Southern evangelicals are the types of voters that Donald Trump was supposed to find problematic. Their deep faith, their conservative ideology, and their polite sensibilities were all supposed to turn them off to the brash New Yorker’s bluster. And yet in South Carolina, Trump found significant success with this cohort, taking nearly a third of evangelical voters and significantly undermining what was supposed to be a firewall for Ted Cruz.
Today, many political observers are asking: What gives? Why are Southern evangelicals pro-Trump? Isn’t this a yuge break from their voting pattern?
The answer is yes, in part—but when you step back and understand the Trump phenomenon within the context of the culture wars, it makes more sense why Southern evangelicals would be open to his message.
We know how Southern evangelicals typically impact the Republican presidential stakes. You only have to look back to 2008 and 2012, when Mitt Romney was repeatedly dogged by accusations that he was only pretending to be pro-life. Romney had to construct an entire narrative of how his opinion on the issue had shifted, and when, and make the case for himself repeatedly as someone who could be trusted on the issue despite his prior positions on abortion. His Mormon faith was also a barrier for some evangelicals, though most swallowed their concerns and came out to vote for him in an election they felt would direct the future of the country.
But since 2012, the nation has changed. Romney ran the last campaign of the pre-gay marriage era. The years since have seen an explosion of controversy over political correctness, with battles over safe spaces, speech codes, and the assertion of privilege spreading from academia into the broader culture. The flashpoint in this new phase of the culture war is the issue of speech: what our culture and politics will allow you to say, and where you are allowed to say it.
For Southern evangelical Americans, the culture has changed rapidly and dramatically, in ways they find at odds with their understanding of their faith and their country. For decades, religious leaders have spoken about the risks facing the nation in apocalyptic terms—and in a sense, the difference between 2012 and 2016 is a post-apocalyptic one for social conservatives.
Gay marriage is the law of the land and they feel Christians are being dragooned into going along with it. The Little Sisters of the Poor are suing the government as it seeks to compel them to pay for contraceptives that the Catholic order considers to be abortifacients. Planned Parenthood is still getting taxpayer dollars despite what conservatives consider to be plentiful evidence that is has traded human organs for cash. Meanwhile, the man who provided that evidence is the one facing indictment.
Evangelicals have for decades believed that the country was more conservative than not, more Christian than not. The bipartisanship on religious liberty and the civic faith of the country was conducive to that. Now they’ve woken up to a reality in the Obama years that this was a polite fiction. They worry that coaches getting fired over praying at schools, fire chiefs getting fired for citing scripture, bakers getting bankrupted over their refusal to bake a cake—their entire perspective on Christian faith as a key element of what made America great has been swept away.
In this post-apocalyptic environment, it becomes increasingly clear why Southern evangelicals would drop their requirements that a political leader who seeks their backing be one of them, ideologically or faithfully. They have different priorities now: They want an ally who will protect them, regardless of his personal ethics.
That’s why Trump has been able to peel away so many evangelicals as his supporters, despite being an unchurched secularist with three wives who couldn’t tell a communion plate from an offering basket. It is because of the increasingly large portion of evangelicals who believe the culture wars are over, and they lost.
If you’re a conservative who thinks the culture wars are over (they’re never really over, of course), then you are a lot more open to the idea of a unprincipled blowhard who promises he’s got your back on political correctness. From the perspective of the Southern evangelicals I’ve spoken to in South Carolina, they don’t have any qualms about admitting that Trump is not a good Christian. They have no illusions about his unbelief. The difference is that while they believe Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would be one more round of good soldiers for their cause, they think Donald Trump would be a tank.
Evangelicals tried for years to fight for the culture—to win the argument for their traditional views regarding marriage, family, and the value of human life. Now they want to fight on different ground: political correctness. And since Trump is the king of that—an ally who isn’t Jesus-y but says he’s with the Jesus people—he can tear off a third of that evangelical electorate without moderating any of his secularism.
Ever since the 1980s and the Moral Majority, evangelicals have been loyal to the Republican Party, giving their votes in return for promises on abortion, family, and other arenas of policy which promised them protection for their churches and their priorities. These policies were supposed to serve as a defense against losing the culture war. But for all this loyalty, evangelicals have little to show for it.
Republican judicial nominees have been a mixed bag at best. George W. Bush never reasserted the Reagan Rule on abortion funding. Roe v. Wade is still on the books. And religious liberty has been a line a surprising number of Republicans are unwilling to defend, lest they be called bigots.
Some evangelicals now believe this approach is a failure at best, and a lie at worst. On the one hand, that inspires a desire for revenge—on the other, for just walking away. Both tendencies aid the Trump phenomenon.
He is not one of them—they know that. But they believe he is for them at a time when their faith and beliefs have become politically incorrect. They know he doesn’t care if he’s called a bigot, and that is a very powerful thing in today’s political fray. They don’t care if he’s a good person—they care that he’s a warrior for everything at odds with the elite opinion of the day… which now includes them.
Congratulations to the American left: You asked to win the culture wars—and evangelicals are giving you Donald J. Trump.
Ben Domenech is publisher of The Federalist.