July/August 2016 Church & State | Featured

By Katherine Stewart  

When the music starts there are only two left on the dance floor, you know they’re going to have to tango. Even if they squirm at the very sight of the other. That, more or less, was the scene as Donald Trump and the Religious Right reached out to each other at a recent “Conversation” in New York City.

Trump’s efforts to make himself presentable to religious conservatives have an air of farce. “Nobody reads the Bible more than me,” Trump has said. Does anybody anywhere believe that? He describes himself as a Presbyterian and claimed he goes to the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue. But Marble Collegiate isn’t Presbyterian, and it has said that he is not an active member. 

As a rule, when Trump stumps “the evangelicals,” there is no “we” in his speech. It’s all in the spirit of “You be good to me, I’ll be good for you.” Speaking to religious conservatives, Trump holds up his list of Supreme Court nominees as if he were selling shiny new bonds for a casino development. “These judges are all pro-life!” he says.

Confronting the reality of a thrice-married, palpably unchurched nominee-to-be, a handful of religious conservatives have steadfastly refused to dance. Russell D. Moore, a leading theologian in the Southern Baptist Convention, described Trump’s candidacy as a kind of “reality television moral sewage.” By way of thanks, he got flamed on Twitter.

But a more typical attitude was on display at the Religious Right’s Road to Majority Conference last month in Washington, D.C. Ralph Reed, the conference organizer, grimaced and used one circumlocution after another to avoid even saying the name of the man he has, in fact, effectively endorsed for president. During the conference, Reed told supporters that Trump is not “a messiah” – surely an understatement – but quickly added, “We’re not looking for a messiah.”

The comedy of it all has led many observers to think that the alliance between Trump and political Christianity is tenuous. On the right, activists like the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins describe it as making “the best of a bad situation.” On the left, there is a widespread view that a Trump presidency wouldn’t have a lot of religion in it. After all, he let Caitlyn Jenner use the women’s room at Trump Tower!

But these assessments are both complacent and parochial. If we place the current moment in a global perspective, it becomes clear that the alliance between Trump and the Religious Right stands on much firmer ground than the candidate’s ever-shifting moods and volatile opinions.

The “surprise” of the primary season, according to many pundits, was that white evangelicals rallied to Trump in favor of more obviously religious candidates like Ted Cruz. For those who understand America’s Religious Right in the context of the rise of global fundamentalism, the outcome was hardly surprising. 

Right-wing authoritarians always run identity campaigns. There is a “we” that is under threat; there is a “they” that we hate; and religion tends to play a vital role in distinguishing between the two. From Franco in Spain to Salazar in Portugal, right-wing strongmen have long relied on alliances with conservative religious movements to sustain their strict regimes. 

These alliances held firm even when the leaders themselves were of questionable piety. Mussolini was an atheist who happily fathered children out of wedlock – before going on to make Catholicism into Italy’s state religion. Milosevic believed in nothing but himself, but that didn’t stop the prelates of the Serbian Orthodox Church from grabbing their Kalashnikovs and riding into battle with the troops that ravaged Bosnia and Kosovo.

Right-wing authoritarians always champion family values – even if their own family life leaves something to be desired. They bond over their commitment to the order and hierarchies of custom, tradition, and, above all, gender and family. If you’re Franco, you criminalize contraception, abortion and homosexuality, and you celebrate the ideal of the perfecta casada – the perfect housewife. If you’re Trump, you promise to “restore respect for people of faith who dutifully raise their children, follow our laws and rules” – even if you yourself aren’t exactly a model rule-follower.

Right-wing authoritarians believe in “rules,” but they don’t believe in the rule of law. And that is another reason why religious conservatives tend to come to their side. America’s culture warriors, to be sure, talk a good game about “religious liberty,” “government tyranny,” and their unwavering commitment to the Constitution. 

Like religious conservatives throughout history, however, they see themselves in a hostile world and on the edge of apocalypse. They understand that their hopes of imposing their “values” on the rest of society depend on finding a leader who won’t let himself be stymied by liberal talk about individual rights or the rights of minority groups – or what they call “political correctness.” 

For his part, Trump is making all the right moves to pick up the mantle of a divinely-ordained-right-wing authoritarian. He has announced an “Evangelical Advisory Board” to serve as a kind of spiritual guardian council. It includes James Dobson, Michele Bachmann, Ralph Reed and other boldface names of the Christian right.

All signs are that the Religious Right, notwithstanding the ostentatiously pinched noses, is preparing to play its part, too. In fact, the political machine of America’s Religious Right has already sprung into action on behalf of the nominee-to-be. Just after letting us know that Trump is not the messiah, Reed went on to boast about the force his group would bring to bear on the election. 

“We will distribute 35 million nonpartisan voter guides to 117,000 thousand churches and houses of worship across this country,” he vowed. “We will make 15 million phone calls from phone banks and volunteer centers. We will send out 20 million emails and texts to seven million voters of faith in battleground states…and, if they haven’t turned in their vote by 4 p.m. that day…we’re going to go to their house by car or van and knock on their doors.”

The “Conversation” in New York was billed as a “not political in nature” and “not a campaign event.” ” To which O. Alan Noble, editor of Christ & Pop Culture, tweeted, “lol.” In advance of the meeting, Fox News host Todd Starnes reported “rumblings” that “evangelical leaders are trying to turn Tuesday’s meeting with Trump into a Coronation.” While it’s hard to picture a crown on Trump’s hair, a recognition of the appointment of the new vessel for the religious right’s cause was indeed both the intention and result of the “Conversation.”

Over at The Jim Bakker Show, frequent talking head Mary Colbert summed up the wisdom of the many in the rank and file. 

“You have to line up with God wants,” she announced. She allowed that the nominee-to-be has been accused of having a foul mouth and calling people nasty names. 

“My Jesus was a name-caller,” she declared defiantly. “So get over the name-calling!”

 

Katherine Stewart is a journalist who frequently covers church-state issues. Her most recent book is The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.