Trump’s continued support from evangelicals tops faith-based news stories of 2023
Evangelicalism, Catholicism also make other headlines during year
Polls in 2023 continued to show a decline in the number of Americans who identify themselves as religious, but that hasn’t kept religion out of the headlines. Religious issues have played a prominent role three branches of federal or state governments as well as other aspects of culture this year as America continues to grapple with matters of sexuality and political power.
Also, as has been case for nearly a decade, Donald Trump was seldom out of the news, and Still More to Say has deemed his ability to maintain support from evangelical Christians as the top religion-related news story of 2023. Key wins at the Supreme Court in cases supported by evangelicals as well as the selection of an outspoken evangelical as House speaker were among the other top religion-related events and developments of the year.
Here is our list of 2023’s top faith-related news stories:
1. Evangelicals stand by Trump despite softening abortion stance, 91 indictments
When Trump was a presidential candidate in 2016 and 2020, evangelical Christians often justified their support for him — a man noted for his racism, vulgarity and bragging about his promiscuity — by pointing to his strong anti-abortion position. But in 2023, a time when the politics of abortion favored a softer stand, Trump provided just that, but that didn’t seem to hurt him with his evangelical constituency.
Trump even criticized a rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose state passed a ban on abortion past six weeks after conception. “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump said. Meanwhile, a summer HarrisX poll found that 53 percent of Republican voters saw Trump as “a man of faith” — compared to 52 percent for ex-Vice President Mike Pence, known for his piety as an evangelical, and 23 percent for President Joe Biden, who attends Catholic mass regularly and has often publicly referred to his faith as a source of strength.
A large majority of white evangelicals also stood by Trump despite the fact that he was indicted 91 times in four criminal cases.
In one of the most recent polls, an NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released earlier this month, Trump had the support of 51 percent of evangelicals in Iowa, which will be the first state to formally weigh in on the 2024 nomination contest. He was well ahead of rivals DeSantis and former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, who received backing from a total of 35 percent of evangelicals surveyed.
2. Israel-Gaza war divides U.S. Christians, reveals antisemitism and Islamophobia
Within a few days after a brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel launched a war that shows no signs of letting up, there were signs of a political divide in America. And that divided extended even to churches: Although no major denomination applauded Hamas for its attack, representatives of mainline Protestantism and Catholicism raised humanitarian concerns about Israel’s role in the war, while evangelical denominations generally were silent on that matter. And there were evangelical groups who saw the autumn events as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.
Meanwhile, there were demonstrations across the political spectrum on college campuses and in major U.S. cities supporting either Palestinians or Israel, leading to allegations of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Congressional questioning of prominent university presidents about their reactions to campus antisemitism led one to resign. Also, the war prompted ex-President Trump to renew his call for barring residents of Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
3. Thousands of congregations exit United Methodist Church
A schism of the United Methodist Church, the third-largest Christian denomination in the United States,1 is coming to a close on Dec. 31, the final day in which congregations can get regional approval to leave the denomination in a dispute over same-sex marriage. The denomination in 2019 approved a streamlined method by which congregations could leave, and at last report 7,660 of the church’s approximately 30,000 congregations had done so.
Nearly all of the departing churches are opposed to church recognition of same-sex marriages. The UMC currently doesn’t recognize such marriages, although delegates to the church’s 2024 worldwide conference are expected to vote to reverse that.
Many of the departing churches are joining the newly organized Global Methodist Church, which does not recognize same-sex marriage.
4. Catholic Church OKs blessings for same-sex couples
In a document approved by Pope Francis and released last week, the Catholic Church approved the blessing of same-sex couples. Ironically, in some ways the document changes plenty for gays in the church, and in some ways it changes nothing.
The document, known as Fiducia Supplicans or Requesting Trust, might best be seen as a formal way of telling same-sex couples that they are valued in the church and can receive divine guidance.
The document makes clear that it should not be seen as a recognition of same-sex marriage, and the blessings cannot be performed in conjunction with such a marriage or civil union. Such a blessing also cannot be given in a manner that suggests it has the value of a sacrament.
The document says that the new direction came about because “Pope Francis urged us not to ‘lose pastoral charity, which should permeate all our decisions and attitudes’ and to avoid being ‘judges who only deny, reject, and exclude.’”
The document also says that priests shouldn’t offer such blessings, but that they can do so at the request of those being blessed. It also says: “To seek a blessing in the Church is to acknowledge that the life of the Church springs from the womb of God’s mercy and helps us to move forward, to live better, and to respond to the Lord’s will.”
