Without Evangelicals, the Republican Party Would Be History

Without Evangelicals, the Republican Party Would Be History August 1, 2016

Sick Elephant2I’m going to eventually get back to writing more directly about religion, I promise. Soon I’ll be done working my way through a review of Tim Keller‘s The Reason for God, and I’ve got quite a bit to say upon reflection about the trajectory of the atheist movement and what afflicts it. But like watching a slow-motion train wreck, I can scarcely peel my attention away from the drama-laden presidential race that has swallowed up my newsfeed on social media.

It’s a fascinating spectacle, even for people not naturally inclined to enjoy politics. This election year is hands down the most interesting one in recent memory—only the tumultuous 1968 presidential election rivals it. That one was so traumatic an entire generation decided to spend the following year completely stoned. I’m beginning to understand their angst. There comes a point at which the world makes so little sense that you just want to tune out the entire thing and go somewhere else, at least psychologically if not physically.

This season has provided ample fodder for pundits and prognosticators, and I suspect political scientists will be dissecting its many twists and turns for years to come. First Donald Trump showed us that the Archie Bunker vote has been lying in wait for the right candidate to come along and capture how they feel about the way things are going. Then Bernie Sanders came along and fomented an electoral revolution which nearly dethroned the most powerful woman in American history.

We watched bemused as theocrat after theocrat within the GOP boasted of divine providence in their own presidential bids only to lose out to the least religious man in the race. At this point it’s become daily routine to open up our computers and get out our phones to read the latest outrageous thing emanating from the dangerously underregulated mouth of Tweety McThinskin.*

The Church’s Man of the Hour

What fascinates me the most, however, is the near unanimity with which evangelical Christian leaders are throwing their support behind “the thrice married owner of casinos with strip clubs.” The Republican Party approved an official party platform that declares pornography a national health crisis even while nominating a man who has appeared on the cover of Playboy and who is married to a model who’s done her fair share of nude photo shoots. Or so I’ve heard. *ahem*

The hypocrisy can hardly be overstated, even if they have worked out their own justifications for going against virtually everything they believe. “We are electing a president, not a pope,” you will hear them rationalize. Funny how they never said that whenever someone called into question the faith of Barack Obama.

It’s not just that this fiasco makes a mockery of the church’s role in American life, although it does do that. With the 2016 election cycle, the American church has effectively forfeited its right to condemn the character of presidential candidates. That won’t stop them from doing it anyway, of course.

They spent seven years maligning the character and integrity of one of the most exemplary family men to have ever occupied the Oval Office, even while declaring themselves the divinely appointed guardians of family values. Now they want to replace him with a man who has fathered five children through three different wives. I suppose he feels the same way about marriage as Larry King, who once quipped that of course he is a big fan of the institution, else he wouldn’t have gone through with it so many times.

No, the blatant hypocrisy isn’t the biggest news story this go-around. To my mind, it’s the sheer dependence on the evangelical vote that has become so indispensable for the survival of the Republican Party. Without the Religious Right, the electoral map would look like an ocean of blue come the first Tuesday of November.

Evangelicals: The GOP’s Firewall

White evangelical Christians make up just under a quarter of the national electorate, and as much as half of the GOP’s voting base. And according to the latest polling by the Pew Research Center, nearly four-fifths of them plan on voting for Trump in November, up dramatically from one-third back in April. That means that white evangelicals are essentially responsible for providing this man his shot at leading the country. Without their dutiful support, no one would seriously be entertaining the idea that this con artist could soon have access to the nation’s nuclear codes.

It’s true that there are others out there planning to vote for Trump. The Republican primaries made it clear that the “missing white voter” conspicuously absent from the 2012 election could be inspired to participate if only a candidate were to capture their beleaguered sense of disenfranchisement in this politically correct age. Trump found that chord and played it loudly and often, winning him the top spot among Republican primary voters around the country. But the nativist vote can only go so far, and he still needs a predictable electoral base upon which he can rely to give him a fighting chance against Hillary Clinton.

That’s where the evangelical Christian voting bloc comes in. Somewhere amidst the flurry of primary madness earlier this year, a handful of opportunistic evangelical leaders began to see the writing on the wall and decided to throw their support behind the man they previously found so detestable, but in whom they now saw an opportunity. Just as Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress initially opposed Mitt Romney only turn turn around and endorse him months later, so did he and other evangelical Christian leaders initially express disapproval of Trump only to turn around and endorse him once they determined that he was going to lead the GOP ticket.

