Misty Grace came for spiritual revival. As the music blared above, Grace raised both hands in the air, one palm open. The other clutched a small, wooden cross. She bowed her head and swayed side to side.

“I was led by the Holy Spirit to come here,” she told me. “I came to intercede for Trump.”

By the time Grace arrived at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay on a recent Tuesday, all the seats had already been taken. Grace found a spot near the back. Never mind that this was a political rally, not a church, and that the songs booming from the speakers were Elvis and Johnny Cash, not hymns. Never mind that former President Donald Trump — the rally’s main attraction — had yet to make an appearance. To Grace, this was a form of worship.

Grace isn’t alone. At Trump rallies across the country, from Wisconsin to South Carolina to New Hampshire, some attendees come for a religious experience. Some feel empowered by the invocations, offered by a local pastor, at the beginning of the rallies. Others feel a rush of emotion when Trump takes the stage and speaks. Others still, like Grace, are newcomers — this was her first Trump rally — and feel guided to attend.

The rally-as-ritual phenomenon comes at a hinge point in the 2024 race, when some evangelical Christians are suddenly faced with a complication in their devotion to Trump. In both 2016 and 2020, evangelicals flocked to Trump. But some have recently expressed increased skepticism about Trump’s stance on abortion.

Trump, who does not claim to be particularly religious, is widely viewed by Republicans to be a person of faith. At his rallies, some attendees follow suit, finding spiritual renewal in the large gatherings.

The Green Bay rally’s format, like many Trump events, seemed to lend itself to a numinous energy. Trump rallies are something of “a cross between a rock concert and a tent revival,” the New York Times’ Michael Bender wrote, featuring both raucous music as well as charismatic prayer.

In Green Bay, the music came first: a haphazard medley of classic rock, show tunes and Celine Dion. But the music went quiet when a pastor took the lectern.

“If you haven’t heard it today, let me be the first to tell you: God loves you,” Pastor Casey Carey, from CrossPoint Church in nearby De Pere, Wisconsin, said. The crowd clapped and cheered. “He has a plan for your life,” Pastor Carey continued. “He sees you and he cares about you.”

Misty Grace of Green Bay, Wis., center, who describes herself as a follower of Jesus Christ, prays during a rally for former President Donald Trump at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay, Wis., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

At other rallies, a more political tone dominated the prayers. In November in Fort Dodge, Iowa, a local pastor asked for strength for Trump as he faces his opponents “who are really in opposition to you, almighty God.” In Coralville, Iowa, in December, the pastor pled that God would help reelect Trump as president. In Las Vegas in January, the pastor said that God is “on the side of this movement.”

In Green Bay, the auditorium hushed as Pastor Carey bowed his head. Some people sat down and removed their hats; others stood, lifting their arms into the air. Carey prayed for “those who are on the other side of the aisle of my convictions,” asking that God would bless them. He asked that the country be “led back to a place of unity and peace.”

“This evening, I also ask you, Father, to bless President Donald Trump,” he continued. The room suddenly erupted with noise — clapping, cheering, shouts of “amen!” Pastor Carey raised his voice, pleading for protection and wisdom upon the former president. When Carey concluded, the crowd offered an “amen,” followed by a loud ovation.

The religious zeal that accompanies Trump’s celebrity — the vendors selling Trump-branded merchandise outside, the devout early-arrivers, the waves of unfettered loyalty — isn’t altogether new. American politics have, for decades, seen charismatic leaders who came to embody movements. Ronald Reagan’s ascent is often referred to as a “revolution.” Barack Obama, equipped with skilled oratory, led his own revival-style rallies where he promised hope and change. George W. Bush invoked his faith as part of his push for “compassionate conservatism.”

But the present moment feels different. American religiosity has declined precipitously since 2000. While 70% of Americans belonged to a church community then, less than 50% do now. While nearly 50% attended weekly worship services then, only 31% do now. Some have posited that the real decline isn’t in faith, but that we’ve become “religious without religion.” In decades past, Americans were “a religious people that engaged in politics,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox once lamented. “Now, politics has become a religion for many people.”

People pray prior to former President Donald Trump’s arrival at an Election Day campaign rally at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay, Wis., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Those traditional shows of political posturing within houses of worship continue. President Joe Biden makes frequent appearances in churches, both as a worshipper and as a dignitary; in January, one such appearance became a partisan show, with congregants chanting “four more years.”

Trump’s churchgoing habit is more sporadic. Instead, he brings the church to his rallies, offering not only an ideological movement, but a tangible space for something akin to religious ritual. His events all follow, to some degree, the same pattern: His biggest fans arrive hours in anticipation, crowding sidewalks and flooding parking lots until the doors are opened. In Green Bay, some waited over four hours in snow and freezing rain to get inside. (One man, when offered $100 for his spot near the front of the line, pocketed the cash and beelined for his car. “I’d rather watch it on my warm couch!” he proclaimed.)

