In the middle of October, Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and a member of Donald J. Trump’s Religious Advisory Council, penned a column for the online Christian Post in which he discussed the Republican nominee’s spiritual life.
“I know for a fact that the Gospel has been shared with Mr. Trump,” Graham wrote. “He has been confronted with his sin. He has heard God’s truth and has been offered grace and forgiveness.
“Our mission as spiritual advisors is to deliver the message,” Graham added. “Without question, that message has been faithfully delivered. Several members of our group speak into Mr. Trump’s life weekly, if not daily.”
Trump’s stunning come-from-behind victory on Nov. 8 has clearly pleased Religious Right figures like Graham who believe they’re on the verge of getting much of what they want politically.
And they just might be.
The Religious Right has a laundry list of issues, many of which Trump has already addressed. During the campaign, Trump vowed to get rid of a federal law that bars tax-exempt non-profits, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan politicking. He also proposed a $20-billion voucher plan that will inevitably end up supporting many sectarian schools.
Trump, who once said he backed LGBTQ rights, came out against marriage equality and threw his weight behind a proposed piece of legislation called the First Amendment Defense Act that will give people the right to use their religious beliefs to deny services to those they consider immoral, such as gay people and couples who live together without being married.
With the Senate remaining in GOP hands, Trump will also have the power to make appointments to the federal courts and fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court. During the campaign, he put forth a list of possible judicial candidates, all of them very conservative.
This issue – control of the high court – motivated many in the Religious Right to stick with Trump despite his frequently crass behavior. Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, the high court has been hobbling along with eight members. On social issues, the court is closely divided; a new appointment will shift the balance. It’s also likely, given the ages of some of the justices, that Trump will have the opportunity to appoint more jurists to the nation’s top court.
Trump used these issues skillfully to win over initially skeptical Religious Right leaders. His choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian and a favorite of the Religious Right, as a running mate also pleased social conservatives.
Trump needed to do something to shore up Religious Right support because early in the race he was dogged by questions about his commitment to conservative Christianity and the Religious Right’s agenda. Trump, a Presbyterian who rarely attends services, was considered by some in the Religious Right to be essentially a secular candidate posing as a devout Christian.
While Trump won over many of the Religious Right’s old guard, not everyone was convinced. About two weeks before Election Day, a column highly critical of Trump appeared in The Washington Post.
That wasn’t unusual; the newspaper had been highly critical of the real-estate mogul and reality TV star throughout the campaign. But the column’s authorship definitely raised eyebrows: It was penned by three students at Liberty University, a conservative evangelical school founded by the late TV preacher Jerry Falwell and now run by his son Jerry Falwell Jr.
The students – Dustin Wahl, Paige Cutler and Alexander Forbes – didn’t hold back. They criticized Falwell Jr. for endorsing Trump and accused him of seeking to stifle dissenting voices.
They also had harsh words for Trump, whom they slammed for his “flagrant dishonesty, consistent misogyny and boastful unrepentance.”
Observed the trio, “Trump is the antithesis of our values; there is no reason to revisit his vices here. Most non-Christians recognize Trump as amoral and self-centered. If we ignore this fact and buy into his promise of strength, what will it tell the world about how seriously we Christians esteem our values?”
Liberty University, a bastion of fundamentalist Christian thought based in Lynchburg, Va., might have seemed an unlikely place for an anti-Trump uprising. The school is reliably Republican-leaning, and GOP candidates with national ambitions often consider a visit there a necessity.
Yet the resistance at LU, led by students who formed a group called Liberty United Against Trump, is an interesting sign of what could be a deepening rift in the Religious Right sparked by Trump. His victory may smooth over some of those rifts, but if his behavior in office continues to be erratic, it may exacerbate them.
Members of the Religious Right’s old guard rallied behind Trump, even in the face of damning revelations of his crude behavior around women. But some conservative evangelicals, especially younger ones, were skeptical of Trump’s claims of a deep and abiding faith.
Trump was hardly the first choice of the Religious Right. During the GOP primaries, most of the movement’s leaders rallied around U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a figure who has long been popular with social conservatives. A smaller faction backed Ben Carson, a surgeon with no political experience who made his faith and socially conservative views the cornerstone of his campaign.
As the primaries played out, some groups tried to stop Trump. The American Family Association (AFA), for example, issued a number of statements and columns critical of the bombastic developer. But as Trump’s unconventional campaign flattened one GOP hopeful after another, it soon became clear that these groups were going to have to make a choice: back Trump or sit on the sidelines.
Most chose to support Trump. This left them in a difficult position Oct. 7 when a videotape of Trump surfaced during which the candidate said lewd things about women and bragged about sexually assaulting them.
