When the twice-divorced real estate developer and reality television star called U.S. Sen Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) a “clown” during the Family Research Council’s (FRC) confab last October, he was met with loud boos from the audience. Thus, it was not surprising that Trump earned just 5 percent in the VVS presidential straw poll – well behind evangelical favorites like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rubio.
But within seven months of his stumble at that conference, Trump was the last man standing in the 2016 Republican presidential race – having defeated all the candidates who finished ahead of him in the VVS poll. Certainly, this must have been a bitter pill for the Religious Right to swallow, given that much of its leadership backed the likes of Cruz, Rubio and Carson throughout the primary season.
Faced with the possibility of at least four more years of another Democratic president, however, most high-ranking Religious Right figures have wasted little time throwing their support behind Trump under the guise that he is essentially the lesser of two evils. But what does it say about a movement supposedly anchored in “biblical morality” when its kingmakers quickly abandoned some of their cherished principles in order to support a presidential candidate who had never claimed to be a man of faith until recently?
It was not always this way. There was a time – not long ago – when most Religious Right leaders fiercely opposed Trump. Let’s journey all the way back to January, when FRC President Tony Perkins formally endorsed Cruz for president. That move came as no surprise, given that Cruz, the son of an evangelical pastor, has proudly carried the Religious Right’s banner for years. In February, Perkins really laid it on thickly for Cruz, claiming that if the Texan were not elected president, the 2016 election might be the nation’s last – ever.
“We don’t have the latitude to get it wrong one more time,” Perkins warned. “If we don’t elect a bold, courageous, godly leader in this next election, I’m afraid we may not have another election for our republic. That’s not hyperbole. That’s the reality based upon what this president’s policies have done to this nation.”
Perkins wasn’t alone at that time in his ardent opposition to Trump. In a February column for the American Family Association’s (AFA) OneNewsNow, American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer said Trump could be just as bad for the Religious Right as President Barack Obama has been.
“Here’s the sobering reality: if Trump becomes our next president, conservatives will have to fight against him almost as hard as we’ve had to fight against [Obama],” Fischer declared.
Fischer went on to list a number of things the Religious Right would have to battle Trump over, including “the homosexual agenda,” U.S. Supreme Court nominations, private property rights, immigration and even Islam – despite Trump’s stated desire to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
“His loud declamations on suspending Islamic immigration are just that – loud declamations,” opined Fischer. “Anyone familiar with his negotiating style knows that his opening bid is always outrageously and unrealistically huge by design. It gives him room to make concessions and settle for what he thought he actually could get all along.”
But AFA didn’t stop there. Its political action committee in February released a “voter guide” that classified Trump as a “moderate,” which is basically a dirty word in far-right circles.
The AFA left no doubt which candidate it favored: The only candidate AFA classified as “very conservative” was Cruz. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was also called moderate, and Carson was labeled “somewhat conservative,” even though he is clearly opposed to church-state separation and ran as hard right. Rubio was dubbed merely “conservative.”
As the primary season wore on, the AFA issued fresh attacks on Trump on an almost daily basis. The assaults ground to a halt after the Indiana primary May 3. Billed as a “must win” for Cruz, who struggled to stop Trump’s nearly unbroken momentum throughout the entire primary season, the Hoosier State primary was a bust for the Texas senator. He lost by nearly 20 points. Cruz dropped out of the race that evening.
With Cruz out of the running, the AFA stopped attacking Trump and shifted its focus to likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Shortly after Cruz suspended his campaign, OneNewsNow ran an interview with Sandy Rios, director of government affairs for AFA. Rios painted a dark picture of a Clinton presidency, asserting that a Clinton victory would result in “more overt persecution” and “a loss of religious freedom” for Christians. She also warned that Clinton would appoint liberals to the Supreme Court and would pretty much usher in a police state.
“The next president will likely appoint three new justices,” Rios said. “And that means that the whole business of expressing our deeply held beliefs – in our businesses and our private entities like the American Family Association, like Christian radio – and…our conduct and even our thoughts will be criminalized. So it’s pretty bleak.”
At the same time, Rios decided that Trump wasn’t so bad after all. At the very least, Rios opined, Trump will be friendlier to the Religious Right than Clinton. Trump, Rios said, “would not be aggressive in the way [Clinton] is to criminalize [religious expression].”
Other Religious Right groups began making excuses for Trump’s occasional un-conservative statements. The same story that quoted Rios also quoted Terry Schilling of the American Principles Project, who said Trump merely “misspoke” when he criticized North Carolina’s anti-transgender “bathroom bill” that requires everyone to use bathrooms corresponding to their gender at birth.
Added Schilling, “I think that his passion is there and he’s willing to fight – and that’s really what we need in 2016, is a fighter.”
The far-right American Pastors Network (APN) weighed in, asking: “Now that the presidential field has considerably narrowed, there’s a pressing question looming for some: ‘Will I vote the lesser of two evils or not vote at all?’”
