Donald Trump and the Religious Right: From a marriage of convenience to the bedrock of his support

Why have evangelicals embraced a thrice-married libertine? They think he's the hero they've been waiting for

Published July 13, 2017 4:59AM (EDT)


As the Russia cloud continues to grow darker over President Donald Trump’s administration, his approval rating appears to be stuck around 40 percent. That might change in the wake of Donald Trump Jr.’s admission that he met with a lawyer he believed to be connected with the Russian government in hopes of scoring some dirt on Hillary Clinton, his father's opponent in the 2016 presidential election.

But don’t count on it.

Despite his many gaffes and the Republican Party’s disastrously unpopular health care efforts, Trump is simply carrying on with business as usual. Seemingly, the more embattled he’s become, the more Trump has doubled down. It hasn’t affected his approval ratings among Republicans. In fact, Trump’s ratings among his supporters have actually gone up.

Much of the reason for the president’s continued popularity among Republicans is his strong support among white evangelical Protestants, most of whom live in the South or have family roots there. Notably, the more often a white evangelical attends church, the more likely he or she is to support Trump.

According to survey data aggregated by the Pew Research Center between February and April of this year, 67 percent of those who attended church at least once a month said they approved of Trump’s job performance, compared with 54 percent of self-identified evangelicals who attended less frequently.

That's a reversal of reported results during the GOP primaries last year, when evangelicals who attended services less often tended to support Trump while those who went to church more frequently supported his principal rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Once Trump became the Republican nominee and began directing his attacks on Democrats like Clinton, however, more devout evangelical conservatives jumped on board the Trump train and have remained in their seats ever since.

On the surface, there’s something incongruous with the fact that people who have long prided themselves on their fusion of religion and politics would become so enamored with a wife-swapping, serial liar who once tried to put money in a communion plate.

On further examination, however, the evangelical-Trump symbiosis makes a lot more sense, especially when one realizes that both the president and his religious fans appear to have similar outlooks on politics and life as a whole. Trump’s perpetual whining about the media as a deflection from his party and his administration’s struggles to get things done is very similar to the way white evangelicals view politics.

During a February 2016 campaign speech, Trump made the connection explicit for the Religious Right. In retrospect, he was then in the process of wooing away the hardcore evangelical base before their leaders subsequently followed.

“Christianity is under siege. Every year it gets weaker and weaker and weaker,” Trump told a heavily evangelical crowd in Dallas. He brought up far-right pastor Robert Jeffress to underline the point.

“Donald Trump cares about and loves evangelical Christians,” Jeffress said, adding that the New York real estate developer reminded him of Ronald Reagan, the former president who has become a conservative saint in death the way he never was during his long life.

“And I can tell you from personal experience if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, we who are evangelical Christians are going to have a true friend in the White House.”

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Jeffress’ argument is almost the perfect synopsis of what brought Christian nationalists to Trump and the GOP at large. Feeling “persecuted” in a cultural environment that has become much more secular in the last 50 years, many Southern evangelicals gravitated toward the Republican Party as it made overtures toward racists like Jerry Falwell Sr. who had established private “Christian academies” as a means of evading anti-segregation laws and court rulings.

Southern white Christians, almost all of whom were Protestants, also appreciated the rhetorical offerings made by GOP politicians like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush on later issues of concern like abortion and homosexuality. As time wore on, however, they eventually learned that while the national Republican Party appreciated the votes of the far right, the elites weren’t particularly interested in enacting their policy views.

Reagan started the disappointments in 1981 when he refused to staff his new administration with evangelical hires. Among the 31 Cabinet-level appointees appointed by Reagan, just four were evangelical Christians. The emerging Religious Right was further disappointed when Reagan chose to nominate Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, despite easily available evidence that she was pro-choice.

The Religious Right’s disappointments continued during the administration of George W. Bush. While he spoke frequently about his own personal faith, it soon became evident that the president and his congressional allies were more interested in pushing tax cuts and Social Security privatization than they were in overturning Roe v. Wade or passing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

In a 2006 column, Baptist minister and far-right political commentator Chuck Baldwin (who would later become one of Trump’s earliest supporters) expressed the dissatisfaction that many evangelicals felt with the Republican Party:

No president in American history played the "God card" any better than George W. Bush. Early in his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush convinced fundamentalist/evangelical Christian leaders that he was "their" man. Those Christian leaders went on to promote and support Mr. Bush to the tune of two successful presidential election victories. To this day, they comprise his most loyal base of support.

But was it all a sham? Did G.W. Bush and Karl Rove simply dupe the Religious Right? …

From the cover-up of Congressman Mark Foley's debauchery (a cover-up that continues), to federal spending that is out-of-control, to an unprovoked, preemptive invasion against Iraq, to the "No Child Left Behind" education monstrosity, to the Patriot Act's decimation of the Fourth Amendment, to the building of an Orwellian surveillance society, the Bush administration has trampled on virtually every principle upon which America was founded.

No matter how badly evangelical Christians want to believe President Bush, no matter how desperately they want to enjoy access to the White House, no matter how deeply they feel obligated to support the Republican Party, it is time to face the truth that the GOP's only interest has been to use them for the simple purpose of winning elections.

