The Rev. Xavier Ries, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Pasadena, is a born-again Christian evangelical who supports Donald Trump’s re-election. He appears untroubled by fierce critics of the president who claim he’s actually the anti-Christ, an amoral, thrice married man whose divisive words and deeds totally contradict the Gospel’s message of love and forgiveness.

“He’s the best candidate — it’s simple. I voted for him. It’s my choice,” Ries, 69, countered in a phone conversation with this reporter. “Some people like to drive a Ford. Maybe you like a Chevy,” he went on. 

Ries, who accepted Jesus as his savior in 1973 at age 23, came to California from Mexico with his parents when he was 7. He cares deeply about illegal immigration, an issue that Trump promoted on day one of his 2015 presidential campaign, deriding undocumented Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists.

“I work hard and I don’t want to pay (benefits) for illegal immigrants,” he said of his former countrymen. “Thank God I grew up in the ’60s. At least there was some law and order. There was morality, there was a work ethic. Now all that is gone.”

Ries’ Bible-based preaching has drawn praise on Yelp from the often roving churchgoers who sometimes swell to as many as 1,500 for three Sunday services offered at Calvary, located in eastern Pasadena. One liked the way he delivers “the word of God” from the new King James Bible (available at Calvary’s Christian book store). Another enjoyed his sermons on several Sundays until one day Ries “came out of left field talking about politics and praising Donald Trump which really wouldn’t have been a big deal except he kept going on and on and bashing the previous administration. There were some people in the audience who were offended and left.”

Conduct and Rhetoric

The incident underscores the deepening polarization in Trump’s America — and how houses of worship have been drawn into addressing his presidency. Calvary is nondenominational, a congregation which Ries founded as a small home Bible study group in Alhambra 46 years ago. More recently, it was one of three Pasadena affiliates of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association in Charlotte, North Carolina last year to join a “Decision America” rally outside the Rose Bowl. The rally was led by Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, a staunch Trump supporter who was touring California to gain new converts to Jesus and to encourage Christians to vote and make a dent in the liberal state’s “blue wall” in the June 5, 2018 midterm elections. (They didn’t.)

In the 2016 national election, Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, according to the Pew Research Center. This year, as the impeachment inquiry against him heats up in the US House of Representatives, the president seems to need all the help he can get to stay in the White House. “It will be very difficult for him to get re-elected without the very enthusiastic support of conservative Christians,” opined Dan Schnur, a former Republican campaign consultant in California who’s now an Independent.

Other icons of the religious right apparently agree. Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and an ardent foot soldier for the president, has written a forthcoming book asserting that American evangelicals have a “moral obligation” to back Trump. Originally called “Render to God and Trump” and retitled, “For God and Country: The Christian Case for Trump,” Reed’s tome will defend his policies against the “stridently anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and pro-abortion agenda of the progressive left,” according to a description cited by Politico.

Reed’s directive to the faithful is not likely to be widely accepted at Fuller Theological Seminary, the world famous evangelical institution based in Pasadena. Indeed, two Fuller evangelicals interviewed for this article made it clear that they can’t reconcile their religious beliefs with Trump’s conduct and rhetoric.

“Yeah, I’m an evangelical … but I find the (Trump) discourse to be deeply un-Christian,” said G. Tommy Givens, an assistant professor of New Testament Studies and Christian Ethics on Fuller on North Oakland Avenue He holds a doctorate in theology from Duke University.

Givens, who also teaches a couple of classes in Spanish, said that the label of white evangelical in 2019 doesn’t reflect the diversity of people at Fuller. “We have all kinds of students of color who don’t remotely fit the picture of evangelicals,” he said. “There’s a lot of disdain and outrage — not just at Trump but at the evangelical movement that has been seduced by this administration. It’s not compelling to them and it’s obviously hypocritical.”      