Sam Rohrer, head of APN, didn’t endorse a candidate, but he made it clear what he wants his followers to do. Rohrer called for rejecting any candidate who fails to embrace “God-defined moral absolutes such as life, marriage and God-established human sexuality” and voting against those who “embrace and pursue the killing of the unborn and marriage between any combination of people other than man and woman.”
He added, “As Christians, we should support and vote for the candidate whose principles most closely align with what we believe, what the word of God teaches and what God’s expectations of a leader are.”
As for FRC’s Perkins, some may have wondered if his serious case of Cruz fever could ever be cured by Trump. It would seem so. In late May, Time magazine reported that Carson, who had become a Trump adviser, and Perkins teamed up to bring together Trump and about 400 far-right leaders for a closed-door conference scheduled for June 21. (The meeting took place after this issue of Church & State went to print.)
Gary Bauer of American Values and James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, were also involved in making that meeting happen. In a May 23 email to supporters, Perkins admitted he would likely be swayed by Trump’s choice of running mate.
“I want to be actively supportive of a candidate who can help turn this nation around,” he wrote. “With Trump, I’m not there yet. I hope to be there, but I’m not there right now. A vice presidential pick is going to be very crucial to a lot of people. Mr. Trump doesn’t have a track record, so I’ll rely very heavily on who he chooses as a running mate.”
Perkins was right about one thing – Trump has a short track record on many of the Religious Right’s core issues. Until recently, Trump had never claimed to be a man of deep and abiding faith, and his lifestyle of frequent womanizing hardly marked him as devout.
At the VVS, Trump worked to make amends. He literally waved a worn Bible, which he claimed belonged to him in childhood, and pledged that once he was in office, you’ll hear a lot more people saying “Merry Christmas” during the holiday season.
But Trump still hits occasional stumbling blocks. He seems to be unfamiliar with the Bible and has struggled to name a favorite passage. At one point, he named a passage that doesn’t appear in the Bible.
During an April interview, Trump tried again, this time lauding a harsh Old Testament admonition calling for retributive justice.
“Well, I think many,” Trump told a Rochester, N.Y., talk radio show host. “I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us...we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”
(In January, Trump, speaking at Liberty University, referred to “two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians,” sparking a ripple of laughter in the audience.)
In other areas vital to the far-right agenda, Trump has a history of flip- flops. As recently as 2004, Trump said he was a Democrat.
“In many cases, I probably identify more as Democrat,” Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “It just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than the Republicans. Now, it shouldn’t be that way. But if you go back, I mean it just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats....But certainly we had some very good economies under Democrats, as well as Republicans. But we’ve had some pretty bad disaster under the Republicans.”
In a 2007 interview, also with Blitzer, Trump said something that would surely pain any Religious Right ally: He praised Hillary Clinton.
“Hillary’s always surrounded herself with very good people,” Trump said. “I think Hillary would do a good job [as president].”
When it comes to key culture war issues like abortion, Trump is once again guilty of changing course over the years. In a 1999 interview and a book he wrote in 2000, Trump confessed to being “very pro-choice.” More recently Trump said, “I’m pro-life, and I was originally pro-choice. I have evolved.”
His views on LGBT rights, another litmus-test issue for the Religious Right, have been all over the map. The Human Rights Campaign reports that Trump has in the past expressed support for a federal law to protect LGBT Americans and said he favored civil unions for same-sex couples. At another point, he said he didn’t support civil unions. More recently he has blasted the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding marriage equality, calling it “shocking” and vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn it.
None of these policy course changes seem to have done anything to damage Trump’s image. In fact, well before Religious Right leaders were behind Trump, the far-right flock was supporting him. He consistently led among evangelical voters during the primary season, even when Cruz was still in the race.
In the Indiana Republican primary, for example, 50 percent of Trump’s voters identified themselves as evangelicals and 48 percent reported attending church at least once a week. In the New Hampshire primary, when numerous far-right favorites were still in the race, Trump managed to capture 27 percent of the evangelical vote, the largest of any GOP candidate. As of mid-May, NBC News reported that Trump had won 40 percent of all evangelical voters during the primaries. That was 6 percent more than Cruz.
Although much of the Religious Right’s support for Trump is a recent phenomenon, one prominent figure began stumping for Trump months ago. In January, Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, made a personal endorsement of Trump and invited him to speak to students that same month. The move surprised some observers, considering Cruz had announced his candidacy for president at Liberty less than one year earlier.
“I think there are a lot of social conservatives that are going outside the bloc this time to save the country,” Falwell told the Lynchburg News & Advance. “If we lose all our religious freedoms, and we lose all our other freedoms, and small government, and just basic human rights…the ones that vote on social conservative issues, it will be a moot point.”
Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, also endorsed Trump early, a move that sparked division in her organization. (See “The Eagle Has Crash Landed,” June 2016 Church & State.)
But not all conservative evangelicals have jumped on the Trump train. The Rev. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has no love for the real estate mogul. In May, Moore wrote in The New York Times that Trump’s stance on immigrants is offensive to Jesus.
“A white American Christian who disregards nativist language is in for a shock,” Moore wrote. “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.’”