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Almost certainly, Trump does not care much about the Religious Right’s political agenda either. But he has realized that without evangelicals, he has no political power whatever, given how much he is despised and distrusted by right-leaning Washington professionals as well as by the Republican Party’s libertarian-oriented large donors, several of whom asked for their money back in October of last year before what many thought would be an electoral bloodbath.

For their part, some evangelicals seem to have adopted Trump’s transactional view of politics, albeit in their own unique manner. Notably, the earliest Religious Right backers during Trump's campaign for the GOP nomination were predominantly “prosperity gospel” preachers who tell their followers that God wants them to be rich or so-called Dominionists like Sarah Palin who talk amongst themselves of imposing fundamentalist Christian rule on society. That’s a goal shared by the more mainstream Religious Right, most of them saw Ted Cruz as their potential until he was conclusively defeated in the Republican primaries.

With Trump safely ensconced in the White House, however, it appears that most far-right Christians have warmed up to the man they once derided as a loutish sinner. To a growing subset of charismatic preachers, the smash-mouth billionaire is actually like the Bible’s King Cyrus, a pagan king who ultimately served the people of Israel’s interests, despite his differing religious views.

Minister Jeremiah Johnson was one of the first in the Religious Right to draw the comparison in a July 28, 2015, “prophecy” posted to his website which claimed that God was going to turn the newly announced GOP candidate into “my trumpet to the American people” due to the fact that Trump “does not fear man”:

In His great wisdom throughout the course of human history, God has chosen not only to fulfill His plans and purposes through men and women who have yielded to the sound of His voice, but He has also chosen to accomplish His will through men and women who have ignored and rebelled against Him. One such man was King Cyrus mentioned in Isaiah 45. ...

I was in a time of prayer several weeks ago when God began to speak to me concerning the destiny of Donald Trump in America. The Holy Spirit spoke to me and said:

“Trump shall become My trumpet to the American people, for he possesses qualities that are even hard to find in My people these days. Trump does not fear man nor will he allow deception and lies to go unnoticed. I am going to use him to expose darkness and perversion in America like never before, but you must understand that he is like a bull in a china closet.

“Many will want to throw him away because he will disturb their sense of peace and tranquility, but you must listen through the bantering to discover the truth that I will speak through him. I will use the wealth that I have given him to expose and launch investigations searching for the truth. Just as I raised up Cyrus to fulfill My purposes and plans, so have I raised up Trump to fulfill my purposes and plans prior to the 2016 election. You must listen to the trumpet very closely for he will sound the alarm and many will be blessed because of his compassion and mercy. Though many see the outward pride and arrogance, I have given him the tender heart of a father that wants to lend a helping hand to the poor and the needy, to the foreigner and the stranger.”

Business consultant turned Dominionist author Lance Wallnau soon jumped on the idea as well, proclaiming in October of 2015 that “God has given this man an anointing for the mantle of government in the United States and he will prosper!”

Wallnau continued to back Trump ardently, even publishing a book in September 2016 entitled “God's Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling.” According to the Guardian, Wallnau’s short volume was the 19th-bestselling book on before the election.

It’s unclear how much Trump will be able to deliver on some of the Religious Right’s larger concerns, like restricting abortion and permitting discrimination by private citizens in the name of “religious liberty,” given that the Republicans lack a filibuster-proof margin in the U.S. Senate.

But Trump has certainly been trying to deliver for Christian nationalists, including nominating devout Protestant Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, repeatedly attempting to implement a “Muslim ban,” pushing the GOP to defund Planned Parenthood in its health care overhaul legislation, rescinding Obama-era protections for LGBT employees of government contractors, and encouraging religious leaders to talk politics from the pulpit.

Trump has also staffed up high-level jobs with religious conservatives far more than past GOP administrations with such figures as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, an advocate of stripping civil rights from Muslims. And of course, there’s Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president who was best known during his time as governor of Indiana for trying to pass a law allowing businesses and government employees to engage in discriminatory behavior provided they could find a religious excuse for it.

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While Trump has tried far harder than past Republican presidents to please the Religious Right, the highly fractured congressional GOP may make it impossible for him to pass the sorts of legislation evangelicals have craved for decades. That may not effect his popularity with Christian nationalists, however. In addition to their transactional political bonds, Trump and many evangelical conservatives share the same bellicose view of the world and the mainstream media.

Luckily for Trump, he and the Christian Right have essentially the same enemies, as journalist Sarah Posner noted in the Washington Post earlier this year:

A host of fact-checks and explainers have poked holes in Trump’s claims, pointing out that they lack any evidence or substantiation. But even as the mainstream media has attempted to re-attach the public to reality, another group of people is already showing signs that it may rise to his defense: the religious right.

In so doing, the religious right — a core Trump constituency — is revealing something interesting about the bond that these millions of Americans have formed with Trump. His religious-right defenders see themselves as warriors in an epic battle for Christian America, not unlike the one underlying the agenda envisioned by top Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon — and as Trump hunkers down, they are invested in the narrative that Trump’s critics are satanic enemies bent on destroying him. ...

The larger context here is that the religious right is girding for a much longer fight alongside Trump. His signing of his new travel ban today will signal to the religious right that he remains a strong defender of their Christian nation.

Trump’s grandstanding speech in Poland last week in which he repeatedly referenced a number of Religious Right themes that overlap with alt-right motifs, along with his personal invitation to a number of Dominionist supporters to pray over him in the White House this week, have only strengthened the bond

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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