Once inside, the preprogram begins. Music blares for hours, interrupted only by short speeches by local lawmakers or celebrity guests. Some throw MAGA hats into the audience; others do their best Michael Buffer impersonation, psyching up the crowd. Heads bow for the prayer; heads lift for the national anthem.

And then suddenly, a familiar sound: the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” a surefire hint that Trump is moments from emerging. People rise to their feet in unison. Some dance, making the letters with their arms. Most pull out their iPhones, turning their cameras to the stage.

The music fades, and a voice booms through the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the next president of the United States: President Donald J. Trump!” Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” blares. The prayer may have been the rally’s religious climax, but it only served as prelude to this one: the people react as if this moment, this emergence, is the real spiritual pinnacle. Trump steps onstage, waving, nodding, pointing. The audience screams. One person, near the stage, bounces a baby overhead. People wave signs: TRUMP 2024; THE ROAD TO VICTORY; FIRE BIDEN. There is a buoyant, exultant feel.

There is an acknowledgement, even among Trump’s most devout disciples, that he isn’t deity. “Trump’s not the Messiah,” Grace Riedinger, a retiree from the Green Bay area, told me. But that doesn’t mean they don’t view him as devoid of God’s guidance. “I think it was a spiritual experience the day Trump walked into view,” Mike Don Marcel said. “I think God sent him to do this job. A lot of the things that he’s had to take over the seven years — the constant attacks — he could not do that without God’s help.” (Trump faces 91 felony charges; next week, Trump will become the first U.S. president to ever face a criminal trial.) Misty Grace said she views Trump as David or Cyrus: an imperfect human who works as a tool in God’s hands. “The first time around, he was more Cyrus,” she explained. “But this time, with all the drama going on ... he’s come closer to the Lord.” He’s now more like David, she surmised.

The jubilation of the modern David’s arrival lasts for some time. Chants of “U.S.A.” interrupt Trump as he attempts to speak. The crowd is fairly involved with his speech, clapping when needed, laughing when needed, booing when Biden or Democrats or the border are mentioned. Lisa Lampl, from South Milwaukee, told me Trump “brings tears to my eyes every time” she hears him speak. This was her third rally. “When Donald Trump speaks, it’s like, right to the heart,” she said. “It’s like my whole head is opened up and taking in everything he says, and I’m seeing from the inside the way it should be. It’s God’s honest truth.”

Former President Donald Trump holds an Election Day campaign rally at the KI Convention Center in Green Bay, Wis., on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Trump spends most of his time discussing immigration. But his biggest zingers — the most impassioned boos and cheers — came when he honed in on the intersection of faith and politics, on the culture war. “What the hell was Biden thinking when he declared Easter Sunday to be Trans Visibility Day?” (Boos.) “Such total disrespect to Christians.” (Louder boos.)

Trump may not be openly religious, but moments like these are what make him a “person of faith,” Republicans believe. When a Deseret/HarrisX poll asked Republicans why they overwhelmingly view Trump as a person of faith, the most common response was “he defends people of faith in the U.S.” But Trump himself was not free of controversy during Holy Week. On the previous Tuesday, just seven days before the Green Bay rally, Trump appeared in an ad for a custom edition of the Bible, complete with a printed copy of the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and handwritten lyrics to Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” It was advertised as “the only Bible endorsed by President Trump”; Trump received a cut of sales for the use of his name, image and likeness.

Not one rally attendee told me they had an issue with Trump profiting off of God’s word. “Well, he’s got to pay for his rallies,” Riedinger told me. “The other side is taking him to court all the time. He’s got to pay for that somehow.”

Biden, however, was deemed a heretic for proclaiming Easter Sunday as a day for transgender visibility, as had been done on March 31 in prior years. Trump, pitching himself to the crowd as the defender of Christians, pitted himself between Biden and his followers. “November 5 will be called something else,” Trump said. “Christian Visibility Day!” The crowd erupted with cheers, perhaps louder even than when Trump arrived at the venue. Likely so, as the hundreds of people lined up outside when Trump began speaking were still filing in, and few people had turned for the exits — save one woman who, shortly before Trump took the podium, collapsed to the floor, unconscious. She quickly came to, but not before a medic hovered over her and instructed her to lay still. As she was lifted onto a stretcher, she could be heard mumbling, “Please don’t make me leave! Let me stay!”

But as Trump’s speech wore on — 30 minutes of teleprompter-guided rambling, then 45 minutes, then nearing an hour — people began heading for the doors. The temperature outside was nearing freezing, and the snowstorm was only worsening. Better to beat the crowds and avoid the messy roads, they figured. Besides, they said, they already knew how this will end. “God wants Trump to win,” Grace told me. “Hands down.”