The Problem(s) With Trump’s Dogwhistle to Evangelicals

While Sen. Ted Cruz’s purported lock on the evangelical vote may be largely an illusion, as noted by RD’s Sarah Posner, it’s potent enough to rattle Donald Trump into making assertions about Cruz’s religiosity that may come back to haunt him.

Yesterday on Face the Nation, Trump doubled down on his suggestion that Cruz may not really be an evangelical since his family emigrated from Cuba. When host John Dickerson asked Trump to explain his December statement that “not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba,” Trump replied:

[I]t just means that Cuba, generally speaking, is a Catholic country. And you don’t equate evangelicals with Cuba. I don’t.

It’s obviously a dog whistle to evangelicals meant to stir up old animosities and fears about Catholicism. And it’s not only likely to backfire but also demonstrates Trump’s basic lack of religious knowledge—including about his own religion.

First of all, evangelicals have been making inroads in historically Catholic countries in Latin America, including Cuba, for decades. Today, only a little more than one-quarter of Cubans identify as Catholic; both Afro-Cuban religions like Santería and various evangelical Protestant denominations are more popular. So leaving aside the fact that Cruz’s father became a Baptist, (eventually a minister), after coming to the United States, its been a long time since Catholicism can be equated with Cuba.

Trump also suggested that, in fact, he is the authentic evangelical:

I think of evangelicals, and I have a—I guess I am. I’m Presbyterian. I’m Protestant.

While there are Presbyterian churches (both in the U.S. and in Cuba) that are considered evangelical, such as the Presbyterian Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Protestant denomination that Trump has been formally affiliated with, is as mainline as they come. Despite his effort to appeal to them, Trump clearly has no idea what constitutes an evangelical.

But Trump’s biggest misstep is in asserting that any whiff of Catholicism would sour Evangelicals in Iowa and elsewhere on Cruz. After all, it was a Catholic–Evangelical convergence that propelled Sen. Rick Santorum to a win in Iowa in 2012, evidence of how conservatives from the two formerly hostile religious traditions have found common ground on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage that override theological divides on issues like scriptural authority and transubstantiation.

And Trump is going to need those Catholics somewhere along the line if he hopes to win the GOP nomination, especially in the later part of the primary calendar as attention turns to Catholic-heavy Northeastern and Midwestern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio. Then Trump may learn it’s one thing to demagogue a religious minority like Muslims that’s unpopular in some quarters, and another thing all together to suggest something unsavory about a denomination that accounted for one-quarter of the electorate in the last three presidential elections.