For Givens, evangelical fever in America can be traced back to Jonathan Edwards, a fiery 18th-century revivalist preacher and theologian. Over the years, Givens noted, some evangelicals were advocates of slavery and others were part of a “strong stream of abolitionist social reformers who have now been forgotten. Nevertheless, evangelicalism in the 18th century was already committed to a kind of white nationalism, and that’s difficult to shake.” He acknowledged that some evangelicals were likely members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Culture War

Evangelicalism traditionally refers to a group of believers within Christianity who emphasize the authority of Scripture to guide their lives. The term derives from the Greek word “euangelion,”  which means Gospel, or good news. Many adherents insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Justin Henry, 29, a divinity student pursuing a master’s degree at Fuller, grew up a son of evangelical missionaries and lived in various parts of the US, including Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida.

He said the right-wing movement coming out of today’s Christian evangelism is partly an outgrowth of the now-defunct Moral Majority, a coalition of political action committees founded in 1979 by the Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell. The group opposed abortion and other hot-button issues of the time, like homosexuality and the Equal Rights Amendment, and advocated for prayer in public schools. Falwell, who also founded Liberty University, a fundamentalist Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, was instrumental in helping to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 over born-again incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter, reportedly the first evangelical president. 

According to Henry, evangelism in the 21st century has evolved into a culture of church attendees who accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior and believe in forgiveness. “If you’re willing to ascend to that culture and accept the importance of church, then you will be forgiven for certain kinds of behavior even if happens again,” he said. “So they forgive Trump. On social media you’ll see an evangelical pastor praying with Trump for forgiveness.”  Trump, however, has said he doesn’t recall ever asking God for forgiveness for his actions.

Does Henry support Trump?

“Oh, no,” he said. “At the core of it, he’s a selfish and inept man. He’s (interested) in his own profit and has no interest in the welfare of others. It’s clear from the way he talks.”

Henry is himself an evangelical Christian. “I have defined it for myself. Others have walked away because it’s been co-opted by a political movement.”

Tamisha Tyler, an African-American doctoral candidate in theology and culture at Fuller, said she is a Christian but not an evangelical, “although I’ve been shaped by its influences having done all of my graduate work at an evangelical institution.”

She also has friends who attend churches in Pasadena and view some evangelicals there as people who “seem to feel they’re losing things” in a brave new world with immigrants coming in and changing their communities. “I think they believe that these people are coming in to take something away from them, like a job. They seem to fear a loss of power.”

Tyler, 36, notes that the Bible has “wonderful things in it about welcoming the stranger and the wonderful example of Christ. It also describes atrocities. There are people who have taken these stories to justify horrible tragedy. The African slave trade was religiously justified,” she noted. “People can read the Bible and interpret it any way they want.”

One Pasadena pastor I interviewed shied away from discussing Trump supporters at his Protestant church, but admitted several had created controversy and left.

In contrast,  the Rev. Susan Russell, an ordained Episcopalian priest and associate pastor at  the liberal All Saints Church on North Euclid Avenue in Pasadena, believes it’s  part of her job to speak out about how the “good news of the Gospel has been hijacked” by a  movement seeking to “preserve white supremacy and patriarchy. If you look briefly at who Jesus of Nazareth was, he was a brown skinned radical proponent of egalitarian love and he spoke out about the empire of his time.”

Russell said she knows a few colleagues who are evangelicals, but “I don’t know any who support Trump. It’s really a hard time to be an evangelical in America today,” she added. “We have a president who has aligned himself with the tradition, but every action he takes is antithetical to the core values of Christianity. He has divided the country and the faith community. It’s absolutely a culture war.”

Tainted Meaning

The venerable Friendship Baptist Church in Old Pasadena has long been regarded as an evangelical sanctuary and one of the oldest black Baptist churches in Pasadena. It was built in 1925 for a congregation established in 1893. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the church three times — in 1958, 1960 and 1965.

However, Pastor Lucious Smith, who has led FBC since 1996, said he no longer calls himself an evangelical “because the word has become so associated with the political right that it’s tainted the real meaning of it, in my opinion.”

Smith decried the polarization of the Trump era, noting that the “thin veil of civility has been removed” in public discourse. “Our country is in a chaotic state,” he said. “But that’s not his creation. He’s just fanning a flame that was already lit.”