The tape was taken in 2005 when Trump and Billy Bush, then host of a television program called “Access Hollywood,” were on their way to the set of a soap opera where Trump was filming a cameo.
On the tape, Trump is heard boasting about his attempts to seduce a married woman. “I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it,” Trump says. “I did try and [expletive deleted] her. She was married.”
Trump goes on: “And I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, ‘I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.’ I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married.”
At another point in the tape, Trump brags about sexually harrassing women.
“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them,” Trump is heard saying. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Another voice, apparently Bush’s, says, “Whatever you want.”
To this Trump replies, “Grab them by the [expletive deleted]. You can do anything.”
The release of the explosive tape dominated the news for days. Almost immediately, reporters reached out to Religious Right leaders for their take. Most of them shrugged it off.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told BuzzFeed, “My personal support for Donald Trump has never been based upon shared values, it is based upon shared concerns about issues such as: justices on the Supreme Court that ignore the Constitution, America’s continued vulnerability to Islamic terrorists and the systematic attack on religious liberty that we’ve seen in the last 7 1/2 years.”
Ralph Reed of the Faith & Family Coalition was even more dismissive. “People of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defund Planned Parenthood, defend religious liberty and oppose the Iran nuclear deal,” he remarked. “A 10-year-old tape of a private conversation with a talk show host ranks low on their hierarchy of concerns.”
Other Religious Right figures took the view that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was so terrifying that Trump’s behavior could be excused.
“I said at that time, with Trump sitting next to me, I would not necessarily choose this man to be my child’s Sunday School teacher,” asserted Robert Jeffress, a Texas Baptist pastor and member of Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board. “But that’s not what this election is about.”
Others attempted to write off Trump’s comments as harmless locker room banter. TV preacher Pat Robertson told his audience that Trump was merely trying to be “macho.” Robertson later added that he would still support Trump because the businessman knows how to get out of bankruptcy.
James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, told the right-wing site WorldNetDaily, “I am … more concerned about America’s future than Donald Trump’s past. I wonder about how Bill Clinton’s language stands up in private.”
To critics of the Religious Right, this all sounded like hypocrisy. For years, these groups had judged the behavior of others and called for candidates who adhered to “biblical principles” and strict codes of personal behavior. Yet here they were seeming to overlook almost any transgression by Trump as they salivated over his promise to appoint a Scalia-like justice to the open seat.
Some invoked a “lesser of two evils” argument: Clinton is too horrible to contemplate, so going for Trump is acceptable.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, didn’t buy it. Moore, a consistent critic of Trump, penned an opinion column chiding his coreligionists for their support of the New York magnate.
“These evangelical leaders have said that, for the sake of the ‘lesser of two evils,’ one should stand with someone who not only characterizes sexual decadence and misogyny, brokers in cruelty and nativism, and displays a crazed public and private temperament – but who glories in these things,” Moore wrote. “Some of the very people who warned us about moral relativism and situational ethics now ask us to become moral relativists for the sake of an election. And when some dissent, they are labeled as liberals or accused of moral preening or sitting comfortably on the sidelines. The cynicism and nihilism is horrifying to behold. It is not new, but it is clearer to see than ever.”
Moore’s warning fell on lots of deaf ears.
Richard Land, former top lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention and now president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., fell back on the argument that Trump’s behavior is excusable because we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness (something the far right is never willing to extend to liberals). Land remained mostly mum about Trump’s sexual indiscretions but issued a flurry of press releases attempting to make hay with hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee that he claimed showed Clinton in a negative light.
As the election approached, the AFA began doing more than acting as apologists for Trump; it started pushing his talking points. One AFA bulletin asserted, against all known evidence, that voter fraud is widespread in America. At the time, Trump had been telling supporters at his rallies that the system was “rigged” against him. He went so far as to imply, during the third presidential debate, that he might not accept the results if he lost.
Religious Right activists, who are usually quick to judge the behavior of others, suddenly adopted moral relativism. One poll showed 72 percent of white evangelicals agreeing that an elected official who commits an immoral act in his/her personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill professional duties. As recently as 2011, that figure was only 30 percent.
But not everyone in the world of conservative evangelicalism fell in line behind Trump. New York Times religion writer Laurie Goodstein surveyed some younger evangelicals in October and found many in dismay.
Matthew Lee Anderson, a 34-year-old blogger and author, was especially upset over Perkins’ decision to stick with Trump.
“It’s inconceivable that someone could run an organization named the Family Research Council and support a man like Donald Trump for president,” Anderson said.
