Earlier this year at a huge "Evangelicals for Trump” rally in Miami, Florida, a pastor welcomed the President by shouting a prayer that sounded like the introduction to a heavyweight title bout: "Lord I thank you,” he bellowed. "America did not need a preacher in the Oval Office, did not need a professional politician in the office. It needed a fighter and a champion for freedom and Lord that’s exactly what we have.” Cheers of adoration resounded.
This moment captured much of what is complex, confusing and disturbing about the highly politicised religious landscape of America today and the bearing it will have on the presidential election. Eighty-one per cent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and that figure looks like holding. That statistic is the accentuation of a pattern that has existed since the 1980s when an alliance emerged in the Republican Party between big business, populism and the religious right.
You can’t understand America without understanding its religion and that, you might say, is something of a riddle. The non-conformist origins of the US spawned a bewildering array of denominations and expressions of belief. Even the term "evangelical” means so many different things depending on who is using it. Traditionally it signified a devout faith that, as historian David Bebbington describes it, prioritises conversion, the Bible and a personal relationship with God. But in popular usage today it most often simply means "politically conservative Christian”.
The Republican Party has most successfully captured those who self-identify as evangelical. (That’s if the person is white. Black protestants, themselves often theologically conservative, reliably vote Democrat to the tune of nine to one). The widely held perception among believers is that the Democratic Party has become secularised to the point where there is no room for the specific commitments of religious adherents.