Holy Hypocrites: The Religious Right And The Rise Of Trump

Right-wing evangelicals were supposed to vote for Cruz. Not enough of them are. They have deserted him for a coarse, thrice-married businessman and reality TV star.

For political junkies, the Super Tuesday results offered a sumptuous repast.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) continue to duel for the Democratic nomination, although Clinton appears to be pulling away. On the Republican side, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) remained alive with victories in Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) looks to be on life support after winning only in Minnesota. Ohio Gov. John Kasich failed to carry a single state but has not dropped out. Ben Carson is an afterthought.

The night belonged to real estate developer and reality TV star Donald Trump, who prevailed in seven states. Trump scored victories in several Bible Belt states – Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia. Trump also won in Virginia, not a Deep South state but one where conservative evangelicals dominate the GOP.

Trump’s Dixie victories indicate that he is doing quite well among the Religious Right. Several political analysts have commented on this as well. George Zornick of The Nation noted this morning that Trump’s base consists of Tea Party activists, but he’s splitting the right-wing evangelical vote with Cruz.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. Yet it is happening, despite the fact that major Religious Right groups like the American Family Association (AFA) are working to derail Trump, seeing him as likely to lose against Clinton. As we noted earlier this week, the AFA issued a voter guide that described Trump as a “moderate,” a term that in Religious Right parlance equates with “serial killer.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), the largest Religious Right organization in the country, has endorsed Cruz. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, can’t understand why so many of his co-religionists have come down with a case of Trumpmania.

The Christian Post, a website popular among conservative evangelicals, took the unusual step of issuing an editorial blasting Trump. The editorial’s headline was not subtle: “Donald Trump Is a Scam. Evangelical Voters Should Back Away,” it read.

Right-wing evangelicals were supposed to vote for Cruz. Not enough of them are. They have deserted him for a coarse, thrice-married businessman who, despite his recent tendency to thump the Bible, rarely attends church and couldn’t name a favorite Bible verse.

What’s going on here?

I’ve been attending the FRC’s annual “Values Voter Summit” for the past 10 years, and I have a theory. I’ve noticed how more and more these gatherings sound like Heritage Foundation briefings with a little prayer thrown in. (In fact, the Heritage Foundation has served as a co-sponsor of the Summit in the past.)

At the Summit, one hears a lot of talk about health-care reform. Attendees, many of whom are over 65 and undoubtedly relying on Medicare, virulently despise “Obamacare.” One hears constant calls to do something about illegal immigration. Taxes, especially the estate tax, are assailed, as is the all-purpose bogeyman of “Big Government.” Attendees demand a hawkish, jingoistic foreign policy anchored in “American Exceptionalism.” Muslims are bashed with impunity.

Sure, some speakers do assail abortion, marriage equality and the alleged attack on “religious liberty.” But there are huge portions of the Summit that have absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. The name of Jesus Christ is rarely invoked. Ronald Reagan’s is constantly. The Summit often seems to have more in common with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, an atheist, than the founder of Christianity.

Many followers of the Religious Right are tired of what they see as lukewarm candidates such as U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. They want a fire-breather who promises to build giant walls at the southern border, cut taxes, promote bootstrap capitalism, stomp on the Muslims and halt the march of the social welfare state.

Deep inside themselves, many of these activists surely realize that Trump’s newfound religiosity must be a convenient pose, but they don’t care. There has always been an authoritarian strain in the Religious Right, a longing for a strong, even quasi-dictatorial, leader who will keep feminists, multiculturalists, secularists and “progressives” in their place. Trump looks like he can deliver, so he is their man.

Undoubtedly, some people in the Religious Right simply lack political sophistication and reasoning skills and have actually fallen for Trump’s spiel. Others, a larger group, I think, are just hypocrites. Their view is, “Who cares if he means it as long as he delivers?”

In any case, the rise of Trump among those who claim to be holier than thou and who sneeringly look down on the rest of us from atop their moral high horses says something about the Religious Right. And what it says isn’t good.