How Donald Trump divided and conquered the religious right
It’s time for me to sit down for a nice meal of crow.
A year ago, I wrote a commentary here at RNS that tried to explain why Donald Trump had gathered some support in the Republican primary from “values voters” and “conservative Christians.”
“The one aspect that draws people to Trump is his fearlessness when it comes to offending the sensibilities of the cultural elite. We shouldn’t underestimate just how attractive his unguarded rhetoric is to conservatives who feel increasingly shut out of important conversations. Many voters feel like it’s difficult to speak to contentious issues these days (immigration, race relations, the nature of marriage, etc.). Trump’s way of ‘telling it like it is, no matter the consequences’ comes as ‘a breath of fresh air’ to conservatives who worry that ‘political correctness’ is preventing us from having tough conversations.”
The way I saw it back then, Trump’s bombastic tendency to “drive our discourse to the gutter” would weary his Christian supporters and lead evangelicals to turn away from him in favor of other Republican contenders:
“Looking on the bright side, I don’t see much of a future for Donald Trump with evangelical voters. I don’t know of any prominent evangelicals who have supported him. And the conservative voters who are currently enjoying the Donald’s roller coaster will soon be sick to their stomachs and be asking to get off the ride.”
Pass some crow, please.
A year later, many evangelical voters have grown to love the Donald’s roller coaster. Just as Trump divided and conquered the Republican Party, so also he has divided and conquered the religious right, the voting bloc of white conservative Christians that has been a cornerstone of the Republican Party’s outreach for decades.
I underestimated the extent of Trump’s plans. He wasn’t out to offend only the elitist leaders in culture; he wanted to take on the “establishment” Republicans, and divide evangelical voters from many of their most prominent voices. He succeeded through the power of his polarizing persona and his willingness to set party factions against one another by tapping into underlying grievances.
Trump didn’t win over large numbers of religious conservatives by appealing to all of them. He won because he realized he didn’t have to. During the primary season, he bypassed religious leaders and went straight for voters, choosing to make the same promises that appealed to the non-churchgoing folks around them.
Christianity won’t be on the decline anymore!
We’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” again!
We’ll reverse the unenforced IRS code that prohibits pastors from making political endorsements!
These aren’t serious challenges to religious liberty, or even on the radar for most leaders of the religious right. But Trump wasn’t speaking the language of the elite. He rode the populist wave and, over time, sought to turn the evangelical rank-and-file against the spokespeople who represented them.
Now that the primary season is over, some evangelical leaders are supporting him. Other evangelical leaders are appalled. And evangelical voters have fallen into four major categories.
1. Anti-Clinton voters
First, there are the evangelicals who plan to hold their noses and vote for Trump, seeing him as the latest (and worst) in a long line of unappealing Republican candidates. Recent polls indicate that 45 percent of white evangelicals who will vote for Trump are voting against Hillary Clinton, not for Trump. These voters may be distressed at some of Trump’s policy proposals and rhetoric, but they are even more distressed by the corruption of Clinton and her opposition on several important issues (most notably, the life of the unborn, and protections for religious dissent from the sexual revolution). When Trump met with religious right leaders in June, he based his plea for their support on the promise of appointing “the right kind of Supreme Court justice.”
2. Anti-Trump voters
In the second camp, we find evangelicals (many who are black and Hispanic) who will pull the lever for Clinton, despite her pro-abortion policies and dishonest character. They believe that Trump’s temperament and military decisions could lead to chaos on the world scene. Like the people in the first camp, they are not enthusiastic about their candidate. They believe, however, that in the case of “choosing between two evils,” it is wisest to go with the evil you are familiar with, rather than open the door for evils not yet imagined.
3. #NeverTrump voters
There’s a third segment of evangelicals who will write in a candidate, vote third party or not cast a vote for president at all, and simply vote on other races. This is the Never Trump crowd. People in this category worry that the religious right has lost all credibility by overlooking matters of character and virtue in the Republican candidate, after spending more than two decades making a case for these values in the public square. Their opposition to Trump is principled. To vote for Trump would go against conscience, which is why Ted Cruz’s admonition to “vote your conscience” outraged so many Trump supporters at the Republican National Convention.
4. True Trump supporters
Finally, there’s a fourth segment of evangelicals who have supported Trump since the primary season or who have fully jumped on board since the primaries ended. This is the group I wrote about last year, but whose numbers I underestimated.
The existence of these four categories, especially the last, indicates the new political landscape, in which evangelical voters are at odds with one another in ways not seen for decades.
Trump stumbled upon the fault lines in the evangelical movement — the leaders vs. the “foot soldiers,” the “elite” vs. the “populists,” the “new guard” vs. the “old guard.” He exploited those tensions, turned factions against each other and pitted leaders against leaders and voters against voters. In the end, he won over many of the old religious right — not by appealing to their best instincts, but by stirring up their worst.
— by Trevin Wax | RNS
Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After”