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Trump is Making a Complete Mockery of the Religious Right
The so-called 'evangelicals' have been taken over by hostile political ideologies which haven't delivered on abortion, same-sex marriage or much else. Ted Cruz is a Dominionist joke.
By Stephen Prothero
The big puzzle in this most puzzling of election seasons is why so many white evangelicals are flocking to Donald Trump, shouting Hosannas as he flies overhead in his private jet. On a Super Tuesday thick with primaries in the Bible Belt, Trump won seven states. He carried the born-again vote in Massachusetts, Vermont, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Virginia, careening yet again down a white evangelical “lane” that was supposed to be owned by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. In Mississippi, where evangelicals turned out in record numbers—and white evangelicals accounted for a whopping 75 percent of Republican voters—Trump won by double digits.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Donald Trump curses like a bond trader. He mocks the disabled. He expresses no need for God’s forgiveness. He seems about as familiar with the Bible (“Two Corinthians”) as ordinary Americans are with the loopholes of the IRS tax code that Trump delights in threading. “The Art of the Deal,” his campaign biography by default, is a human billboard for pride and lust. “I’m a greedy person,” he told an Iowa audience, “I’ve always been greedy.” He’s wrong for evangelicals on the issues, on theology, on piety, and most of all on “values,” the buzzword of the culture wars over the past half-century.
Trump’s opponents, meanwhile, have devoted their careers to tailoring their resumes for values voters. Cruz is the pious son of a traveling evangelist; Rubio, a staunch Catholic who won’t cotton to abortion even in cases of rape and incest; and Kasich, a member of an ultra-conservative Anglican denomination that went its own way after the Episcopal Church consecrated a gay bishop. Trump? He seems like he’d be more comfortable on Tinder than in a church pew. “Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities,” Mitt Romney beseeched his fellow Republicans: “the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics.” SuperPac-funded ads remind GOP voters that Trump is also soft on gay marriage and Planned Parenthood.
And yet it is Trump who has won the evangelical vote over and over until we’re all tired of the winning. He’s won the endorsement of Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. The televangelist Kenneth Copeland has praised God for Trump, whom he sees as “a bold man, a strong man and an obedient man.”
How can this be happening? There is no shortage of theories, mostly revolving around the man himself. Some pundits have speculated that white evangelicals are attracted to Trump because his mammon-and-megalomania message resonates with the prosperity gospel of many evangelical megachurches, which emphasize health and wealth in this world over salvation in the next. Or perhaps evangelicals are drawn to Trump because they crave an authoritarian personality, which divides the world into black and white, the rulers and the ruled. Some see Trump’s rise as resulting from a fracturing of evangelical leadership; others see a breakdown between pulpit and pew. Or maybe “values voters” have morphed into “nostalgia voters”—fighting a culture war against an increasingly multi-religious and multiethnic society. Still others suggest it could be that white evangelicals view Trump as a modern day Cyrus—the Persian king who was not himself a believer but nonetheless made the Israelites great again, by releasing them from captivity, restoring them to their Promised Land, and rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple.
There is some truth in most of these theories. But here is a simpler explanation, a profound change in the landscape that political observers have almost totally missed: America’s evangelicals just aren’t all that evangelical any more.
For decades, pundits have viewed white evangelicals as perhaps the most powerful voting block in American politics—the base of the Republican Party. Cohesive, well organized, and politically active, they crafted their identity around a shared belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God and a shared commitment to supplant the moral relativism of the insurgent 1960s cultural revolution with “traditional values.” It’s a bloc that’s persisted for decades. Today, roughly a quarter of all Americans identify as evangelicals, and white evangelicals make up the majority of Republican voters in many Southern primaries. In 2012, four out of five of them preferred Romney over Obama.
White evangelicals helped to send Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House, so courting them early and often has become perhaps the great art of running for office as a Republican. For decades, Republican politicians have gone on pilgrimage, Bible in hand, to Bob Jones University and Liberty University to court the Jesus vote. Even nominal churchgoers like Reagan have done what no European politician would ever do: pledge their prayerful allegiance to Christ. Along the way, they have repeatedly promised to restore school prayer or stop gay marriage or overturn Roe v. Wade.
What they have delivered, however, is defeat after defeat in the culture wars. Cultural conservatives failed to pass constitutional amendments on school prayer or abortion. They lost on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. They lost on pop culture, where movies and television shows today make the sort of entertainment decried by the Moral Majority look like It’s a Wonderful Life. And same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.