Goodstein pointed out that Anderson spoke on a panel at the FRC’s Values Voter Summit meeting in 2012. But now he said of Perkins, “I don’t have any trust in his judgment any longer. And that’s the sort of loss of trust that lots of younger evangelicals are experiencing toward people like Tony Perkins, and it will not be rebuilt quickly.”
A group of evangelical women also criticized Trump. In October, the Rev. Jennifer Butler of Faith in Public Life drafted a sign-on letter critical of Trump, which more than 1,000 women religious leaders have signed.
“The sin of misogyny has caused many of us to experience sexual assault or sexually abusive language that threatened our safety, dignity and well-being,” the letter asserts. “Christian leaders cannot condone such violent speech about women as a minor mistake or an innocent attempt to be ‘macho.’”
But many of Trump’s evangelical critics, as passionate as they are, lack a national stage, and they don’t have well-funded Religious Right groups backing them. Had Trump lost, they might have gained more prominence. But his victory, won in part with support from 81 percent of white evangelicals, gives the old guard bragging rights and quite possibly ready access to the leader of the free world.
When the results came in, some Religious Right figures attributed Trump’s win to divine intervention.
“When the polls are so off and the pundits get it so wrong and we can see no other explanation for a Donald Trump victory, we can rest assured that it is God who worked a miracle,” said Sam Rohrer, president of the American Pastors Network.
The AFA released a column by Michael Brown, who runs a ministry called FIRE in North Carolina, in which Brown wrote, “I believe Trump has been elected president by divine intervention.”
How much emphasis will Trump place on the Religious Right’s issues? It’s hard to say. Some political analysts believe Trump is fueled primarily by populist rage over what many Americans consider to be bad trade deals and an economy that doesn’t do much for the working class. Deep down, they speculate, Trump cares little for social issues and merely played religious conservatives with promises he either cannot or will not keep.
But it would be risky to assume that Trump won’t continue to placate the Religious Right. He owes the movement something, especially if he wants a second term, so some church-state battles seem inevitable.
Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, vowed that the organization would remain vigilant.
Lynn noted that Trump has a poor understanding of religious freedom. He pointed out that during the campaign, Trump often traded in crude forms of Islamophobia. At one point, he proposed banning Muslims from entering the country or subjecting them to heightened screening. The proposals, which would likely be declared unconstitutional, drew strong protests from religious and public policy groups.
“Donald Trump’s proposals throughout his campaign indicated a shocking disregard for the principles of the First Amendment,” Lynn said. “Religious freedom is far too valuable for us to allow anyone to harm it and far too fragile for us to leave it unguarded. Americans United stands at the ready to fight back against any and all of Trump’s dangerous initiatives.”
In other news about election 2016:
– Voters in Oklahoma rejected a ballot initiative, State Question 790, that would have removed a provision from the state constitution that bars taxpayer funding of religion. Americans United opposed the attempt to remove Article 2, Section 5 from the constitution. State lawmakers pushed for the repeal after the Oklahoma Supreme Court cited the provision in ordering a Ten Commandments monument removed from the capitol. The vote was 57 percent against to 43 percent for.
– ballot initiative in Missouri that would have weakened that state’s “no-aid-to-religion” provision also failed, 60 percent to 40 percent. Deceptively titled the “Early Childhood Health and Education Amendment,” Amendment 3 was pushed by the tobacco industry. It would have ostensibly allocated money for pre-school programs, including those run by sectarian groups.
– Voters in Atlantic City, N.J., voted down a non-binding referendum, Ballot Question 3, that would have expressed support for a school voucher plan and a tax credit for homeschooling in the city. Fifty-four percent of the city’s voters rejected the idea.
– North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) was defeated by Democrat Roy Cooper. McCrory came under fire in March after he signed a controversial bill that overturned LGBTQ rights ordinances in North Carolina communities and required people to use the bathroom of their gender assigned at birth.
– In Montana, incumbent governor Steve Bullock (D) fended off a challenge from Greg Gianforte, a wealthy businessman who was criticized for making donations to Religious Right groups. Creationism briefly became an issue in the race when Gianforte’s critics accused him of wanting to divert tax dollars to private religious schools that don’t teach evolution.
– Missouri voters elected Republican Josh Hawley over Democrat Teresa Hensley for attorney general. There has been some speculation that if Hawley won, he would seek to settle a church-state case pending at the Supreme Court that concerns taxpayer funding of a religious pre-school in Columbia. The case, Trinity Lutheran v. Pauley, was brought by a church that is suing the state over its refusal to allow it to take part in a program where it would receive a taxpayer grant to buy recycled, shredded tires to resurface its playground.