could be nudged along by factors that have little to do with Trump. Earlier this year, a state Supreme Court justice, Brian Hagedorn, narrowly won reelection after being heavily criticized by liberal groups for his role in the founding of a Christian elementary school that banned teachers, parents, and students from engaging in homosexual relationships.

A passenger held the trophy after the driver won during Tuesday Night Street Drags at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis.
A passenger held the trophy after the driver won during Tuesday Night Street Drags at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“I’m a Christian, too,” said Drew Nelson, a Republican from Cedarburg, Wisc., as he watched a drag race outside of Milwaukee on a warm summer night. “You’re picking on [Hagedorn], you’re picking on a fellow brother in Christ.”

That sense of being picked on has deepened some of Trump’s support.

“After he won, I was offended that Democrats said women that voted for him were uneducated,” said Behm, who is friends with the Martinsons. “I was glad I voted for him, because of that attitude.”

One morning in late September, Martinson took his seat at Victory Church in New London with his wife and Behm. The church is spare, with carpet and a drop ceiling tucked into the front of an event venue adorned with potted trees. That Sunday, the wooden cross at the front of the room was draped in green. The sanctuary was so casual, Ellen had brought her coffee inside.

A six-piece praise band led the congregation in hymns, and the Martinsons sang along softly: “No turning back, no turning back.” Some people closed their eyes and sent one hand skyward as they sang, and then the pastor, Jim Curtis, urged his congregants to spend “personal time with the Lord.” At this, Chris Martinson walked toward the front of the church, where he clasped hands with an assistant pastor. The two bowed their heads and prayed quietly together, their words inaudible. Martinson later said he had been praying for his son, who was trying to find a new direction after losing a job.

“It seems like right now, there’s a movement to try to purge people who have traditional Christian values,’’ said Chris Martinson, shown leaving Victory Church after Sunday service.
“It seems like right now, there’s a movement to try to purge people who have traditional Christian values,” said Chris Martinson, shown leaving Victory Church after Sunday service. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Green Bay Packers were playing that day, and a man in a team jersey passed around the collection basket. Curtis was celebrating Victory’s sixth anniversary in New London, and eight of his ten grandchildren were there to mark the occasion.

Churches risk losing their nonprofit tax status if they advocate politically, but some evangelical churches distribute literature laying out candidates’ positions and urge parishioners to participate in elections even if they don’t explicitly endorse a contender. Curtis studiously avoids talk of politics, and Martinson said he often has to prompt him to at least remind the congregation when an Election Day is coming up.

But here, after a tumultuous three years in office, Trump has won himself new fans.

Tammy Curtis, the pastor’s wife, said the president does not set an example with his language, but she believes he has given Christians more of a voice in a secular nation.

“I can’t like the way he speaks,” Curtis said, but she added, “now, I feel like it’s OK to say I’m a Christian. I think it’s a change in our society.”

“I believe Trump is a Christian, he’s a good man,” said Steve Hart, 71, a retired truck driver, “and I believe he’s brought God back to this country.”