Most of the commentary on the support of right-wing evangelical Christians for Trump has assumed that it is, somehow, out of the ordinary. One of the threads that supposedly runs throughout contemporary evangelicalism is an emphasis on personal piety which, in the public realm, expresses itself morally. Conservative evangelicals, we are told, care deeply about individual conduct, and that goes double for our leaders, who should be held to a higher standard.
Why, then, do conservative evangelicals continue to support Trump? As the popular religion journalist Jonathan Merritt put it during the last presidential election, “Donald Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him.”
The basic assumption that Trump is out of step with evangelical values continues to shape popular opinion and commentary. Just last month John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College, expressed virtually the same sentiment, noting that Trump is, “a far cry from the sort of leader white evangelicals say they admire.” Fea goes on to assess the distance between Trump and evangelical values in the same terms that Merritt does, writing that “His personal life is well out of step with Christian teachings on fidelity, honesty, humility and charity.”
Despite predictions to the contrary, Trump’s support among evangelicals remains high. Roughly 70% of white evangelicals, for instance, approve of his handling of the presidency. Calling out the apparent “hypocrisy” of continued evangelical allegiance, moreover, has had little effect, and probably won’t anytime soon.
The reason it won’t have much effect is because these assumptions largely miss the point. USA Today columnist and former political operative Kirsten Powers has argued that Trump is little more than a “scam artist” who has duped evangelicals into following him. We don’t disagree that Trump is such an artist, but it’s the other way around: Trump didn’t use the religious right to win the presidency; the religious right used Trump to get what it wanted.
And this itself is nothing new, despite claims to the contrary which, we think, has more to say about the commentator than the subject in question. Although it may be convenient and more than a little self-serving to view Trump as an aberration who doesn’t align with desired moral standards, the pragmatic use of politicians by the religious right is a commonplace.
Ronald Reagan, for instance, became the poster child of “the Christian Right” despite being the nation’s first divorcée president. The Herculean effort it took to make Reagan into such a symbol, one led by New Right analysts and operatives in the 1970s, continues to be under-studied as an example of applying political realism to American public life. It also speaks to a different approach to politics itself as the arena wherein combatants negotiate with one another in an attempt to achieve political power.
Over the long term, conservative mobilization has been energized by these sorts of exchanges, ones that seek to define the public and thus moral script of America. As the “social issue” became the stuff of politics following the civil rights movement, both liberals and conservatives were provided with new tools and resources for enacting wide-scale change in American society. While racial justice largely defined social justice at the time, reproductive rights would soon gain prominence in the public eye as a form of social justice–and also become the target of conservative backlash, as seen in the mobilization against abortion. Although numerous other factors contributed to his rise to the presidency, one could argue that Trump himself is symbolic of the struggle over reproductive rights, with emboldened conservatives now pushing all their chips into the pot.
Case in point: the recent uptick in the passage of severely restrictive abortion laws in numerous states, some of which amount to an all-out ban in actual practice. For instance, last week, Governor Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s “fetal heartbeat” law, which prohibits abortion after six weeks, a time when many women aren’t even aware that they’re pregnant. The law also allows for the imprisonment of those who break it. Just this week, Alabama’s governor signed a bill that makes performing an abortion a Class A felony, punishable by up to 99 years in prison. Unlike the Georgia bill, Alabama’s doesn’t include exceptions for rape and incest.
While other states consider similar legislation, the timing of these bills is no accident. Their constitutionality will certainly be questioned, but that’s the entire point: force the fight to a conservative Supreme Court, which many think could be convinced to overturn Roe v. Wade, whatever the precedent might be.
This is why white conservative evangelicals put their weight behind Trump and continue to do so. They’ve signaled this all along, meaning that it’s never been much of a secret why they would support Trump. Just before the inauguration, James Dobson wrote that evangelicals supported Trump for three main reasons: “the sanctity of human life, the Constitutional guarantees of religious liberty that are being shredded, and the promise by Mr. Trump to appoint pro-life Justices to the Supreme Court.”
Thus, unlike their liberal religious counterparts, who tend to focus their collective attention on winning “hearts and minds,” conservative organizers have instead targeted whomever they’ve needed to in order to get a solid “return on investment.” As one of us has written elsewhere, this type of pragmatism, which borders on realpolitik, has little time for symbolism, social justice, or moral compasses. This is why charging one’s conservative counterparts with hypocrisy or even calling them “un-Christian” via appeals to other, more progressive interpretations of Christianity usually doesn’t work.
For instance, when Pete Buttigieg criticized Mike Pence’s opposition to gay marriage and gay rights on religious grounds, Pence didn’t have a change of heart but rather shot back at him for attacking his “Christian faith.” In the end, Buttigieg walked back his charge, claiming that his problem is with “bad policies,” not with Pence’s faith. The proverbial right knows that such appeals to sentiment rarely work, at least in terms of mobilizing voters. Until religious liberals determine a pragmatic translation for their prophetic visions of the public good, conservatives will continue targeting legislation and democratic forms of governance in order to wield their respective forms of power.
In June of 2017, The New York Times ran the following headline: “Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game.” If such headlines are true, which suggest that religious liberals themselves have contributed to their own lack of political efficacy in the public square, part of conservatism’s recent ascendancy can be explained by way of the religious left’s self-imposed ban from the public square. Far from being an aberration, recent conservative victories on the legislative level speak to an ongoing plan to remake the country from the top down instead of solely from the bottom up. That’s the endgame and, unfortunately, those on the right are now in a position to win, thanks in large part to Trump.