“I can tell you from experience, if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, we who are evangelical Christians are going to have a true friend in the White House,” Jeffress said to cheers. “God bless Donald Trump.”

Even Focus on the Family founder James Dobson got in on the game, announcing to the world that Trump had recently “gotten saved” and was now a “baby Christian” toward whom the church should extend a special grace for not knowing how to speak Evangelical. After being pressed for more information, Dobson had to admit the source of his information was televangelist Paula White, whose unpopularity among non-prosperity-gospel churches convinced Dobson to dial back his public proclamations about the subject.

What on earth would possess these people to do such an about face on the viability of a Trump candidacy? How could the self-appointed guardians of American morality so obviously and whole-heartedly throw themselves down on this particular grenade?

I’ve been racking my brain for months now and listening as intently as I know how, and I’m picking up on three possible explanations. Like most things having to do with the behavior of large groups of people, the causes of this phenomenon are complex and interrelated. I surmise all three are working together in concert.

Three Reasons They’re Voting for Trump

1) Abortion, abortion, abortion. Okay, so maybe gay marriage, too, but mostly abortion. I’ve read a boatload of articles and research done by social scientists and pollsters alike trying to tease out the reasons for evangelicals’ support of Trump, and they acknowledge the power of this issue but never seem to grasp just how much it means to them. They end up citing things like favoring authoritarian leadership styles, or harboring disdain for government oversight. I’m sure those things factor into their decision. But I’m listening to what the Christians themselves are saying who are calling for support of Trump, and I’m telling you this one is the number one thing on their list. Whatever its initial reasons for forming, abortion is the main thing keeping the Religious Right together today.

You have to realize that the evangelical church has been grasping for cultural relevance ever since the dawn of the age of Darwin. Up until modern science came into its own, the church had the corner on the market for explaining why the world is the way it is. But the last century has seen the church lose its cultural hegemony in American life, and they’ve been jonesing for that influence ever since.

Almost everything they have to offer the world has to do with life after death, which leaves the time between now and then mostly untouched. Most of their work in the world is merely a means to an end, and that end is always about getting people to heaven after they die. So what do they really have to offer the world until then? This is where abortion and gay marriage come in.

If they can adopt a cause—some noble charge, some thing that makes them feel relevant to the world—then they have a purpose here and now that makes them important to the rest of the world. Abortion gives them that cause. Gay marriage comes in a close second since they like to argue that it’s somehow bad for the kids. But they’ve largely lost that fight, which leaves abortion as their last great cause. By simplistically framing that complex issue as “the murder of unborn children,” they have something noble to fight for, and it’s proven enough to coalesce the strangest of ecclesiastical bedfellows. Anything that could unite Catholics and Baptists under the same organization is a goldmine for political purposes.

They value this one issue so intensely that a candidate doesn’t even have to take a strong stance on it. Trump has already gone on record saying that he’s pro-choice, although at the time he wasn’t running for president. Now that he is, he has assured conservative voters that he’ll pick Supreme Court justices who will rule in favor of all of the church’s pet issues. Picking Mike Pence as his running mate almost certainly was meant to compensate for his own lack of personal enthusiasm for these partisan hang-ups.

Evangelicals don’t like Trump, and they don’t trust him. But while his tepid disavowal of abortion leaves much to be desired, it worries them less than Hillary Clinton’s full-throated support of pro-choice policies. They may not be sure what they are getting in Donald Trump, but they know exactly what they would get under Hillary Clinton, and they are against it as uniformly as they can be. And abortion is the key issue.

2) They are trained to follow. I hope you’ll forgive me for offering some transparent criticism of a group of people to whom I am still attached in my daily life. I have the utmost of respect for my religious friends and family despite my own disconnection from their religious beliefs. I love these people, and they are among the dearest in people in the world to me. But I see this as a significant flaw in their social system, and I could even build a fairly strong argument that this particular collective trait has played a major role in my own life difficulties.

