Has there been a remark more illustrative of this wretched election than Donald Trump’s avowal, “I love the poorly educated!”? Uttered on the evening of his victory in the Nevada primary, this astonishingly candid admission went both ways, suggesting not only that Trump’s campaign is dependent upon a bottomless well of public ignorance, but that he is himself the most ill-informed major party presidential nominee in American history. Rare is the politician who would ever freely acknowledge the credulity of his own supporters.
Not all Republicans have fallen for Trump’s con job. The conservative movement in America can largely be characterized as an alliance of three interest groups: national security hawks, economic free marketers, and religious conservatives (mostly evangelical Christians). In different ways and to varying degrees, Trump has brazenly repudiated the core beliefs of all three. His denunciation of the Iraq War as having been predicated upon “lies,” repeated claims that NATO is “obsolete,” and coziness with Vladimir Putin’s Russia rightly render him unpalatable to Reaganite hawks. His mercantilism, protectionism, and opposition to entitlement reform are all major turn-offs for the party’s small-government wing. Finally, Trump’s squalid personal life and vulgar character constitute a full-frontal assault on the “values” deemed so important by social conservatives.
Despite these many heresies, however, Trump has only been rejected by two of the movement’s three constituencies. With few exceptions, national security hawks and free marketers have stuck to their principles and refused to associate themselves with a campaign that has renounced decades of Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy and economics. By contrast, a bevy of religious right personalities have declared their support for Trump, a remarkable development when one considers the vast gulf separating their purported principles and those of the sybaritic former reality television show host. Nor is it just evangelical leaders who have endorsed Trump; according to a July Pew poll, 78 percent of white evangelicals have expressed support for him, compared to just 73 percent who backed Mitt Romney at the same time in 2012. The very voices who once bemoaned “the death of outrage” over Americans’ opposition to criminalizing Bill Clinton’s sex life now want us to believe that Donald J. Trump is morally fit to occupy the Oval Office.
Which is odd, because Trump is a living repudiation of everything religious conservatives claim to believe in. A thrice-married, epically greedy, congenitally dishonest serial adulterer who brags about his sexual conquests and exalts the rich and powerful while heaping scorn upon the weak and vulnerable, Trump is the villain of Sunday school parables made real. He worships not the Lord but material wealth. His entire life is a rejection of the Judeo-Christian nostrum that God put us on this Earth to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Watching social conservative leaders line up to endorse this man’s presidential candidacy has the aura of religious allegory, a pageant of disingenuously virtuous fraudsters selling their souls for riches and power with Trump occupying the part of wealthy nobleman who purchases indulgences to absolve himself of worldly sin. A purported concern of many conservative evangelicals is that leaders have a personal relationship with the Almighty; Trump says he’s never asked God for forgiveness, which should hardly come as a surprise considering that he has probably never asked anyone for forgiveness, let alone a higher power.
To most leaders of the American religious right, however, the character of Trump, a 70-year-old man, is a work-in-progress. Gary Bauer, who as president of the Family Research Council in the 1990s attacked Bill Clinton’s “virtue deficit,” has enthusiastically endorsed Trump (who, by Bauer’s standard, would have long ago defaulted on his virtue debt). Pat Robertson, who railed against Clinton as “debauched, debased, and defamed,” now fawns before an Orange god, telling him, “You inspire us all.” Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who said Clinton should be impeached because he set a bad example for children when it came to “respecting women,” has joined the Trump train (stating that, because the nominee is only a “baby Christian,” evangelicals should “cut him some slack”) as has former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed. Jerry Falwell Jr., who recently tweeted a photo of himself and his wife standing alongside the nominee in his office next to a framed Playboy cover featuring Trump cavorting with a scantily clad woman, says that “Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation,” which goes to show that Christopher Hitchens’s observation about Falwell Sr.—that if “you gave [him] an enema you could fit him in a matchbox”—applies just as much, if not more so, to his son.
All politicians engage in insincerity, telling people things they want to hear and making promises they have no intention of keeping. Trump, however, does this to a ridiculous—one might even say, unprecedented—degree. And his latter-day conversion to social conservatism has been perhaps the most transparently craven aspect of the entire campaign. Perhaps the greatest whopper of the election (no mean feat) was Trump’s claim that the Bible is his favorite book. Once a man who boasted of being “very pro-choice,” during the primaries,Trump insisted (only to walk it back a few hours later) that women who have abortions should be punished, an extreme position that even hard-core pro-lifers are reluctant to endorse (paradoxically, Trump supports continued government funding of Planned Parenthood, a heresy social conservatives were unwilling to tolerate in every other presidential candidate).
Trump, a longtime supporter of gay civil unions, expects his social conservative followers to believe that he will appoint Supreme Court justices who will repeal last summer’s decision legalizing gay marriage. While evangelicals have welcomed Trump’s promise to protect “religious liberty,” their endorsement of him looks utterly self-serving in light of the fact that he has no respect whatsoever for the religious liberty of Muslims. Given his highly selective view of which Americans are entitled to freedom of religion, what makes Christians think they’ll be safe under a Trump presidency?
Thankfully, some religious conservative leaders and thinkers have proven resistant to Trump’s charms. Mormons, by and large, find Trump repulsive, a view that probably has something to do with their once having been a violently oppressed religious minority. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore is an outspoken Trump critic, calling his campaign “reality television moral sewage,” as has Republican White House veteran Pete Wehner, who flatly says Trump “embodies a worldview that is incompatible with Christianity,” more specifically a “Nietzschean morality…characterized by indifference to objective truth (there are no facts, only interpretations), the repudiation of Christian concern for the poor and the weak, and disdain for the powerless.”
Wehner’s observation about Trump also serves as a damning verdict against his fellow social conservatives, whose embrace of the Republican nominee suggests they ultimately care more about power than anything else and are willing to sacrifice their dignity and principles in its pursuit. “I’m used to being the moral scold, but Trump is winning fair and square, so why should the nomination be grabbed from him?” says Bill Bennett, author of such titles as, The Book of Virtues, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Collapse of the American Family, and The Devaluing of America: Fight for Our Culture and our Faith. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, recently told Kirstin Powers of USA Today that, over time, “evangelicals were converted from values voters who care about the character of candidates to nostalgia voters,” upset over increasing secularization and racial diversity. Trump, while far from a model Christian, at least promises a return to this idyllic, mythologized past.
No doubt some religious right leaders would respond that, unlike hawks and libertarians, Trump has actually embraced their policy agenda by at least stating on the record he is now pro-life and would appoint conservative judges. Trump, however, is an inveterate liar and there’s no reason for social conservatives to expect he’ll keep his promises. Furthermore, by backing a candidate so obviously flawed according to their own standards (let alone those of mental health professionals), social conservatives have put a sectarian political-religious agenda before country.
That Trump would accede to the religious right’s dictates while refusing to compromise with GOP hawks and libertarians isn’t testimony to social conservative political power, however, so much as a demonstration of Trump’s correct reading of them as easy marks. In his Republican National Convention speech, Trump slyly acknowledged just how much he was getting away with in garnering the endorsement of “the evangelical and religious community.” “The support they’ve given me, and I’m not sure I totally deserve it, has been so amazing,” he said to some laughter. Trump appears to have concluded that the religious right is largely composed of hypocritical, power-hungry rubes. They’ve done nothing to prove him wrong.