Nearly four in five white evangelicals say they will vote for twice-divorced Donald Trump—and that could go up, now that the Manhattanite with a taste for younger women has tapped Indiana governor and true social conservative Mike Pence as his unlikely running mate.
More, it could open up access to the big money donors who’ve fueled the career of one of America’s most conservative governors. He is staunchly against abortion, even once demanding that all fetuses be buried, and sparked a HIV/ AIDS outbreak when he defunded Planned Parenthood in his state. Pence signed a so-called religious freedom bill, even after the Indiana business community took a stand.
There is scant evidence that choosing Pence will expand Trump’s appeal among right-leaning Democrats let alone the Sanders wing of the Left. However, the governor will help him energize support on the far right and may help him win over previously hesitant donors like the Koch brothers.
That Donald Trump’s record of emboldening white nationalists by amplifying their messaging on social media, playing to their fears in his rally speeches and publicly marginalizing religious and racial minorities hasn’t drawn the ire of the religious right, writ large, says something about his candidacy—and a lot about what really drives the evangelical vote. The full-bodied embrace by the likes of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., televangelist Paula White, and Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress despite Trump’s significant moral failures and heresies on matters of faith exposes a central truth about the nature of the movement. And it also serves to explain why the donor class haven’t been eager to pour cash into the campaign’s coffers.
Grassroots activists don’t see their politics through the lens of their faith, but approach faith through the lens of their politics. Evangelicals as a voting class are not driven by some deeply moral, Christ-centered crusade, but bound together by jingoistic, political nihilism. The resulting strain of racially inflected small-tent politics that emerged this year was exactly the brand the most donors feared.
Cloaking itself within the virtues of states’ rights and small government, ultimately the religious right believes their America is a better America—that embracing diversity carries physical dangers to our national security and our individual liberties.
In that context, building a wall along our southern border seems like a plausible solution lest we are infiltrated by rapists, murderers, terrorists and—of course—anchor babies who might one day grow up to vote. Banning all Muslim travel to the U.S. feels reasonable, if you somehow believe that 1.6 billion people around the globe are a part of a plot to kill Americans that President Obama and others are trying to keep secret. Through that lens, demanding to see the president’s long-form birth certificate—as Trump did in 2011—becomes less of a stretch.
Much to the chagrin of the donor class, the religious right vigorously applauded Trump’s dukes-up approach at every turn even when it ran contrary to what they claim to value. Evangelicals, after all, took a gamble and came up short on Mitt Romney and, before that, John McCain. This time, they’ll tell you, they need a real conservative who isn’t afraid to fight for them, and that conservative’s name is Donald J. Trump. It is better to have the benevolent protection from an unrepentant, self-involved, prosperity-worshipping bully, they seem to believe, than no protector at all. At last, they say, we’ve got a nominee who “tells it like it is.”
Only Trump isn’t a conservative—not by Barry Goldwater standards and certainly not by the measure of Ronald Reagan. That he is, as Ross Douthat wrote for The New York Times, “a proud flouter of the entire Judeo-Christian code—a boastful adulterer and a habitual liar, a materialist and a sensualist, a greedy camel without even the slightest interest in squeezing through the needle’s eye” seems inconsequential to the Christian right.
It does not appear to bother his white evangelical supporters that he is a know-nothing charlatan, prone to flights of policy fancy based on nothing more than what he heard (or imagined he did) on cable news. If they were perturbed by how Trump unleashed a torrent of racial attacks on a sitting federal judge, they kept it quiet.
Trump is not simply a “lukewarm” Christian, as Douthat pointed out. He’s a man of precious little discernable faith—a man who made some of his “fortune” running casinos and strip clubs, and even once boasted in a 1991 Esquire interview, “it doesn’t really matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
When called to choose between the admitted serial philanderer, who prefers bankruptcy over paying thousands of vendor, and Ted Cruz (or 15 others), evangelicals pulled the lever for a flimflam man who is less a dyed-in-wool conservative than he is an untrained parrot prone to spitting out obscenities just in time for the in-laws.
The swashbuckling businessman, who once commanded late-night infomercials for his get-rich-quick scheme from an Oprah-style television studio in New York, won the South handily. Perhaps most tellingly, Trump won a full third of evangelicals in South Carolina in the Republican primary there.
For such voters, his promises to make people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” was enough to prove his bona fides.
That surely must have stunned Sens. Cruz and Rubio, both of whom are (or were) darlings of the Christian right and were mollywhopped by Trump. Even John Kasich—the Bible-thumping governor from Ohio who never stood a chance—seemed to have a tough time believing that evangelicals would choose Trump’s pendulum-swinging public record and embrace his candidacy.
As a base, the religious right has proven an attractive lure for both national and state GOP party leaders. It stands to reason why a candidate like Trump would return the embrace of this neatly organized, highly-engaged segment of the electorate by naming Pence. They do, after all, represent the heart and soul of the GOP and, without them, winning the 2016 primary would have been all but impossible.
When cornered, some Republicans leaders have publicly, though gingerly chastised the presumptive nominee after one egregious remark or another. They understand the inherent dangers of inflaming the base and fear the wrath of Christian conservatives back home should they step too far out of line. Surely, they must have known that no bad tree bears good fruit.
The so-called Silent Majority was never silent when it came to their exalting their cultural supremacy as the spiritual founders of our country. For decades, the Christian right has gotten by on a steady diet of social issues—including abortion, entitlement spending, immigration and gun control. Republican leaders bought in—in part because they shared those beliefs, in part because it won elections. They zealously blessed the cooks of such a fine meal and eagerly joined them at the table for the feast.
There can be no dispute about the strains of racial animus have always inhabited the conservative movement. Whether they claimed the Republican or Democratic mantle, the unifying factor has always been a sense of white entitlement to govern the nation founded by their forefathers in the way they see fit. Terms like “populist, “working class,” and even “soccer mom,” are directly rooted in white tribalism and, moreover, white-male grievance politics.
There was once a time when party leaders and donors could deny what lay in their midst, even as they tacitly approved of the hatred and bias baked into the recipes. Racial and religious hegemony was and continues to be an active ingredient.
The problem for party chairman Reince Priebus is he cannot stuff the genie back into the bottle—even if he wanted to. Likewise, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell find themselves trapped in matching straitjackets. Jointly and severally, they’ve built their political careers on sustaining white suspicions that boogeymen of assorted varieties were out to steal their country.
There are a few in the movement who’ve had the political moxie and faith in their beliefs to say something about Trump’s bigotry and new-found religiosity. Russell Moore, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention and president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said even the word “evangelical” has lost meaning in this election year.
“We have been too willing,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “’to look the other way when the word ‘evangelical’ has been co-opted by heretics and lunatics.’”
Trump is nothing if not a lunatic, and the Christian right has chosen to not only “look the other way” but to turn its proverbial cheek as Trump casually assaults the tenets of their faith. Pence, his last-minute choice as a running mate, is the kind of politician that can help Trump seal the deal with religious conservative and force big money off the sidelines.
They would do so not because they are driven by their faith, but because they are bound by their fears.