U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has suspended his campaign for president, making Donald Trump the presumptive Republican nominee. Cruz made the announcement yesterday evening after Trump shellacked him in the Indiana primary.Cruz had denounced the GOP frontrunner at a Tuesday press conference after Trump told supporters the senator’s father had been connected to Lee Harvey Oswald. Trump, Cruz declared, is “utterly amoral,” a “pathological liar” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.”Continued Cruz, “He is proud of being a serial philanderer...he describes his own battles with venereal diseases as his own personal Vietnam.”
Cruz’s broadside failed to sway Indiana Republicans. In fact, it didn’t even sway Indiana’s self-identified evangelicals. Fifty percent of Trump’s voters identified themselves as evangelicals, and 48 percent reported attending church at least once a week. Though voters who said they attended church more than once a week supported Cruz, as they have done elsewhere, Trump’s dubious piety has cost him little.
Trump’s success is a stunning challenge to popular understandings of the Religious Right’s priorities. The businessman opposes so-called ‘bathroom bills’ that prohibit transgender people from accessing the public bathrooms appropriate to their gender.He has never supported marriage equality, but did say last year that the U.S. Supreme Court had settled the matter and that politicians seeking to overturn the ruling did so for “political reasons.” Though he’s since changed positions, his inconsistency places him sharply at odds with Cruz and with the stated political ambitions of the Religious Right.
Trump is also inconsistent on abortion, another major issue for the Religious Right. The Washington Post reports that Trump took five different positions on abortion over three days last month.
His ability to seduce voters from the more obvious evangelical candidate indicates that many voters may understand “evangelical” to be more of a cultural identity than a doctrinal position; that to them, adopting the label is principally a political act and not a religious one.
If this is true, the Religious Right has no one to blame but itself. It worked diligently to conflate American evangelicalism with conservative, reactionary politics and it succeeded. Whatever a man shall sow, that shall he also reap: Perhaps the Apostle Paul predicted the rise of Trump millennia ago.Though the Religious Right bears some responsibility for creating Trump’s America, Cruz’s loss is still a blow to the movement. Cruz had invested heavily in courting evangelical voters. He won the Value Voters Summit straw poll three years in a row. He boasted a strong record on the movement’s core culture war positions. And despite an early Trump endorsement from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., the Religious Right’s most prominent figures and organizations lined up behind Cruz’s candidacy.
Russell Moore is one of them. Moore, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has repeatedly attacked Trump’s flexible commitment to conservative Christian values. In a New York Times op-ed last year, Moore asserted that Trump’s evangelical backers “must repudiate everything they believe” to support his candidacy. But it was never clear that Moore possessed the influence necessary to convince Southern Baptist clergy and laity to reject Trump, and it now appears that he did not.
Cruz also boasted the support of the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, the American Family Association, Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman and the First Liberty Institute’s Kelly Shackleford, among other notables. But this too was not enough to wrench a significant evangelical voting bloc away from Trump.
Trump’s evangelicals are hardly social liberals. Their reluctance to support Cruz does not mean they have stopped opposing LGBT and abortion rights or even that they have stopped believing that they have a moral duty to “Christianize” America. Evangelical voters do not march in lock step – not with their media-appointed “leaders,” not with their co-religionists. In this, they are not substantially different from any other movement.
Cruz’s collapse doesn’t mean the Religious Right is going to disappear. It’s in flux, just like the rest of the country, and Trump simply capitalized on divisions that already existed. It’s up to the Religious Right’s operatives to decide where they go from here.