Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally in Akron, Ohio, on Aug. 22, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri *Editors: This photo my only be republished with RNS-WAX-OPED, originally transmitted on Aug. 23, 2016.

How Donald Trump divided and conquered the religious right

(RNS) It’s time for me to sit down for a nice meal of crow.

A year ago, I wrote a commentary here at RNS that tried to explain why Donald Trump had gathered some support in the Republican primary from “values voters” and “conservative Christians.”

“The one aspect that draws people to Trump is his fearlessness when it comes to offending the sensibilities of the cultural elite. We shouldn’t underestimate just how attractive his unguarded rhetoric is to conservatives who feel increasingly shut out of important conversations. Many voters feel like it’s difficult to speak to contentious issues these days (immigration, race relations, the nature of marriage, etc.). Trump’s way of ‘telling it like it is, no matter the consequences’ comes as ‘a breath of fresh air’ to conservatives who worry that ‘political correctness’ is preventing us from having tough conversations.”

The way I saw it back then, Trump's bombastic tendency to "drive our discourse to the gutter" would weary his Christian supporters and lead evangelicals to turn away from him in favor of other Republican contenders: 

“Looking on the bright side, I don’t see much of a future for Donald Trump with evangelical voters. I don’t know of any prominent evangelicals who have supported him. And the conservative voters who are currently enjoying the Donald’s roller coaster will soon be sick to their stomachs and be asking to get off the ride.”

Pass some crow, please.

A year later, many evangelical voters have grown to love the Donald’s roller coaster. Just as Trump divided and conquered the Republican Party, so also he has divided and conquered the religious right, the voting bloc of white conservative Christians that has been a cornerstone of the Republican Party’s outreach for decades.

I underestimated the extent of Trump’s plans. He wasn’t out to offend only the elitist leaders in culture; he wanted to take on the “establishment” Republicans, and divide evangelical voters from many of their most prominent voices. He succeeded through the power of his polarizing persona and his willingness to set party factions against one another by tapping into underlying grievances.

Trump didn’t win over large numbers of religious conservatives by appealing to all of them. He won because he realized he didn’t have to. During the primary season, he bypassed religious leaders and went straight for voters, choosing to make the same promises that appealed to the non-churchgoing folks around them.

Christianity won’t be on the decline anymore!

We’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” again!

We’ll reverse the unenforced IRS code that prohibits pastors from making political endorsements!

These aren’t serious challenges to religious liberty, or even on the radar for most leaders of the religious right. But Trump wasn’t speaking the language of the elite. He rode the populist wave and, over time, sought to turn the evangelical rank-and-file against the spokespeople who represented them.

Now that the primary season is over, some evangelical leaders are supporting him. Other evangelical leaders are appalled. And evangelical voters have fallen into four major categories.

1. Anti-Clinton voters

First, there are the evangelicals who plan to hold their noses and vote for Trump, seeing him as the latest (and worst) in a long line of unappealing Republican candidates. Recent polls indicate that 45 percent of white evangelicals who will vote for Trump are voting against Hillary Clinton, not for Trump. These voters may be distressed at some of Trump’s policy proposals and rhetoric, but they are even more distressed by the corruption of Clinton and her opposition on several important issues (most notably, the life of the unborn, and protections for religious dissent from the sexual revolution). When Trump met with religious right leaders in June, he based his plea for their support on the promise of appointing “the right kind of Supreme Court justice.”

2. Anti-Trump voters

In the second camp, we find evangelicals (many who are black and Hispanic) who will pull the lever for Clinton, despite her pro-abortion policies and dishonest character. They believe that Trump’s temperament and military decisions could lead to chaos on the world scene. Like the people in the first camp, they are not enthusiastic about their candidate. They believe, however, that in the case of “choosing between two evils,” it is wisest to go with the evil you are familiar with, rather than open the door for evils not yet imagined.

3. #NeverTrump voters

There’s a third segment of evangelicals who will write in a candidate, vote third party or not cast a vote for president at all, and simply vote on other races. This is the Never Trump crowd. People in this category worry that the religious right has lost all credibility by overlooking matters of character and virtue in the Republican candidate, after spending more than two decades making a case for these values in the public square. Their opposition to Trump is principled. To vote for Trump would go against conscience, which is why Ted Cruz’s admonition to “vote your conscience” outraged so many Trump supporters at the Republican National Convention.

4. True Trump supporters

Finally, there’s a fourth segment of evangelicals who have supported Trump since the primary season or who have fully jumped on board since the primaries ended. This is the group I wrote about last year, but whose numbers I underestimated.

The existence of these four categories, especially the last, indicates the new political landscape, in which evangelical voters are at odds with one another in ways not seen for decades.

