According to the latest Quinnipiac University poll of Republican likely caucus-goers, Donald Trump is still earning the admiration of 20 percent of evangelicals, bested only by Ben Carson at 27 percent. Candidates once thought to be easy evangelical favorites are still, still lagging: Ted Cruz (12 percent), Mike Huckabee (7 percent), and Scott Walker (6 percent). Oh, yeah, and that guy Bush (4 percent).
There was a moment last week, though, that really stood out to me in the litany of Things Donald Trump Does Not Understand About Evangelicals. After Carson said on Wednesday that the chief difference between him and Trump was that “I’ve realized where my success has come from, and I don’t in any way deny my faith in God,” Trump hit back in a quintessentially Trump manner, as Mediaite reports:
“He is a man of faith, everybody knows that,” host Chris Cuomo began. “It’s a cornerstone of his existence and certainly his motivation to run.”
“Well I don’t know that,” Trump responded. “I had not heard that. I have known of Ben Carson for a long time and never heard faith was a big thing until just recently when he started running. So I don’t know about Ben Carson’s faith.”
“He’s a Seventh-Day Adventist!” Cuomo protested.
“All of a sudden he becomes the great religious figure. I don’t think he’s a great religious figure. I saw him yesterday quoting on humility, and it looked like he memorized it two minutes before he made the quote. So don’t tell me about Ben Carson,” Trump responded.
One might argue about what constitutes a “big man of faith.” One might argue about what level of religious talk is appropriate (if at all) in a presidential campaign. But there’s no denying that to evangelicals Ben Carson has long been someone whose faith was not in doubt. His 1996 book, Gifted Hands, details his difficult childhood and rise from inner city Detroit to become a prominent neurosurgeon. It is packaged as a morality tale of the role of faith in overcoming life’s obstacles. It was published by Zondervan, a leading evangelical publishing house which has gone on to publish other Carson books. Evangelicals have long seen the book in Christian bookstores, and have read it and become familiar with Carson’s life story.
Carson may have been catapulted to the national political stage when he attacked President Obama and “the PC police” at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013. But the reason he was the keynote speaker at the breakfast in the first place was because of his standing among evangelicals.
In the contest of wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve, Carson has Trump beat by a mile. As Religion News Services’ Adelle Banks writes, Carson, a twice-baptized Seventh-Day Adventist, prayed before each surgery he performed, and believes we live in a “Judeo-Christian nation.” That’s not to say he’s a respected theologian by any stretch (Carson, after all, has been criticized for misapprehending the Biblical tithing he claims undergirds his flat tax proposal). But Trump’s broadsides do demonstrate just how far Trump will go in saying what he wants, regardless of whether it has any basis in fact, and, even more surprisingly, regardless of whether it will hurt him with the voting bloc he claims to love.
Carson, no doubt, is a beneficiary of Trump’s upending of the Republican field as a political “outsider”—it’s why he’s besting the rest of the field among evangelicals in polls. That, too, might not last. As Ed Kilgore points out, Carson offers little beyond his conspiratorial attacks on liberals and “political correctness,” like “Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery; Obama might be planning to cancel elections; Democrats are opening the borders to bring in immigrants who will increase the welfare population and thus keep Democrats in power.” Although, Kilgore adds, “these are not unusual beliefs in the fever swamps of the far right, they are exotic for a major-party presidential candidate.”
For a while, Trump’s bombast worked with some evangelicals; witness his cheering squad at the Christian Broadcasting Network. He was a self-anointed declarer of victory over the liberals, and over the legacy of Barack Obama in particular, and this was enough, notwithstanding his lack of an apparent faith story (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), and his lack of a longstanding commitment to the Christian right’s culture war issues. His vows to vanquish the losers, despite the distinct lack of religious overtones (for example, the promise that if he becomes president, “we’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning”) nonetheless appeared to resonate with some evangelicals.
But evidence that evangelicals, despite their overwhelming Republican Party identification and relatively homogenous commitment to opposing abortion, are not a monolith when it comes to picking a presidential candidate. For some time, evangelicals who say they support immigration reform (even though their positions have failed to move the Republican Party, with or without Trump) have been disgusted with Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Rick Perry gave voice to that discontent as he dropped out of the race last week, taking aim at “nativist appeals that divide the nation further.” Perry added, “Demeaning people of Hispanic heritage is not just ignorant, it betrays the example of Christ . . . . we can love all who live within our borders without betraying our values.”
New rifts, too, are beginning to emerge. Last week, despite Trump’s appearance at the Tea Party rally opposing the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill, Jewish conservatives began to express their own doubts. As Josh Nathan-Kazis reports at the Forward, Trump is provoking “angst” among Jewish Republicans, in large measure because of the following of white nationalists he has attracted. And Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told TPM last week that Trump “is making many of us very nervous,” adding that “he doesn’t have the temperament to be president.” And if he’s making Jewish Republicans uneasy, that’s going to ripple within the Christian Zionist community as well. He may not need Sheldon Adelson’s money, but he will at least need good standing among Jewish Republicans to maintain any kind of standing with pro-Israel evangelicals, a very vocal and active part of the GOP base.