Later, Moore called Trump “reality television moral sewage,” an attack that drew return fire from Trump via Twitter – a medium Trump frequently uses to assail his opponents.
“[Moore] is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!” blasted Trump.
Perhaps as another form of rebuttal to Moore, Carson cautioned evangelicals against staying home in November because doing so would effectively hand a victory to the reviled Hillary Clinton.
“Conservatives are often deceived by those who try to convince them that standing on principle is what distinguishes them as upstanding human beings,” Carson wrote in a May op-ed for The Hill. “The same conservatives fail to realize that when they don’t vote, they are in essence voting for the other side.”
Warned Carson, “There are always consequences for our actions, but this time, the results of our voting will reach far beyond our own lifetimes. It is time for us to think about our patriotic ancestors who sacrificed much, in many cases even their lives, to provide opportunities that we now enjoy. It is our turn to be responsible.”
Ultimately, it seems Moore’s words had little impact on Trump’s standing with the Religious Right, as he remained popular enough that he was invited to speak at Ralph Reed’s Road to Majority Conference in Washington, D.C., in June.
Reed introduced Trump at the June 10 event by calling him a friend and pointing out that the real estate mogul had addressed the organization twice before.
Once at the podium, Trump offered a mostly boilerplate speech that was short on specific proposals. He called for more political activity by houses of worship and warned repeatedly about “radical Islam.”
Trump also insisted that if he is elected, he will protect religious freedom – but again he offered only vague assurances.
“We will respect and defend Christian Americans,” he said.
AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn called Trump’s speech “a mishmash of vague proposals and mindless sloganeering designed to pacify the zealots of the Religious Right.”
Added Lynn, “The people who belong to Ralph Reed’s Coalition may find this engaging, but anyone who truly values religious freedom as a core American principle can see the paucity of vision here.”
Trump has also been invited to speak at FRC’s 2016 Values Voter Summit, which takes place Sept. 9-11 in D.C.
The Religious Right’s overall support for Trump may seem surprising to some, but at least one observer said it was inevitable. Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, wrote in a May 16 column for The Washington Post that evangelicals have embraced Trump because the modern Religious Right movement is no longer about religion.
“The religious right was never about the advancement of biblical values,” Balmer said. “The modern, politically conservative evangelical movement we know is a movement rooted in the perpetuation of racial segregation, and its affiliation with the hard-right fringes of the conservative movement in the late 1970s produced a mutant form of evangelicalism inconsistent with the best traditions of evangelicalism itself. Since then, evangelicals have embraced increasingly secular positions divorced from any biblical grounding, and supporting Donald Trump represents the logical conclusion of that tragic aberration.”
Balmer took issue with the frequent assumption that the Religious Right arose in response to the Su- preme Court’s 1973 abortion decision in Roe v. Wade.
In reality, he said, it was a different legal matter around the same time that jolted the far right into action: the Internal Revenue Service’s effort to revoke the tax exemption of segregated organizations, particularly Bob Jones University and the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Liberty Christian Academy. Over the following decades, Balmer asserted, evangelicals abandoned their biblical ideals in favor of more worldly concerns – like political power, which they achieved by aligning closely with the Republican Party.
“On the face of it, evangelical support for Trump is confounding,” Balmer wrote. “But a majority of evangelicals surrendered their prophetic voice decades ago….In a word, they secularized, trading their fidelity to the Bible and their own heritage of social activism for what amounted to a mess of pottage, the illusion of political influence. Rather than echoing the biblical cries for justice and peace and equality, they settled for the claptrap of hard-right political orthodoxy and thereby became just another interest group, a political entity susceptible to the panderings of politicians.”
Another observer, writing from a faith perspective, was equally unsurprised by Trump’s rise among the Religious Right. He blamed the movement’s leaders for failing to foster the kind of intellectual environment that would reject Trump’s rhetoric.
“Evangelical churches and colleges have failed to educate people on how to think Christianly about their role as citizens,” wrote John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. “They have failed to teach their constituencies Christian habits of acting in the world that allow them to make meaningful contributions to American democracy. Is it any wonder that so many evangelicals have cast votes for Donald Trump?”
Others in the Religious Right may argue that they have no other choice. William Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard, attempted to recruit a candidate to run against Trump. Last month, Kristol announced that David French, an obscure far-right attorney formerly with Alliance Defending Freedom and a blogger, might run. A few days later, French said he wasn’t interested in entering the race.
Yet many speculate that Religious Right leaders, after eight years of Obama, simply want to win this time; they’ll contort themselves in whatever manner is necessary to defeat Clinton, a figure they despise.
Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates and a longtime analyst of the Religious Right, told Truthout.com that many Religious Right figures “have a history of ideological flexibility” when they want to win an election.
“Pat Robertson in 2008 and Ralph Reed in 2012 supported the adulterous, thrice-married, twice-divorced, pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, in past elections,” Clarkson opined, “so we can reasonably expect that they could come out quickly for Trump.”
They have – and only time will tell if Trump will deliver for them.