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Pastor Concerned His Congregation Worships Trump More Than Jesus

In a tightly contested election, smaller states often punch above their weight, and in 2016, Wisconsin, with its 10 electoral votes, proved to be incredibly consequential. After Obama took the state in 2012 with almost 53% of the vote, the state swung to Trump in 2016 by a margin of just 0.77% .

So, with the 2020 election looming, it's little wonder that media outlets are turning to those small but mighty states for some insight on what's happened there since 2016 and how things are looking ahead of November.

What they've largely seen so far is what you might expect: entrenchment and fractures.

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In a visit to rural Wisconsin, The Guardian spoke with Pastor Franz Gerber in Forest County, Wisconsin, who noted that support for the president in his congregation has gone to alarming lengths.

"It seems like there are many evangelical Christians that are willing to die on the hill of supporting the Republican president, supporting Donald J. Trump," he said. "And to me, that hill is not worth dying on. No matter who the candidate is, no matter who the individual is, to put all your hope into that individual is a dangerous road. Scripture would warn us against that."

Indeed, you don't have to look far to see how deeply evangelicals support the president.

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Evangelical leaders have enjoyed some prime photo ops inside the White House and at rallies, occasionally making a show of laying hands on the president.

Meanwhile, Trump's own senior officials, including former Energy Secretary Rick Perry and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have referred to the president as being "chosen by God."

Concerns about Trump's personal life and moral shortcomings don't tend to faze his supporters among evangelicals.

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Terri Burl, Forest County's local Republican chair, who has lost a friendship since 2016 over her support for Trump, told The Guardian that she and many like her just don't care about the president's morality.

"There are a lot of church-going people who support him," she said. "People always say, look at how he treats people, his affairs, how he cheated on his wife. People like me say I'm not voting for him to be my pastor, my father, my role model. I'm voting for him to get some things done in Washington DC that have never been done before. We forgive him because of other things."

For many, he need not demonstrate any faith of his own just so long as he sticks up for evangelicals.

"I really believe he was sent to us," Rose Ann Farrell said at a rally launching Trump's "coalition of evangelicals" in Florida. "From one to ten, he's a ten. He lives in a Christian world and we needed a strong Christian, somebody who is not afraid. He speaks for us, has the guts and courage to speak what we want to say. His actions, his intentions, are Christian."

For Pastor Gerber, who voted for Trump in 2016, support came down to two issues: abortion, and the Supreme Court.

However, the divisions created, or exposed, during Trump's presidency have him re-thinking things.

"Many evangelical Christians feel like they have to now fight for the way things used to be or they need to fight for what they feel is biblically true," he said. "My concern is that sometimes when we get so busy fighting for certain causes we get lost in spraying fire at other people with our words to the point we lose track of what we're called to do. Ultimately, our allegiance is to God, not to a political party, not to a figure within that political party."

His attempts to find and spread more unity within his flock haven't always been met with enthusiasm, Pastor Gerber said.

Describing his congregation as being largely Republican with a few Democrats, Pastor Gerber said many were unwilling to hear even the slightest hint of criticism toward the president.

"There is such a defense of the current president by many evangelical Christians to the point of, even as a pastor, if I were to criticize and say, boy, I just didn't like something, people would get very upset about that."

Nevertheless, he has tried, through his sermons, to bring people together as much as possible.

But, after relating a story about Jesus overcoming differences with his disciples, he got a visit from one of his flock.

"This individual said, if he was pastor, he could kick every Democrat out of this church. I listened and said it's probably a good thing you're not the pastor then." That particular parishioner has not returned, Gerber added.

There do appear to be a few cracks in Trump's support among evangelicals despite such entrenched opinions, however.

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One of the most influential evangelical publications, Christianity Today, published an editorial calling for Trump's removal from office and for evangelicals to abandon him.

"Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election — that is a matter of prudential judgement," former Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli wrote. "That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments."

As Galli wrote, the moral shortcomings some evangelicals overlook are just too much.

Especially coming on the heels of particularly damning impeachment hearings.

"None of the president's positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character," he wrote. "To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve."

Pastor Gerber says that, this time around, he's in the camp of the undecideds.

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"Will I vote? Yes. Who will I vote for? I don't know. I tend to lean Republican but that does not mean I could never vote Democrat. I will continue to cast my vote for who I believe is the best candidate to help the most people and will also allow me to help the most people. I will not align myself with an individual person as being one who's going to fix everything and make everything right."

h/t: The Guardian, CNN, The Washington Post