Much has been made of Donald Trump as “post-ideological,” with claims that his incoherent, and often incompatible, mix of domestic and international policies and priorities somehow transcends ideology and points to a new way of governing that is neither left or right. Much has also been made of growing fault lines within the evangelical community, with suggestions that the evangelicalism of old white men is dead.
Taken together, the rise of Trump and the fracturing evangelicalism suggest that the political phenomena known as the Christian Right may be in its death throes. As Ed Kilgore noted in October, albeit before Trump won 81 percent of the evangelical vote:
There are growing signs that the conflicted feelings among conservative Evangelicals are not just about Trump, but instead reflect an evolution whereby the culture-war verities of Christian nationalism are slowly giving way to a counterculture sensibility that regards fidelity to the Republican Party and even the conservative movement as a sinful temptation.
Influential evangelical leaders like Russell Moore have said that evangelicals should get out of the culture war business altogether, a stance that seems especially resonant with younger evangelicals. But as the early weeks of the Trump transition shows, the Christian right is far from dead. It has just mutated into a new, equally virulent form that while perhaps lacking the evangelical foot soldiers who put it on the map in the 1980s, remains able to shape and influence policy just as effectively.
The Christian right, as Dale Coulter notes in First Things, “has always been a sub-culture of leaders and organizations, committed to a particular political agenda, within the evangelical movement.” While these leaders may need some semblance of the evangelical movement for legitimacy, they are now a force of their own to be reckoned with: they are well integrated into the upper echelons of the Republican Party, have well-established policy goals, and have developed stratagems and political rhetoric, like “school choice,” to make their goals palatable to the mainstream. They don’t need the evangelical movement to be particularly vibrant or to sign on to what they’re trying to do. They’re perfectly happy to let others squabble about the future of evangelicalism while they implement a policy agenda that reflects straight-up Christian conservatism.
The commander-in-chief of today’s Christian right is Vice President-elect Mike Pence. It’s no secret that Trump picked Pence to solidify his bona fides with evangelicals. And Trump really only cares about a handful of issues: infrastructure spending, trade, manufacturing, immigration, and foreign policy. He is happy to outsource much of the agenda around social policy, which includes all the culture war issues like abortion, LGBT rights and “religious liberty,” to Pence and his allies.
Pence has deep roots as a culture warrior. When President George Bush’s massive plan to tackle HIV/AIDS in the developing world was passed, Pence, who was a congressman at the time, supported a requirement that one-third of the funding go to abstinence-only programs that pushed a conservative Christian agenda. The programs were eventually found to be ineffective. Pence was the author of original congressional legislation to defund Planned Parenthood.
As governor of Indiana, Pence signed the ill-fated religious liberty bill that set off protests across the nation because it would allow discrimination against LGBT individuals and couples. He also signed a measure that would require abortion clinics to treat the remains of aborted fetuses as if they were dead infants—requiring burial or cremation—in a move designed to dramatically increase the cost and mental anguish of abortions.
Congressman Tom Price, Trump’s pick for the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, the department that has the most direct impact over women’s health, is also a long-time opponent of reproductive health access. He has received a zero rating from Planned Parenthood and a 100% rating from the National Right to Life Committee. He co-sponsored bills in the House that would have defined life as beginning at the moment of conception and banned not only abortion but potentially common forms of birth control like the IUD and oral contraceptives. He supports a 20-week abortion ban.
Price opposed the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act and denied that there are any women who can’t afford birth control, signaling he would like to end no-cost contraception for women. “Bring me one woman who has been left behind. Bring me one. There’s not one. The fact of the matter is, this is a trampling of religious freedom and religious liberty in this country,” he told ThinkProgress. He’s also been a big backer of “conscience clauses” that allow religious health care providers to deny women’s health care they disagree with.
Then there’s Ben Carson as head of Housing and Urban Development. Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist who is a long-time hero to the Christian right. He’s called rights for transgender people “extra rights” and suggested that going to prison can make people gay. Would-be Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, as noted in RD, has said her work in promoting school choice is fueled by her desire to “confront the culture in which we live today to help advance God’s Kingdom.” Allowing public education funding to go to religious schools is, according to some, the foundational issue of the Christian right.
But it’s not just within the Trump administration where the Christian right will likely hold sway. The Christian right has always been about more than just evangelicals. It includes conservative Catholics, Mormons and conservative Jews. The alliance between evangelical leaders and the Catholic bishops has been a cornerstone of the Christian Right for nearly twenty years. And while many people believe that culture war issues are a thing of the past in the Catholic Church of Pope Francis, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops just elected as its president a man who is a straight-up reproductive rights culture warrior.
Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo is an outspoken opponent of abortion, having served as chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-life Activities. But he’s also promoted far-right ideas about contraception, suggesting that not only is it not a preventive service, but actually imperils women’s health, increasing a woman’s chances of getting AIDS. Oh, and while studies show that most women who have an unplanned pregnancy either didn’t use contraceptives or used them incorrectly, he claims that contraceptives fail to prevent unplanned pregnancy or abortion:
Preventive services are aimed at preventing diseases (e.g., by vaccinations) or detecting them early to aid prompt treatment (e.g., screening for diabetes or cancer). But pregnancy is not a disease. … Mandating such coverage shows neither respect for women’s health or freedom, nor respect for the consciences of those who do not want to take part in such problematic initiatives.
Far from preventing disease, contraceptives can have serious health consequences of their own, for example, increasing the risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease, such as AIDS. Studies report that most women seeking abortions were using contraception in the month they became pregnant. Again and again, studies show that increasing access to contraception fails to reduce rates of unplanned pregnancies and abortions.
Taken together, the empowerment of these forces suggests that far from a death-knell for the Christian Right, the Trump administration amounts to a rebirth. As Ian Lovett reported in the Wall Street Journal:
Donald Trump ’s victory is giving new life to socially conservative causes that have suffered a string of defeats in recent years, potentially reigniting culture wars that many liberals had hoped were all but over.
It may not be your father’s Christian right, with new players and new tactics, but it’s still the Christian right and it is more empowered than its been since the glory days of Ronald Reagan.