Paul Hardesty didn’t pay much attention to President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., last month until a third concerned constituent rang his cell phone.
The residents of Hardesty’s district — he’s a Trump-supporting West Virginia state senator — were calling to complain that Trump was “using the Lord’s name in vain,” as Hardesty recounted.
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“The third phone call is when I actually went and watched his speech because each of them sounded distraught,” said Hardesty, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat.
Here’s what he would have seen. Trump crowing, “they’ll be hit so goddamn hard,” while bragging about bombing Islamic State militants. And Trump recounting his warning to a wealthy businessman: “If you don’t support me, you’re going to be so goddamn poor.”
To most of America, the comments went unnoticed. Instead, the nation was gripped after the rally by the moment when a “send her back” chant broke out as Trump went after Somali-born Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, an American citizen. But some Trump supporters were more fixated on the casual use of the word “goddamn” — an off-limits term for many Christians — not to mention the numerous other profanities laced throughout the rest of the speech.
The issue has recently hit a nerve among those who have become some of the president’s most reliable supporters: white evangelicals — who comprise much of Hardesty’s district. The group was key to Trump’s 2016 win, helping bolster his standing in critical swing states, and Trump likely needs to maintain that support if he wants to win a second term. But some are growing fatigued with the irreverent language that often seeps into Trump’s rallies and official events.
“I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘You know I voted for [Trump], but if he doesn’t tone down the rhetoric, I might just stay home this time,’” Hardesty said in an interview, adding that he has yet to hear back from anyone inside the White House after urging the president in a formal letter to “reflect on your comments and never utter those words again.”
Coarse language is, of course, far from the president’s only behavior that might turn off the religious right. He’s been divorced twice, faced constant allegations of extramarital affairs, previously supported abortion rights and has stumbled when trying to discuss the specifics of religion, once saying “two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.” Yet to this point, Trump has maintained broad support from evangelicals, including the unwavering backing of prominent conservative Christian leaders.
“We all wish he would be a little more careful with his language, but it’s not anything that’s a dealbreaker and it’s not something we’re going to get morally indignant about,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest religious supporters.
Trump’s penchant for profanity dates back decades — from guest appearances on “The Howard Stern Show” in the 1990s to a 2011 speech to Nevada Republicans where he dropped multiple F-bombs and cast Chinese officials as a bunch of “motherfuckers.” His unseemly language became a stump speech staple when he ran for president in 2016 and has continued into his presidency, both in public and behind closed doors.
For evangelicals, however, Trump’s indelicate language has frustrated religious fans who have otherwise been true blue supporters of his agenda. They agree with his social policies, praise his appointment of conservative judges and extol his commitment to Israel — often tolerating Trump’s character flaws for the continued advancement of all three. But when it comes to “using the Lord’s name in vain,” as Hardesty put it, “the president’s evangelical base might be far less forgiving.”
Two pro-Trump pastors, both of whom requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, admitted in interviews that they’ve winced and cringed their way through some of the president’s more provocative speeches, or the ones that contained multiple expletives. One of the pastors said he was “appalled” by the president’s remarks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March, in which he accused his political rivals of trying to run him out of office with “bullshit” investigations and oversight actions.
“You know, I’m totally off script right now,” Trump boasted at the time. The rest of his speech was littered with cursing, as he promised to “keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out of our country” and throw undocumented immigrants “the hell out.”
“I’m not going to get into private conversations, but I made sure he knew that type of rhetoric is unacceptable. This was not just an event for adults,” said one of the pastors, who is close with several members of the Trump administration.
“I think this president needs to be president to all of the people and realize that kids look up to him and adults look up to him,” said Hardesty. “Carrying that type of language from behind the presidential seal is offensive.”
To be sure, foul-mouthed figures are nothing new in modern politics. One of Trump’s 2020 rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, was caught calling the Affordable Care Act “a big fucking deal” at the bill’s signing in March 2010. Biden’s predecessor, Dick Cheney, told a Democratic senator to “fuck himself” on the Senate floor in 2004. Two other presidential hopefuls — Beto O’Rourke and Tulsi Gabbard — have used profanity in recent public statements, and countless more examples can be found in the presidential archives.
“Well, Jesus Christ, of course, he’s racist,” O’Rourke said of Trump just this week during an appearance on MSNBC.
The difference, though, is that Trump enjoys the support of the religious right — and losing the group’s support would be catastrophic for his reelection bid. About 80 percent of white evangelicals cast their ballots for Trump in 2016 and 61 percent of the broader evangelical voting bloc believes the U.S. is heading in the right direction under his administration, according to a 2018 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.
Evangelicals are also more likely to vote than other demographic groups, and gravitate toward Republican candidates when they do. And in swing states like Florida, North Carolina and Michigan, evangelicals dominate the religious composition, eclipsing Catholics, mainline Protestants and other Christian denominations.
Several of the president’s most steadfast evangelical allies pushed back against concerns that Trump’s swearing could jeopardize this powerful voting bloc. At the very least, they said, it’s not an issue for them. Alveda King, a Fox News contributor and the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said she’s inclined to extend grace to the president when he swears or makes inappropriate comments.
“I remember God’s love and mercy towards me,” she said.
Part of the reason Trump has previously escaped criticism for cursing is because his supporters were more drawn to the perceived authenticity of his blunt statements than they were offended by the vulgarity, Melissa Mohr, the author of a book on swearing, wrote for Time in June 2016.
“When we hear people swear, we often assume that their words spring from a deep well of real feeling,” Mohr said at the time.
But some curse words could have adverse effects for Trump, particularly with his evangelical audience.
“Carelessly invoking the Lord’s name in a fit of anger is one thing,” said one of the pro-Trump pastors, quickly adding that he would not encourage such behavior. “But,” he continued, “repeatedly doing it for shock value … that does raise questions about the president’s respect for people of faith.”