How Donald Trump Has Exposed Rifts in the Religious Right

I went on vacation for two weeks, during which Donald Trump continued to be Donald Trump, and continued to lead the Republican primary field in the polls. Some religious conservatives say he can’t win the evangelical vote with his anti-immigrant talk. But it has become evident that for some religious conservatives, Trump’s naked nativism is actually a strong selling point.

Witness, for example, Phyllis Schlafly, who is Catholic and a major elder stateswoman of the conservative movement, praising Trump for his “blunt talk.” She contrasts Trump to Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio, whom she depicts as weak-kneed amnesty-lovers, saving her most stunningly xenophobic criticism for Rubio (emphasis mine):

That’s a refreshing contrast to the immigration paper recently released by Jeb Bush, who is the candidate of the big-money, big-business faction of the Republican party. Jeb famously said illegal immigrants were guilty only of “an act of love,” and his plan would reward them with permanent “legal status” which he said must be “combined with” long-overdue measures to secure the border.

If Jeb’s candidacy falters despite the $114 million he raised, the establishment’s next choices, Senator Marco Rubio and Ohio Governor John Kasich, have basically similar views. Kasich said the 12 million illegals should be “legalized once we find out who they are,” and Rubio said Obama’s executive amnesty “can’t be terminated because there are already people benefiting from it.”

Rubio’s statement was made in Spanish on the Spanish-language network Univision, which is reason enough to eliminate him from serious consideration. When somebody is running for president of the United States, why should we have to get somebody to translate his remarks into English?

Schlafly represents a certain kind of conservative: rigidly entrenched in Barry Goldwater-era conservatism blended with the anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, and anti-abortion activism of the early 1970s. Her nativism is out of step with many current fixtures among religious conservatives, most notably the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference’s Samuel Rodriguez, both of whom have been critical of Trump’s statements about immigrants. John Mark Reynolds, the provost of Houston Baptist University, who I interviewed for a piece earlier this year about what some conservative evangelicals are looking for in a presidential candidate, called Trump’s views on immigration “wicked.”

There’s really not sufficient polling data at this point—and polling data at this juncture doesn’t really tell us very much about how Iowa caucus-goers and early primary state voters will vote when the chips are down next year—to truly understand the evangelical (or, more broadly, the religious conservative) vote. But Reuters/Ipsos polling gives us a tiny and interesting window in its ongoing survey of respondents’ views on the presidential candidates. In that polling, there’s some evidence that “born-again” (that’s Reuters/Ipsos’s classification) Republicans who attend church frequently don’t like Trump as much as other Republicans do.

For example, as of last weekend, Trump was polling among Republicans at 24.9. percent, with Ben Carson in second place at 10.3 percent. But when you look at only born-again Republicans, Trump’s support drops to 19 percent and Carson’s rises to 15 percent, with Mike Huckabee coming in third with 12 percent. If you further winnow that to born-again Republican respondents who attend church nearly weekly or more, Trump’s support dips again, down to 13 percent (tied with Huckabee), behind Ben Carson’s 22 percent by nine points.

Baylor University history professor Thomas Kidd calls Trump’s supporters who identify as evangelicals “a holdover of the worst aspects of American civil religion and Bible Belt culture.” He divides these evangelicals (or, as he writes, “evangelicals”) into three categories: (1) those who so strongly believe in the Republican God and country dogma that they reflexively associate themselves with evangelicalism; (2) Fox News watchers who identify as evangelicals just because, as in item (1); and (3) those who think, “I am an evangelical, regardless of my theology or church involvement (or lack thereof).”

“I strongly suspect,” Kidd goes on,”(and I desperately hope) that, could we find out, there would be something of an inverse relationship between church attendance and theological sophistication on one hand, and Trump support on the other.” If the Reuters data I pointed to holds, Kidd might be right.

But, in the nearer term, before we have more extensive empirical insights into the voting choices of evangelical Republican voters, the Trump phenomenon highlights a rift that candidate choices in recent election cycles did not: that the “evangelicals” falling into the categories Kidd identified really don’t care about religion.

Trump is the first Republican presidential candidate in the post-Reagan era to pin his campaign on a macho, chest-beating, self-aggrandizing view of what America is without invoking either his own salvation testimony or a paean to America as a Christian nation. For Trump, America is Trumpnation, not a Christian nation. What’s appealing to Christian nation diehards is often not the notion of America as a pious nation, but rather the affirmation that America is strong, brave, or just generally the best. For Trump, America risks not being the best anymore not because of the decline of religion (typically the heart of Christian nation ideology), but because of the rise of immigration.

Even before Trump-mania took hold, religious conservatives like Moore and Reynolds were already rejecting the decades-old playbook of candidates genuflecting to the Christian nation ideology to win over evangelicals. As Moore wrote in the Wall Street Journal in February, evangelicals don’t want candidates to just “know the words to hymns” or deploy “‘God and country’ talk borrowed from a 1980s-era television evangelist.”

Trump may have inadvertently taken Moore’s advice. He appears to know no hymns and mimics only televangelists’ love of money. But he may have, in the process, won over a not insignificant number of evangelicals, even with two preachers’ sons (Ted Cruz and Scott Walker), one preacher (Mike Huckabee), and one longtime evangelical hero (Ben Carson) in the race. He has managed to display a deep rift in the religious right without even being part of the religious right himself—possibly the most telling thing of all.