As has been widely reported, last week President Trump appeared at the Conservative Political Action Network annual conference (CPAC) marking a return to his base after a tumultuous week during which his summit in North Korea came to an abrupt end and his former lawyer Michael Cohen called him a liar, a con man, and a racist in his congressional testimony.
Trump’s appearance was certainly a bid to distract from those headlines. One might even go so far to say that the speech was both an unhinged display of buffoonery and a shrewd piece of political strategy in a way that only Trump seems to pull off.
But the president’s antics shouldn’t be the only thing we remember from CPAC 2019. As Katelyn Burns reported on Rewire.News:
A common refrain in the first two days of the gathering of prominent conservatives was the claim that Trump is the ‘most pro-life president in American history.’ Pence, White House Adviser Kellyanne Conway, and Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser—a Trump ally who gave a speech Thursday morning praising the president—all made a version of the claim.
In a week of bad headlines for the White House, this message marked the real return to the script that helped get Trump elected.
A year ago, I wrote about my experience as a single-issue evangelical voter. Even though I wanted to vote for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, I couldn’t shake the idea—one that had been consistently and unwaveringly presented as evangelical doctrine—that abortion equated to murder, and thus any vote for a pro-choice candidate was a vote for “a holocaust” of the unborn.
Despite being convinced that Bush was a liar and foolhardy leader, when I went to check the box all I could think about was having blood on my hands. It didn’t matter, I told myself, if hundreds or even thousands died in Afghanistan, or if tax cuts would hurt the most vulnerable, or if stem cell research could save lives. There was always the trump card: How could I vote for someone who would allow millions of ‘unborn babies’ to die?
Abortion is the central political issue for many contemporary evangelicals. It is the reason many white conservative Christians will tell you they voted for Trump. The reason they can, and do, ignore all the other unrighteous aspects of his character. And that’s why abortion is the president’s evangelical Trump card. They will remain with him as long as he doesn’t stray from the anti-choice path. So far, he hasn’t. Unlike many of his campaign promises, he has delivered on this one in the form of two Supreme Court justices in Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh who align with the Religious Right’s militant anti-choice posture.
As I predicted a year ago, as long as Trump continues to champion this issue in ways that please his white evangelical base, they will stay with him through the barrage of reports about moral and criminal failings. The extra-marital affairs, hush money payments, obstruction of justice, and the Russia probe—none of this will move the needle on white evangelical support for Trump.
On one hand, it’s easy to see why. He’s delivered on his campaign promises to fill the courts with anti-choice judges, and now his base sniffs the possibility of a full reversal of Roe v. Wade.
But I want to reiterate another point. Evangelicalism’s moral militancy on abortion is a political shield from the complexities of the democratic process. When I went into the voting booth as a single-issue voter, I knew my mission was to vote anti-abortion down the ballot—from president to school board. This meant I didn’t have to engage with any of the other issues facing my country and my community during any given election. I could shut my brain off and go to sleep at night without worrying about immigration policies, funding for child cares, or new initiatives for stem cell research. My single-issue voting was a shield from having to wade into the messy details of democratic life. It kept me from having to think critically about any other part of the political spectrum.
Evangelicalism’s political shield is also a moral excuse. When you center abortion at the cost of all other issues, you center the unborn whose lives are supposedly at stake. The unborn become angels who must be protected at all costs, which means the rest of us—the born and bodied—are of secondary concern at best. Harrowing pictures of families at the border, stories of underfunded school districts, rising economic inequality—these issues can be whisked away without concern or debate. The bodies of Dreamers, of immigrants, and even at-risk children are no match for unborn angels.
And so, despite the President’s rambling speech at CPAC, his administration remained right on target. Keep feeding the base anti-abortion promises, and trust they’ll keep coming back for more.