While many evangelical voters supported Donald Trump during the primary, most prominent evangelical leaders (with a few exceptions) balked, preferring candidates like Ted Cruz that offered a more convincing performance of piety. Or at least knew what the communion plate was for.
But, as the New York Times reported over the weekend, the Christian right is coming around at breakneck speed, to back a thrice-married man who described his attempts to avoid STIs as his "personal Vietnam". While the piece reports that some Christian conservatives, especially the women, are still uncomfortable with supporting Trump, but, as anti-choice activist Marjorie Dannenfelser told the New York Times, "It’s more about rationality overcoming feelings than anything else."
Rationally choosing to support a candidate because he's better at advancing your wholly irrational anti-sex, anti-gay, anti-woman agenda is the perfect distillation of Christian conservatism. But some are going a step further than that, and pretending that Trump is one of their own.
“They love a convert because it’s what their faith is all about,” Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition told the New York Times.
Of course, you'd have to be the most naive person alive to think that Trump is actually a convert to the conservative Christianity that the religious right claims fuels them.
Trump doesn't even bother pretending to know the basic lingo and seems unaware that Christians believe we are all sinners that need to ask for forgiveness. Everyone knows that. It's the most basic tenet of the faith, however imperfectly practiced by its followers. That's like not knowing that Muslims use the word "Allah" to refer to God or not knowing that Jesus died on the cross. Trump likes waving the Bible around, but it's clear that the gesture is similar to when he ate a taco bowl as outreach to Hispanics: Whatever the intention is, the message sent is clearly one of contempt for people Trump clearly believes are beneath him.
But Christian conservatives will all vote for him anyway, because their religious fervor has never really been about Jesus or God, but about politics. Religion has always been a fig leaf, used to justify otherwise unjustifiable assaults on reproductive rights, gay rights, and even the education system. It's impossible to imagine that Trump is a legitimate convert to the Christian faith, but it's inarguable that he's a legitimate convert to the Christian right's true faith, which is reactionary politics.
On Monday night, Samantha Bee, on her show "Full Frontal", did an amazing segment that was as educational as it was hilarious. In it, she notes that the Christian right has always been about politics, not faith, starting with the fact that it was really formed as a movement not because of religion, but to battle school desegregation in the South. And once it became politically toxic to be so openly racist, the movement shifted gears, making attacks on abortion the main cause. This is not because of deeply held religious beliefs around abortion, at least for Protestants, but mostly a way to build on the backlash to feminism that was taking hold around that time.
As Bee notes, this politics-not-faith aspect of the religious right was immediately secured in their first real incursion into national politics, when they backed the divorced Hollywood rich guy, Ronald Reagan, over someone who is quite clearly a sincere born again Christian, Jimmy Carter. Since then, the parties have realigned somewhat, with Republicans mostly learning to perform the customs of evangelical Christianity (even when they are Catholic, like Paul Ryan or Rick Santorum), while Democrats have adopted a more secular aesthetic, speaking about religion more sparingly, even when they are regular churchgoers.
One of those regular churchgoers, in fact, is Hillary Clinton. She doesn't speak about religion very much, but she is a genuinely devout Methodist who, unlike her Republican opponent, speaks knowledgeably about faith when called upon to do so.
Which means that 2016 is a redux of the 1980 election when it comes to religion: A devout Christian vs. someone whose personal history falls short of the ideals the Christian right has around marriage and sexuality. And just to add another layer of irony to it, Clinton's marriage has quite famously hit some infidelity obstacles, but she did exactly what the conservative church would generally prefer in these circumstances: Forgive the transgression and work to save the marriage. Meanwhile, Trump is an adulterer who doesn't seem particularly sorry about it.
There should be no doubt, that if Clinton were the Republican and Trump was the Democrat, Christian conservatives would be decrying him for his adultery while holding out her story of forgiveness and marital redemption as a reason to vote for her.
Instead, the conservative Christians who claim that faith drives their voting behavior will be voting for Trump, not Clinton. As in 1980, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Christian right is not a religious movement standing up for faith-based values, but a political movement that uses faith as a cover story for reactionary politics.
If anything, the Trump campaign represents a return to the roots of the Christian right, which, as Bee notes, started out as a racist movement that was focused mostly on school segregation.
The racist underpinnings of the Christian right are rarely acknowledged, though they lurk right beneath the surface, occasionally cresting into view. (For instance, the anti-choice movement likes to peddle racist stereotypes about black and Asian women.) But with Trump, it becomes clear that the Christian right's history as a pro-segregation movement is not a relic of the past, but still a vibrant part of their culture and belief systems.
Certainly, I saw that with my own eyes a few months ago, when reporting on the religious right protesters who showed up at the Supreme Court to defend a Texas bill restricting abortion rights. Some pro-choice protesters were chanting "Sí se puede!", a chant made popular by the United Farm Workers in the 70s, and it irritated some anti-choicers I was standing amongst.
In response, the religious conservatives started chanting, "Build the wall! Build the wall!", which is an anti-immigration slogan inspired by the Trump campaign. It's hard to imagine the Jesus of the Bible thinking much of this, but none of the supposedly faithful stepped up to chasten the open racism. Instead, the anti-choice activists around me just laughed.