Scarred by these battles, some evangelicals have withdrawn from politics, pursuing what blogger Rod Dreher has referred to as the “Benedict Option,” which focuses on fostering local Christian communities rather than taking yet another whack at the lost cause of Christianizing the nation. Others have continued to try to bend the arc of American history toward biblical values. And some of them are now denouncing Trump as a wolf in sheep’s clothing—even as the larger flock appears poised to make him the Republican nominee.
The most outspoken of the no-Trumpers is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore has repeatedly whacked Trump—a man whose “attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord”—as a reprobate unfit for the presidency. “The gospel is more important than politics,” he warns his fellow Bible believers. You can stump for Trump or be an evangelical, he says. But you cannot do both.
But Moore’s effort to keep evangelicalism pure, in a world of increasingly polluted politics, is a lost cause. Paradoxically, that effort has actually alienated him from the modern evangelical movement itself. Moore essentially admits this: in a recent op-ed, he announced that until voting habits change, he won’t even to refer to himself as an evangelical anymore. He lamented how so many of his coreligionists “have been too willing to look the other way when the word ‘evangelical’ has been co-opted by heretics and lunatics . . . as long as they were on the right side of the culture war.”
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and another evangelical critic who has refused to jump on the Trump train, says that the group that used to refer to itself as a “moral majority” is at best a tiny minority, and a shrinking one at that. “We have taken comfort in the fact that there have been millions and millions of us in America,” he told NPR recently. “Now we’re having to face the fact that, evidently, theologically-defined—defined by commitment to core evangelical values—there aren’t so many millions of us as we thought.”
Not so long ago, being an evangelical Protestant was a foundational identity. What made an evangelical an evangelical was a born-again experience that included accepting the Bible as the inspired word of God and giving one’s life over to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To a born-again Christian, following Jesus came first. Everything else came in a distant second.
There’s an obvious tension between serving God and engaging in the scrum of power politics, and indeed evangelicals like Jerry Falwell were once wary of political involvement. As a Southern Baptist, Falwell worried early in his career about Christians selling out their spiritual birthright for even a taste of the pottage of politics. In this, he was continuing a long line of strict separationists who wanted to build a wall of separation between church and state. Some of these thinkers favored disestablishment because they didn’t want the church to pollute our politics (Thomas Jefferson). Others didn’t want our politics to pollute the church (the Baptists). During the civil rights era, Falwell denounced black ministers for their political activism. In a 1965 sermon—delivered the day the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led marchers from Selma to Montgomery—Falwell criticized the “left-wing” leaders of the “so-called freedom movement” for stirring up hatred and violence. “Preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners,” he said.
But Falwell had a change of heart. Today he is remembered as the fundamentalist who, by co-founding the Moral Majority in 1979, officiated at the marriage of economic and cultural conservatism—the birth of the New Religious Right. Christians did not live in isolation, he reasoned. So it was not enough merely to save souls. You had to save the nation. And who better to convert it than pastors like himself?
Back in 1976, Falwell had supported the born-again Christian Jimmy Carter for president. But Carter disappointed many of his fellow evangelicals by taking on the tax-exempt status of Southern “segregation academies” and refusing to fight the good fight on abortion. So Falwell and his friends cozied up to the Republican Party. The Moral Majority, which began as a “pro-life, pro-family, pro-moral, and pro-American” organization, was from the start knee deep in the muck and mire of partisan politics. Its alliance with the GOP meant that its members would fight not only to overturn Roe v. Wade but also to oppose the SALT II treaty, teachers unions, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In addition to calling the nation “back to biblical morality” he called it “back to patriotism.” And for him true patriots supported nuclear weapons, massive increases in military spending, a balanced budget amendment, tax cuts, and consumer capitalism. “The free-enterprise system is clearly outlined in the Book of Proverbs,” he said.
Through organizations such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, Falwell and others on the Religious Right realigned American evangelicalism even as Reagan and others were realigning the GOP. In their prayerful hands, evangelicalism became not only a religious brand but a political one. Billy Graham, who devoted his life to bringing sinners to Christ as massive urban crusades, yielded to his son Franklin Graham, who is devoting his life to baptizing the policies of the most conservative wing of the GOP in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Though it’s common to talk about the Republican Party having been captured by white evangelical activists, if you really look at the way the two groups have interacted over the years, it’s more accurate to say that evangelicals have been captured by the Republican Party. They ape its talking points about welfare cheats rather than the Bible’s compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Born-again Christians continue to laud Jesus as their King of Kings. But it is a strange sovereign who is so slavishly responsive to his subjects. Here Jesus is more pawn than king, pushed around in a game of political chess, sacrificed here to take down Obamacare and there to turn a reality-television star into God’s gift to America.