The church teaches you to conform. It does not teach you to think for yourself. In fact, quite the contrary, it teaches you to distrust your own thinking processes, submitting yourself instead to the authorities that God put over you (unless they are Democrats of course). They teach you from birth that you are fundamentally wicked, that “the heart is deceitful above all things,” and that you cannot trust your own judgment. God put your pastor or whoever over you in order to make sure you know what God wants you to do.

One of my Patheos colleagues who writes for the Catholic channel put it this way:

First, my opinion doesn’t really matter. How I vote as an individual is my business. How you vote is your business. Second, don’t assume that a person’s criticism of one candidate means endorsement for their opponent. This election is about more than your presidential pick. 

Third, don’t listen to me. Listen to our bishops. The document advising us on responsible voting is here. Read it.

I see. So how you vote is your business, he says, except here’s how you’re supposed to vote. He goes on to quote the bishops’ ruling on the abortion issue and definitively tells his readers that they cannot be a faithful Catholic and vote for Hillary Clinton. Full stop. End of discussion.

Oh, to have life so simply laid out that all you have to do is let other people tell you how to think. How easy would that be?

You may say that’s just the Catholic Church and evangelicals don’t have a pope or bishops telling them what to think about everything, but have you actually been a part of an evangelical church?  Did you somehow get the impression that independent thinking was valued in that setting?

Evangelicals are just as thoroughly trained to follow their leaders as are Catholics. In fact, I would argue that evangelical churches have a much more powerful influence over the daily lives of their members. Almost every Catholic I know just shrugs at what their church proscribes on day-to-day decisions, while evangelicals internalize their church’s theology at the deepest, most personal level. If their leaders tell them not to vote for a Democrat, they will do exactly as they are told. Only it won’t be because they feel forced to vote against their will. It will be because they themselves think exactly the same way as their church leaders do on every important issue. That’s how these things work.

3) The lure of social power. Another Patheos blogger put his finger on this last issue, which cannot be ignored. Warren Throckmorton maintains a bit more of a prophetic voice among his fellow evangelicals, and he put it succinctly:

Instead of speaking truth to power, I think many of my evangelical brethren just want to be close to power.

Since the beginning of the Religious Right back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, evangelical leaders have been offered a seat at the big boys’ table of public policy making. In the wake of Nixon’s famed Southern Strategy, Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell orchestrated a previously impossible coalition of Catholic, evangelical, and Orthodox Christians around a common set of hot-button issues, most notably the tax-exempt status of Christian schools and universities. Since that time, the Republican Party and the Religious Right have been joined at the hip.

Over the last 40 years, both of these groups have benefitted from this political shotgun wedding: The GOP gained a reliable firewall of support from Southern and rural voters across the country, and evangelical Christians have been flattered by the privilege of playing a major role in national politics. Disingenuous though the political pandering may be, the preachers rarely seem to mind a little insincerity here and there, provided they still get their way as often as possible.

Donald Trump knows this. He knows the evangelical church has been feeling outnumbered and outmaneuvered in the culture wars, and he is promising them that he will help them to regain a sense of empowerment:

This is such an important election. And I say to you folks because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.  

And there you have it. That’s why evangelicals are willing to “hold their nose” and vote for a man who knows virtually nothing about either the Bible or the U.S. Constitution. He promises to help them regain their power and influence in the public square, and in return they will keep the party he now represents from disappearing into the history books along with the Whigs and the Know Nothings.

I’ve already given my prediction for the outcome of this election based on how things are looking to me at present (See “Why I Think Hillary Clinton Will Be Our Next President“). But if Trump remains as compelled to sabotage his own image as thoroughly as he seems be, those numbers could shift considerably toward Clinton’s favor, giving the Democratic Party a sweeping victory they haven’t seen since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 when they won everything except the deepest South.

At present I don’t see that kind of shift happening, but the one thing we know about this current election is that no one can be confident they have any clue what will happen next. Except to say that if you see a sea of red spanning the central portion of the the United States on November 8th, it will be because the Religious Right still believes the Republican Party represents their interests, no matter whom they nominate to lead their ticket. If they were ever to abandon the party, it would begin its final lap before at last being consigned to the dustbin of history.

[Featured Image: Adobe Stock]

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*Props to Tom Nichols for coining a nickname for Trump which I can repeat in front of my children.

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