In theory, the religious right should hate Donald Trump. He's a libertine, he clearly worships Mammon and not Jesus, he has been married three times, he has a long history of bragging about his sex life, and this is how he greets his daughter:
But the ugly truth is that the supposed guardians of American morality, religious conservatives, are lining up behind Trump. I spoke with Peter Montgomery of People for the American Way about why.
Your piece is called “‘God’s Guy’: 25 Religious Right Justifications For Supporting Donald Trump.” What kinds of religious authorities did you look at for this piece?
Well, there’s a range of people. There are religious right political figures like Tony Perkins and David Barton and David Lane, who are people that we cover pretty extensively, and then there are some folks who don’t show up on [our] website as much [as those] who are sort of in the “prophet and apostle” category of that wing of Pentecostal Christianity [who tend] to see things in terms of spiritual warfare and demons and the Antichrist. So it’s a mix.
I think a lot of the mainstream media coverage of Donald Trump’s relationship with the religious right has suggested that it is an uneasy relationship because of his long history as a libertine and his obvious indifference to issues like being antigay and antichoice and things like that. Has that been your experience in your coverage?
It’s true that most of the religious right leaders were in Ted Cruz’s camp. There was a real effort to make him the consensus candidate for the religious right, partly because of the personal and character reasons you’re talking about regarding Trump and probably because some people don’t trust his conversion on some of the issues like abortion. But there have always been a few exceptions that have been very helpful to Trump, like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Phyllis Schlafly, who were early and ardent supporters. Someone like Falwell was really important because he gave evangelical voters sort of permission to vote for Trump in the primaries. Because if Jerry Falwell tells you he’s OK, he must be OK.
Since the primaries, most of the religious right leaders who were in Cruz’s camp are rallying around Trump, and it’s true that some of them are doing so kind of reluctantly. Some based on the Supreme Court, some based on the fact that they just really hate Hillary Clinton. And some have offered this range of religious rationales. So that’s what we took a look at.
Some of the folks that you’ve covered seem to believe that Trump is God’s emissary or that he’s here to do God’s will. What’s that about?
The religious right hates Barack Obama. They really did everything they could and prayed very hard for him not to get elected or reelected. And some of them actually saw his reelection as a sign of God’s judgment on the country. That hatred also applies to Hillary Clinton.
Some of the religious right leaders also distrust the Republican establishment and they think that God is using this sort of bulldozer strongman person like Trump to come in and knock down the establishment of both parties and really clean house. They’ve found examples in the Bible. One of the ones that people reference is King Cyrus, who was not one of God’s chosen people and was not a believer but God had his purposes and used King Cyrus in a way that advanced his wishes. So that’s one of the rationales that has come up for Trump: Yeah, he might not be the guy you want teaching your Sunday school class, but that’s not what we need in a president. We need someone who’s gonna come in and storm the barricades. They’re looking for and finding biblical rationales for that.
Some will also make the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan comparison, that Jimmy Carter was a strong Christian and a Sunday school teacher, but they think he was a lousy president. Jerry Falwell has used that argument as well in explaining his support for Trump.
So when Trump destroys everything, why is that considered a good thing in their view?
I’ll talk about David Lane in answering that. David Lane is a political operative who organized the event that Trump just spoke at this past week in Orlando and, in fact, Marco Rubio also spoke at. David Lane is a Christian nationalist who believes that America was founded by and for Christians and that it has a covenant with God and a mission to advance the Christian faith. He believes that we have gone far from that mission. And his goal is to use the political process to bring America back to his idea of a Christian nation. He is trying to recruit conservative pastors to not only turn their churches into get-out-the-vote machines but also to run for office themselves. He says he’s got a couple hundred running this year and a couple hundred more that have committed to running in the next couple of years.
So for someone like him, the establishment Republican Party has been a disappointment because they haven’t aggressively pursued this idea of a Christian nation. He hopes that somehow kicking down all the walls is going to make that more possible.
Somebody else like James Robison believes that God is going to give Trump some kind of high-profile conversion moment like the biblical story of Saul, who used to persecute Christians, having this vision of Jesus and then becoming Paul the Apostle. He thinks that God will have this high-profile change of heart for Trump, someone who obviously has his flaws and that that will be an extremely effective evangelistic moment for the world to see.
That’s really funny because Trump claims he’s already converted.
Well, yes. After spending 20 years of watching the religious right, I’ve learned that you cannot really look for logical consistency across the movement or even within individual leaders of the movement.