Trump stumbled upon the fault lines in the evangelical movement -- the leaders vs. the “foot soldiers,” the “elite” vs. the “populists,” the “new guard” vs. the “old guard.” He exploited those tensions, turned factions against each other and pitted leaders against leaders and voters against voters. In the end, he won over many of the old religious right -- not by appealing to their best instincts, but by stirring up their worst.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After”)

Comments

  1. “Trump didn’t win over large numbers of religious conservatives by appealing to all of them. He won because he realized he didn’t have to. ”

    I think you are over-thinking this. Evangelical’s have never been voting for morality or Christianity, but for power, money, and dominion,

    I also think you are under-thinking this, where you refer to Mrs. Clinton’s “dishonest character.” Is she perfect? No. I wish she had been more forthcoming on a number of fronts. But dishonest character? Please. She’s a politician.

    her alleged dishonesty is a meme that just won’t die, but has little behind it except repetition,

  2. Comment deleted – “pious trout” nonsense (see below).

  3. I am sorry to see my Evangelical brethren falling into line by voting for and even vocally supporting Donald Trump. My whole life I’ve been raised in the Evangelical church and have attended Evangelical churches, which stressed the importance of personal repentance, obedience, faithfulness, charity, and chastity, using these godly attributes as weapons against those who would lead them in the secular government. Remember how Clinton 42 was treated? I remember the impeachment itself over his affairs. “Forgiveness is for those who repent,” I was told.

    So I’m dismayed and shocked when these same Evangelicals have abandoned their “deeply held principles” in order to support and endorse Trump.

    It appears to me that their religion and their profession of faith was only enough to carry them over until a “real leader” could rise up.

    The good thing is that it is a reminder from the Scriptures themselves never to put trust in man or what a man says. Only God is true, though every man is a liar.

  4. Whatever the reasoning (if that is the proper word for it), the fact that such a large percentage of evangelicals seem to be in the Trump camp is very telling. It says that they are not very good judges of character. Even more important, it says that character does not matter to them. What does matter is showmanship, in-your-face bravado, profanity, intolerance for other religions and non-whites, and their obvious lack of respect for both science and women. They have become the public face for all evangelicals and all American Christians. Because of their very questionable behavior, the so-called champions of Christianity have become Christianity’s worst enemy.

  5. You’ve said it well David.

    I am not an evangelical and disagree with major aspects of their theology, but I have respected the people in the pews and the pastors. (Not the political revs [Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, Osteen, Hinn, etc.] who use religion as a tool for their benefit.) The knowledge that millions of evangelicals will vote for the hateful orange one has forced me to rethink my feelings about the generic evangelical. It’s very disappointing.

  6. I agree. Having been a loyal and active Methodist for all my life, I too am reevaluating. Probably 80% of my church will vote Republican or not vote at all. If you say WWJD? they can come up with the most God-awful reasons. Is this Christianity? I don’t think so.

  7. Deb;

    This is “pious trout” nonsense. This is the type of article I should expect and long for from an Evangelical and a journalist: an honest analysis of the situation rather than blatant advocacy or wish-for diagnosis.

    It is a Madison Avenue mindset which seeks to veneer over objective realities within the Evangelical camp in order to protect the “brand.” But it is only in paintings that Christ wore a loincloth on the Cross.

  8. “Trump stumbled upon the fault lines in the evangelical movement — the leaders vs. the “foot soldiers,” the “elite” vs. the “populists,” the “new guard” vs. the “old guard.” He exploited those tensions, turned factions against each other and pitted leaders against leaders and voters against voters.”

    This is as good an analysis that one can get; one which I also reached. There has been subterranean rumblings from the pew against the pulpit for some time. This has not been helped when pulpiteers give “spiritual imprimatur” to “I Was a Stranger” immigration policy (without a faithful exegetic), and thereby intimate moral judgment upon those who do not concur with them on a complex sociopolitical issue, which has multiple legitimate contending concerns, and therefore has no clear ethical guideline. When churchmen conscript Scriptures for their social cause on secondary and tertiary matters, they unnecessarily alienate those who might have otherwise come to faith, within and/or without the visible church.

    What has surprised me is not the current spiritual decadence within the Evangelical camp but the extent of it, which this election cycle has fruitfully revealed.