Today, when born-again Christians hold up posters at rallies that read, “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump,” when they say they are sick of false promises from supposedly pious presidents on abortion or gay marriage and just want a strong man in the White House who can stop illegal immigration or keep us safe or just “smash things,” what are they saying? They are saying that their political identity has trumped their religious identity. They are saying that they are conservatives first and Christians second.
This is no less true of the candidates who claim to speak for them. In an interview on the cusp of the New Hampshire primary, Ted Cruz told reporters, “I’m a Christian first, American second, conservative third and Republican fourth.” If you look at Cruz’s actual record, that’s nearly impossible to believe. Cruz’s father is a traveling evangelist and a preacher of Dominionist theology who believes that Christians like his son must take dominion over “seven mountains”: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business and government. Cruz’s own hierarchy of identities is not easy to sort out, because like other white evangelicals he interprets his four identity markers—as a Christian, an American, a conservative, and a Republican—as roughly equivalent. Unlike George Washington, who saw a clear conflict between being an American and being a member of a political party, Cruz sees no tension between his Americanism and his Republicanism. And unlike Moore and Mohler, he sees no tension between the Bible and contemporary American conservatism. Still, it seems plain that Cruz is a conservative first, an American second, a Republican third, and a Christian fourth.
In fact, it is exceedingly difficult to find any moment when Reagan, Bush, or any of today’s Republican candidates put biblical faith over conservative principles. Abortion, for example, is never mentioned in the Bible. When the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Roe v. Wade, in 1973, the Baptist Press praised it for “advancing the cause of religious liberty, human equality, and justice.” Jerry Falwell did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until 1978—when the nascent Religious Right was casting about for ways to attack Democrats as moral relativists stuck in the “Bad Sixties.” The Southern Baptist Convention did not oppose abortion until 1980. Even Rubio’s statement in a New Hampshire debate that he “would rather lose an election than be wrong on the issue of life” seems designed to win an election.
In this sense at least, Rubio and Cruz look a lot like today’s rank-and-file white evangelical voters, who take their clues more from party platforms than from Biblical quotes. In a process sociologist Robert Wuthnow has referred to as “the restructuring of American religion,” the dividing lines in U.S. churches are marked less by denominational affiliation than by political ideology. Whereas Baptists and Methodists once engaged in “the struggle for America’s soul,” that work is now being done by liberals and conservatives. Somehow, politics has become more real to many American Christians than theology. Views about abortion or gay marriage are more salient than beliefs about the Trinity or infant baptism. Evidence for this hostile takeover of religious institutions by political ideologies can be found in the sharp rise in recent years of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones.” Many Christians have distanced themselves from organized religion as it has become more politicized, and as the term Christian has become increasingly identified with anti-gay bigotry, religious intolerance, and hostility to women’s rights. The portion of the US population who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated has risen sharply as political polarization has shot up in recent years—from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014.
The result is a population of self-identified “evangelicals” who find it harder and harder to see the difference between the teachings of the Bible and the policies of their beloved candidates. What would Jesus do? Probably whatever your favorite candidate is doing. Only now are we beginning to see the implications of this shift. Efforts by the Religious Right to break down the wall of separation between church and state have not only politicized Christianity, they have undermined it as well—driving some Christians away from the churches of their parents, and turning many who lay behind into the kind of voters we see overthrowing the GOP this year: Republicans first and Christian second.
The Trump candidacy is no outlier. He has not hypnotized evangelicals into forgetting the foundations of their faith. He is simply revealing the fact that their faith is now more political than theological. The white evangelicals who flock to his rallies like their parents once did to Billy Graham revivals know that he lives a life comically at odds with teachings of the Bible and the examples of the saints. But his political theology resonates powerfully with their narrative of decline and revival. Classically that narrative ran from sin in the Garden of Eden to redemption on the cross. Today it takes place in an America that has fallen from its founding glory yet will, by God’s grace and Trump’s hand, be made great again.
On days like Super Tuesday, it is hard to remember that there are still born-again Christians who take their marching orders from the Bible rather than from the Republican platform. But as Trump, Bible in hand, continues his scorched earth march to the White House in Florida and Ohio and beyond, it can seem like there aren’t any evangelicals left in the Republican Party; there are just Republicans who happen to go to church.
Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage (HarperOne). This article appeared at Politico Magazine.
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