Jun 17, 2020

By Sarah Posner

Editor’s Note: Type Investigations reporting fellow Sarah Posner recently published a new book, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump. In this special guest blog, Posner explains why she believes Trump’s support among this community isn’t faltering.  

Televangelist Pat Robertson’s recent rebuke of President Donald Trump’s militaristic crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters on his Christian Broadcasting Network program 700 Club drew widespread attention. Could a prominent TV preacher telling Trump “it isn’t cool!” mark a turning point for the president’s support from white evangelicals, Trump’s most loyal base?

Much like the December 2019 Christianity Today editorial calling for Trump’s impeachment, widely touted by pundits as a “game-changer” pushing white evangelicals away from Trump, Robertson’s remarks are likely to turn out to be a forgettable blip amid our current tumult.

In my new book, Unholy: Why Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, I tell the story of the Christian nationalists’s devotion to Trump through reporting on his presidential campaign and presidency, as well as by excavating the history of the Religious Right as it entered Republican electoral politics in the late 1970s.

This story – and not today’s or yesterday’s or next week’s polls – shows why Trump’s loyalists remain solidly in his camp, and why they are unlikely to abandon him – even if he loses his reelection campaign. Trump is not an aberration; he is the product of decades of political organizing, including bringing white evangelicals into electoral politics based on antipathy to social and legal changes in the United States from the mid-twentieth century onward, including Supreme Court decisions striking down segregation and mandatory prayer in public schools.

Here are five reasons why Trump’s relationship with this base remains rock solid:

  • They view Trump as the ultimate outsider: In the 1970s, white evangelicals were brought into a movement known at the time as the “New Right,” which was instrumental in building the architecture of the modern conservative movement, including powerful institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council. In addition to creating this enduring infrastructure, the New Right also aimed to elevate a presidential candidate who was an “outsider” to the Republican Party unafraid to take on the establishment – someone like George Wallace. They did not succeed at the time, but in many respects, Trump ultimately fulfilled that role.
  • They see Trump as a defender of their rights: White evangelicals were mobilized into the Religious Right in the 1970s not because of abortion (although that later became a top issue), but because of opposition to efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to require private Christian schools to take steps to desegregate. This opposition to civil rights, and the claim that rights for others amounted to an infringement on Christians’s religious freedom, is a throughline to the present era, during which white evangelicals and other conservative white Christians view Trump as a staunch and historic defender of their religious freedom.
  • They believe Trump has delivered for them: Trump’s relationship with the Religious Right is on one level transactional: mobilize your voters for me, and I’ll give you the judges that you want, and the political appointees you need to carry out your policy wish list. Trump has indeed delivered on these promises, by stacking the federal courts with judges sympathetic to the expansive view of “religious freedom” the Religious Right promotes and giving its ideologues carte blanche in key federal agencies.
  • They view Trump as a strongman: But the Religious Right’s devotion to Trump runs much deeper than judicial nominees and federal agency staffing. While the rest of the country is aghast at Trump’s assaults on democratic norms and institutions – an independent judiciary, congressional oversight, a free press and civil and human rights – his supporters in the Christian nationalist camp see a strong, decisive leader defending “Christian” America from alien forces bent on its destruction.
  • They consider Trump to be ordained by God: As a result of Trump’s attacks on the press, his own disinformation campaigns, and a media (and social media) echo chamber, Trump’s followers continue to see him as a divinely anointed leader, under attack by perceived (secular) enemies. To them, he is “the most pro-life president” and the “most pro-religious freedom president” in history.

It’s crucial to understand this history in order to understand the white evangelical embrace of Trump, and why it will persist into November – and beyond.

Photo: President Trump addresses the 2017 Values Voter Summit