How do they grapple with the fact that he’s claiming he’s converted already and that he’s a good Christian now? The way he would phrase it might be “I did all that. It’s done.”
Some of them believe that. James Dobson, Focus on the Family founder, has said that he knows the person who led Trump to Christ and that Trump is a baby Christian and he’s still learning, so we need to give him some slack that he doesn’t yet know how to use the language that evangelicals speak. They feel like they need to help him along to become a better Christian and a better leader. Some of that language came out of the big meeting in New York that Trump had, with some reports saying 1,000 but certainly hundreds of religious right leaders in June.
Do you often see religious right figures grapple with the fact that the Democrat in the race, Hillary Clinton, is clearly more religious than the Republican?
They do not want to grapple with that at all, no. You don’t see a lot of religious right leaders acknowledging her lifelong commitment as a Christian, as a member of the United Methodist Church, even though it’s very much out there. A lot of the religious right leaders, when they say “Christian,” they don’t really mean all Christians. They’re talking about a subset of Christians that share both their theological worldview and their right-wing politics.
So when they say they’re speaking for Christians, they don’t see themselves as speaking for all United Methodist Christians like Hillary Clinton. We’ve seen this for Barack Obama, too, who is a Christian who spoke openly about his faith during the campaign and as president. And yet we still, thanks to the right-wing media, have a ridiculous number of people in the country, mostly Republicans, who believe Obama is a Muslim. It’s why we have people on this list talking about Hillary Clinton as channeling the spirit of the Antichrist.
One of the things about a list like this is that the moment you post it, it’s already out of date. Alveda King was saying something today about Hillary setting the stage for the Antichrist.
How much do you think this rallying around Trump has to do with his statements about Muslims?
There are a number of reasons they’re rallying around him, and one is that he’s been a very outspoken critic of radical Islam with his call to keep Muslims from coming into the country. Some of these religious right leaders, as much as they like to posture as champions of religious liberty, they really don’t feel the same way about Islam. They try to make these convoluted arguments that the First Amendment doesn’t really apply to Muslims in the same way because Islam is not a religion but a totalitarian political ideology. I think they like his attacks on Muslims because they think this is a country by and for Christians.
But he’s also worked really hard to generate the enthusiasm among the religious right. He let the religious right write the platform. He chose Mike Pence as his running mate in consultation with them, and Mike Pence was the religious right’s dream candidate for 2012 before he decided to run for governor instead. Trump has gone out of his way to repeatedly pledge that he’s going to change the law that stops churches from overt politicking with their tax-deductible donations. He’s very clear that he wants to see that because it would make them more powerful. And of course, they would also love to be more politically powerful. So he’s done a lot of things to try to earn their enthusiastic support.
The question of religious freedom comes up here, and you see some of these pastors and religious right leaders claiming that Trump is for religious freedom. What do they mean by that?
When the religious right talks about religious freedom these days, they’re mostly talking about the right of people to discriminate against LGBT individuals and couples and families. For them, religious liberty is not the kind of shield for everyone to exercise their religion [that] we think of when we think of the First Amendment. Religious liberty is a cherished American principle, but they’re trying to instead use it as more of a sword to go at antidiscrimination laws, the requirement that insurance coverage include contraception, sort of carving out these big exceptions based on people’s religious beliefs. It’s not as much about individuals exercising their religion. It’s about being able to use religious beliefs as a cudgel against people and policies that they don’t like.
The evangelical base is critical to getting out the vote for any Republican in any election. That’s obviously why Trump is making these overtures, however halfheartedly, to the religious right and why you’re seeing these kinds of convoluted defenses of him coming from leaders. How much do you think that is trickling down to the actual, everyday evangelical conservative Christian? Do you think that we’re going to see the same enthusiasm for Donald Trump that we saw for a George W. Bush?
Well, I think there’s plenty of enthusiasm for Trump. As he loves to point out, he got a lot of evangelical votes in the primaries. Even though the leadership of the movement was overwhelmingly lined up with Cruz, a lot of individual voters who identify as evangelicals voted for Trump. They tended not to be the most frequent churchgoers. ,But the polling I’ve seen seems to suggest that white evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, are lining up in a supermajority fashion to support Trump. How much of that is because they are conservatives and Republicans across the board and how much of it is based on what their pastor or religious right leaders are saying, I don’t know how you’d evaluate.