Do evangelical Christians feel abandoned by Donald Trump’s success in seizing control of the Republican Party — or do evangelical leaders? The Washington Post’s headline suggests the former, but the article itself, and the vote in several primaries, suggest the latter. With Trump in the driver’s seat and populism providing the fuel, evangelical leaders have begun to feel like road bumps:
Fuller and other conservatives whose voting decisions are guided by their Christian faith find themselves dismayed and adrift now that Trump has wrested control of the Republican Party. It is a sentiment that reaches from the small, aluminum-sided church with a large white cross on its front that Fuller and his wife built on the Nebraska plains to the highest levels of American religious life. Even progressive Christians — evangelicals and Catholics, among others — who don’t necessarily vote Republican are alarmed that Trump is attracting many voters who call themselves religious. A coalition of nearly 60 Christian leaders — many progressive and some conservative — published an open letter last week asking voters of faith to reject Trump and his “vulgar racial and religious demagoguery,” warning that the nation faces a “moral threat” from the candidate. …
There is consternation about the hard line Trump takes on immigrants and about the morality of a thrice-married man who has long bragged about his sexual conquests. But another factor is at work as well: The traditional social and cultural positions that drive many religious conservative voters, including same-sex marriage and abortion, have been cast aside by a candidate who seems to have little interest in fighting the culture wars.
In the past, Trump has espoused social views to the left of his party, including a longtime acceptance of gay rights, although he has since moved right on many of them. He has praised Planned Parenthood for helping millions of women. He is running as an antiabortion candidate but had said in the past that he supported abortion rights and would not ban the procedure known as partial-birth abortion.
And while he says he is against same-sex marriage, he has attended a same-sex wedding and is opposed to a North Carolina law — aimed at transgender people — that requires people to use bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate. He said transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner could use the women’s room at his properties.
That trepidation has not extended to the flocks, however. For instance, in the latest CNN/ORC poll, Trump got 47% of the white evangelical vote in the primaries, with Ted Cruz 13 points behind. Except for Texas, Trump swept the South, where evangelicals usually have more influence, even while the field had other candidates that evangelicals could have backed. Trump won a third of evangelicals in South Carolina to Cruz’ 27% in a state where 72% of the electorate was evangelical, and won 46% of evangelicals in Florida (48% of voters were evangelical) — both states considered crucial for both the GOP race and evangelical influence. Cruz got clobbered out of the race in Indiana last week, where 60% of Republican primary voters identified as evangelical — and Trump got 51% of them.
Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has tried to argue that Trump and Hillary Clinton represent the same “moral sewage” in society. Moore told CBS’ Face the Nation yesterday that “character matters,” and warned that evangelicals need to get “on the right side of Jesus”:
Speaking on CBS News ‘Face the Nation‘, Russell Moore said a key tenet of conservatism was that “character matters” and that “virtue has an important role to play in our culture and in our politics”. Now, he said, “we have a Republican party that seems ready not only to surrender on the culture wars but to join the other side”.
Moore has been a trenchant critic of Trump, saying in an op-ed for the New York Times that opposition to the property mogul would put evangelicals “on the right side of Jesus” and that “The man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’ who is probably not all that impressed by chants of ‘Make America great again’.” However, his remarks on the programme are some of his hardest hits against Trump and evangelical Republicans who vote for him.
He said: “What we have in the Donald Trump phenomenon as well as in the Hillary Clinton phenomenon is an embrace of the very kind of moral and cultural decadence that conservatives have been saying for a long time is the problem,” he said. He criticised “conservatives who were saying in the previous Clinton era that character matters, and rightly so, who now are not willing to say anything when we have this sort of reality television moral sewage coming through all over our culture”.
Needless to say, the candidate himself had a thought or two about Moore’s critique:
Forget the invective; the question remains whether evangelical leaders actually represent the political point of view of their fellow evangelicals. At least in terms of presidential politics in a Republican primary, it would appear the answer is no. Religious leadership shouldn’t necessarily just provide a reflection of the popular points of view within their congregations either, but in a situation where the leaders are drawing the line so vividly but to little result, that’s a pertinent and pressing issue.
Perhaps what this shows is that the evangelical vote has begun to morph in a similar way as the “Catholic vote” did a generation or two ago. At one time, it had significance and power in general elections, but eventually evolved into a bellwether of the overall vote rather than a driver of it. That might have become the case for the evangelical vote in the Republican primaries, a change that clearly caught the Ted Cruz campaign off-guard. If that extends to the general election, then it could be good news for Trump in the short run, but perhaps bad news for the GOP in the long run.
Update: Some on Twitter have responded that Trump’s winning the less-active evangelicals. That’s not quite what the exit polls show. In South Carolina, Cruz won the demo where shared beliefs matter a great deal, but only 32/27. Trump won those who felt shared religious beliefs matter somewhat 36/20. In Georgia (March 1), Trump won both demos, 33/32 and 45/21 respectively while winning evangelicals overall 39/26. The same was true in Alabama, 34/29 and 48/22, and Trump won evangelicals overall 43/22. In Indiana, 35% of voters attend church once a week, and Trump won that demo 49/40. (Cruz won 61% of those who attend church more than once a week, but Trump still got 33%.)