  9. Wow…..”Trump divided and conquered the Republican Party, so also he has divided and conquered the religious right,”
    “He wasn’t out to offend only the elitist leaders”
    “and divide evangelical voters from many of their most prominent voices.”
    “his willingness to set party factions against one another”
    “sought to turn the evangelical rank-and-file against the spokespeople who represented them.”
    “voters may be distressed at some of Trump’s policy proposals and rhetoric, ”
    Of the author’s 4 voter categories, Christians who vote for Trump, the bitterness free flows without brakes:
    “Trump stumbled upon the fault lines in the evangelical movement ”
    ……and the Author’s voice of detest in the stunningly demeaning indictment of everything Trump ;
    “He exploited those tensions, turned factions against each other and
    pitted leaders against leaders and voters against voters. In the end, he
    won over many of the old religious right — not by appealing to their
    best instincts, but by stirring up their worst.”
    Not a kind word, a thread of good cheer, is offered after the huff and puff of proudly announcing crow is what the righteous eat. Surprise at the numbers in Trump’s favor fell upon the Out Of Touch With People, people.
    So few who didn’t see it coming when neighbors buzzed, smiling with delight after the first month of Trump’s refreshing unpolished politically incorrect speeches so long ago. Laughter finally returned, disgust with Ted Cruz’s knife in the back of Dr. Ben Carson and remarkably base ethics, the abusing Bush family dismissed; transparently reeling with shock. The lesson is the same for the Surprised Ones now The Bitter Ones; You deceived yourselves and your shock regarding Trump’s success is evidence. Blame yourselves for believing the unity of Light and Darkness is good, or that people who speak correctly would actually do what you pay them to do. If your Evangelical Bible teaches what must be, it’s the division and separation inside the church of the two. He didn’t come for peace but to …… and we are glad the division is on time.

  10. Not sure I understand: “This has not been helped when pulpiteers give “spiritual imprimatur” to “I Was a Stranger” immigration policy (without a faithful exegetic), and thereby intimate moral judgment upon those who do not concur with them on a complex sociopolitical issue, which has multiple legitimate contending concerns, and therefore has no clear ethical guideline.”

  11. Dominion – exactly. Trump may have stumbled into this but his jingoism, racism, and religious bigotry perfectly align with many on the Religious Right, including their most vocal leaders.

  12. Dear Mr. Wax,
    I like your articles, interviews, etc. I just wanted to say:
    The Pew survey showed that 45% of white evangelicals were voting against Clinton by choosing to vote for Trump, while 30% were voting for Trump outright. I’ve had friends say that they are voting for the Republican Party platform or Republican Party machine, which they are counting on to advise Trump should he happen to win the election. So I wouldn’t be so quick to put down the Evangelicals for voting for Trump without holding their noses, as you say.
    I am very tempted to write in a candidate’s name, because I tend to vote for the person rather than the party. But I can see the logic of what some of my evangelical friends are saying, especially after reading the many pages of the Republican Party platform.

  13. Trump won over Evangelical’s for the same reason that people are leaving the church.The message they are giving is clouded in mistrust and is not clear enough for the masses to embrace. Donald Trump sends the same message to them and they accept it.

  14. Here’s my theory on evangelical (i.e., the Religious Right) support for Trump: their support isn’t derived primarily from Christianity so much as the traditional American culture that opposes the 60’s counter-cultural movement. This might explain the antipathy toward the Clintons–if you see the Clintons as the grown-up version of those who were part of the counter-culture. (Think of the characters in The Big Chill). This is the only way I can explain the opposition and even hatred toward the Clintons from the Religious Right, and the support for someone like Trump. Both really can’t be supported simply by Christianity–if the Religious Right’s political actions were driven by Christianity, they would oppose both.

  15. Wax’s Category #2 voters “believe that Trump’s temperament and military decisions could lead to chaos on the world scene,” so they will vote for Hillary. I think this is too simplistic an analysis. Many of those evangelicals who threaten to vote for Hillary are doing so because they view racial animosity as the largest evil in our country today, and they fear Trump would only inflame that. Further, I think quite a few in category #3 are opposing Trump because of the possibility that he will discredit the U.S. on the national stage (as well as rejecting his character and some of his policies). The three main points of opposition to Trump are, as best as I can parse:

    1. His lack of moral character
    2. His divisive rhetoric, esp. those comments tinged with racial divisiveness
    3. His lack of qualification/gravitas for the job

    Of course, these blend together. Trump’s slanderous Tweets show both #1 and #2. His ego keeping him from learning the issues shows both #3 and #1. Those of a more socially liberal bent appear to loathe Trump most for point #2, while those of a more socially conservative bent oppose him on point #1. Both sides stand aghast regarding point #3.

  16. What about Trumps dishonest character?
    Do you really think Trump is anti abortion? Does he display family values? Or any values at all?
    We know all about Hilary.
    What we don’t know is if Trump is involved with Putin, what and who his business dealings are with, who he owes money too.
    He has proven through the years to be a liar and cheat.

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