A Test for Trump—And the Religious Right

Last night the Family Research Council announced that Donald Trump would, after all, be speaking at the annual Values Voters Summit tomorrow. As I noted last week, Trump’s initial decision to decline the speaking invitation risked him alienating a crucial constituency—social conservatives—in the Republican primary.

The question is what kind of speech will Trump give, and whether it will further solidify his standing among evangelicals, or whether it will further expose the divide between the self-identified evangelicals who have helped fuel Trump’s rise, and those who reject him.

I’ve covered most of the Values Voters Summits since they started in 2006. Although immigration (or rather opposition to immigration reform) is sometimes mentioned, the key issues for the audience listening to candidate speeches have been abortion, marriage, the besieged Christian nature of the nation, and the candidate’s own faith.

As I discussed with the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore earlier this week on bloggingheads, and have addressed here at RD, Trump is exposing fractures in the religious right. On the one hand, he’s attracting close to a third of “born again” registered Republicans, according to CNN polling conducted after last week’s debate. At the same time, many evangelical elites, most notably the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, have chastised Trump over his immigration stance. But as the CNN poll found, 49% of self-identified “born again” registered Republicans believe Trump to be the best positioned candidate to handle immigration. That’s a pretty stunning number given Moore’s very public rejections of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and is indicative of one kind of split among these voters.

But voters who will self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical” to a pollster are not a monolith. As Warren Smith argues at WORLD magazine, “watching Joel Osteen on TV doesn’t make you an evangelical.” Smith calls the evangelical support for Trump a “myth;” others, like Keith Miller, have argued that evangelicals with high church attendance are less likely to support Trump than others (possibly those who casually watch Osteen in their living rooms)?

While it might appear that all these voters share something in common—a strong belief that America is in decline—they come to it from very different vantage points. Trump supporters appear moved by his angry tirades against the vaguely-identified destroyers of what made America great. For conservative evangelicals, historically this discontent has been far more specifically laid out, and deeply rooted in their religious and political views (which are tied together). For these evangelicals, America is in decline because of secularism, abortion (and contraception and Planned Parenthood), marriage (and the Kim Davis-baker-caterer range of issues), and the meaning of the Bible in public life. If conservative evangelicals support Trump, they are supporting a candidate who quite obviously doesn’t share the priorities they have long claimed are central to their religious and political identity.

It’s been pretty clear from Trump’s behavior that he doesn’t understand this world very well. He’s appeared on David Brody’s segment on the Christian Broadcasting Network, but even there can’t seem to summon any evidence of basic biblical knowledge, or even a sense of what this base’s ideological commitments are.

With a base fractured over Trump, many will look to what the elites are saying. WORLD has been conducting a monthly survey of evangelical “insiders,” who have not been picking Trump as their favorite. This month’s survey finds Marco Rubio in the lead with 37%, followed by Ted Cruz (19%), and Carly Fiorina (18%). It’s not a scientific poll, and it surveyed just 91 people, but Trump only registered 1%.

Smith writes that “evangelical Christian voters know better” than to buy into Trumpmania. “They look at Trump,” he adds, “and see a man whose political positions, personal lifestyle, and bombastic rhetoric are not consistent with what they know their evangelical doctrine and theology teaches.”

Here’s what to watch tomorrow: whether the audience at Values Voters will like Trump despite the views of evangelical “insiders,” and whether Trump will even try to demonstrate more fluency with their essential religious and political commitments.