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Why Trump’s rise does not spell the end for the Christian right

If history is our guide, the differences in the Republican Party between the "God" voters -- those backing Ted Cruz, at right -- and the "Country" voters -- who favor Donald Trump -- will not last long. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Keane

(RNS) There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the rise of Donald Trump represents the decline of the Christian right in American politics.  

In a recent article at The Atlantic, political commentator David Frum suggests Trump has all but captured the GOP nomination by driving social conservatives from power in the party.

In this line of thinking, Ted Cruz is the candidate of the Christian right. Indeed, he has the support of culture warriors such as James Dobson, Tony Perkins and Glenn Beck. Trump is the candidate of “New York values” who has just happened to attract a few evangelical leaders (Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, for example).  

But what Frum and others miss in this analysis is the fact that many evangelical conservative voters who affiliate with the agenda of the Christian right believe they can support Trump without sacrificing any of their moral convictions about abortion, marriage and religious liberty — the primary Christian right talking points in 2016.

The beliefs of the conservative evangelicals who support Cruz, and the conservative evangelicals who support Trump, are really two sides of the same coin — two ways of understanding evangelical politics that differ only in minor points of emphasis. The Christian right is far from dead; it is just having a bit of an intramural squabble.

On one side of this squabble are the “God” voters. These evangelicals have drawn a line in the sand on social issues — abortion, the definition of marriage, and religious liberty.  They lean toward Cruz. They are the social conservatives whom media commentators and other pundits normally associate with Christians who vote their values.

On the other side are the “Country” voters. These evangelicals place a high priority on the “greatness” of America. It is easy to interpret this group as being less concerned with spiritual politics than those in the “God” faction, but that would be wrong. Their brand of American exceptionalism is, at its core, a theological one. These voters believe America is great because it is a new Israel, a chosen people, a “city on a hill.”  

Those in this camp believe the United States must remain pure at home (by keeping undocumented immigrants and Muslims out) and should wield the sword of the Lord abroad (which is often synonymous in their minds with the spread of freedom). They lean toward Trump.  

If “The Donald” is God’s instrument for making America great again, then these voters are more than willing to overlook much of his decidedly anti-Christian language and the crudeness that drives his campaign.

The differences between the “God” evangelicals and the “Country” evangelicals are subtle, but it is precisely these kinds of differences that help voters in presidential primaries distinguish between candidates.  

Cruz and his supporters, of course, also believe in American exceptionalism and see undocumented immigrants and Muslims as threats to the republic. Evangelical supporters of Trump, of course, are concerned about abortion, same-sex marriage and religious liberty. But Cruz has made the latter trio his primary point of emphasis, while Trump’s message revolves around the exceptionalism angle.

This may be the first time in the post-Reagan Republican Party that conservative evangelical voters have been divided in this way. Until this year the Christian right has, for the most part, always unified behind a particular candidate. But if history is our guide, the differences between the God voters and the Country voters will not last long.  American Protestants have been fusing God and Country for a long time.

There are plenty of historic precedents for this God and Country mentality. In the early 19th century, the American Bible Society, a benevolent organization founded by several prominent Americans, promoted the circulation of the Bible as a means of winning people to Christianity and making the nation more exceptional.

In the 20th century, scholars came up with a name for this practice of fusing God and Country. They called it “civil religion.” This brand of public faith is hard to miss in American culture today. The words “In God We Trust” on currency, the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the use of the mantra “God Bless America” by United States presidents are some of the most prominent examples of civil religion.

When Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, James Dobson and others, with the help of Reagan, began to explicitly use God and Country language in the 1980s, they were reviving an old tradition.

So let’s not forget that evangelical voters in today’s GOP, many of them baby boomers who look back on the 1980s with a warm feeling of nostalgia, often see no difference between fighting to defend their views on social issues and fighting to defend the greatness of their God-ordained nation.  

Trump’s presumptive nomination tells us that in this election cycle the American exceptionalism of working evangelicals has triumphed over the old guard who have staked their political fortunes on the defense of certain social issues.

But we also know that God and Country evangelicals are always prepared to unite when it is time to face a common enemy. In November that enemy will be named Hillary.

(John Fea chairs the department of history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He is the author, most recently, of “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society” and blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com)

This story is available for republication.

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John Fea

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