5. House picks speaker with ties to Christian nationalism
The U.S. House on Oct. 25 selected as its speaker a Southern Baptist, Mike Johnson, who long has had ties to Christian nationalism and who has never been reluctant to interject his religious views into his political life. Before he was in the House, he made a living as a constitutional rights attorney, frequently focusing on church-state issues championing the issues most important to religious conservatives.
“I was called to legal ministry and I’ve been out on the front lines of the ‘culture war’ defending religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and biblical values, including the defense of traditional marriage, and other ideals like these when they’ve been under assault,” he said in a 2016 interview when he first ran for his House seat. He has not deviated from that perspective since then.
Johnson has referred to the “so-called separation of church and state” and has said that the nation’s founders were concerned about the government encroaching on churches, not the other way around.
Since his ascendancy to the speakership, he has put little public focus on the culture-war issues, instead devoting himself mostly to budget matters.
6. Supreme Court sides with Christian web designer who refused gay-wedding work
In the most significant religion-related ruling of the year, the Supreme Court decided 6-3 in 303 Creative v. Elenis that a Christian web designer had the right not to publicize same-sex weddings. The decision was applauded by religious conservatives but was a huge disappointment for LGTBQ interests, who saw the ruling as opening the door to discrimination.
Technically, the decision was made on free-speech rather than freedom-of-religion grounds, although the web designer had given religious reasons for her policy. In some ways, it was a narrow ruling, one that left open for later litigation what other type of discrimination might be allowed.
In another religion-related case that drew attention, the court unanimously agreed with an evangelical postal worker who refused to work on Sundays. Specifically, the ruling involved the standard employers must meet to provide reasonable accommodations to employees based on the workers’ religious beliefs. The decision sent the case of Gerald E. Groff back to a lower court, which must decide how to apply that standard to his dispute.
7. Asbury revival draws tens of thousands
Asbury University, a school in Wilmore, Ky., connected with the Wesleyan holiness movement, has a history of revivals, including one in 1970 that drew international attention and is part of the University’s identity. A modern version of that event began on Feb. 8, when students attending a campuswide worship service remained afterward for singing and prayer. The gathering continued for about two weeks, day and night, packing the school’s 1,000-seat auditorium and drawing at least 250,000 viewers via streaming video.
The revival, which was labeled by the school as an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, drew considerable attention on social media and visitors from throughout the eastern part of the country. The school eventually took steps to ensure that the revival wouldn’t be co-opted by political interests or outside religious leaders. The school ended the revival on Feb. 23 with a broadcast of the National Collegiate Day of Prayer.
By then, similar but smaller gatherings were being held on other Christian campuses.
8. Southern Baptists say no to women as pastors
Delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in June made clear where they stand on women as pastors: They overwhelmingly upheld the ouster of Saddleback Church, a prominent California megachurch, for having a woman in a high pastoral role (although she wasn’t the lead pastor). They did the same for a church not as well known, Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
The delegates also gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment that would prevent churches with women pastors from being part of the SBC. The amendment must be approved one more time to go in effect.
9. Oklahoma approves taxpayer funding for Catholic school
The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board gave approval in June to the creation of a Catholic charter school to open in 2024. The board followed up that approval with the November signing of a contract with the Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
The St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School is to become the country’s first public charter school with a religion-based curriculum to operate with taxpayer funding. The school will not charge tuition.
The American Civil Liberties Union and others have filed a lawsuit to prevent the school from opening with taxpayer funds.
10. Faith-based ‘Sound of Freedom’ is surprise hit a movie box office
Angel Studios, which markets primarily to conservative Christians with family-friendly fare and produces The Chosen, a popular TV series about the life of Jesus, had its biggest movie success to date with Sound of Freedom. The film topped $184 million at the U.S. box office, ranking 10th for the year.2
The film told of the work of Tim Ballard to fight child sex trafficking. Although the overtly religious content of the film was minimal, Ballard and his former organization, Operation Underground Railroad, have been extremely popular among religious conservatives and the Christian nationalist movement.
After the film’s release, Ballard was accused in lawsuits of sexual misconduct involving women who had worked with him on undercover operations. He also was accused by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of unauthorized use of the name of a church leader. Reliable reports before the film’s release said that Ballard was considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who is not seeking re-election, but those plans apparently have been dropped.
Another faith-based and based-on-a-true-story film, Jesus Revolution, about the early days of the “Jesus people” movement, also did well as the box office. It grossed $52.1 million.
The largest are the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, respectively.