White evangelical voters, Donald Trump, and the evolution of the religious right

White evangelical voters, Donald Trump, and the evolution of the religious right August 25, 2015

The current Republican field of 17 candidates seeking the presidency includes two preacher’s sons, one ordained minister, and several other devoutly religious officials who can speak the Christianese dialect of white evangelicalism with the fluency of a native. Yet the candidate now leading the field, by a wide margin, is Donald Trump — a brash, foul-mouthed, thrice-married billionaire who seems unable to mention any form of non-Mammon religion without saying something painfully awkward (“When I drink my little wine … and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness”).

Trump is blurring many of the lines for the way conventional wisdom is used to thinking of factions in the Republican Party. The GOP has long been understood — mostly accurately — to include a Wall Street wing of mainly secular, anti-regulation big-business/small-government types and a separate wing of religious right “values voters” who think of America as a “Christian nation” and think of Christianity as a faith centered on legal opposition to abortion, feminism and LGBT existence. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see a barely nominally religious businessman like Trump riding a wave of support among Wall Street types over against the religious-right faction whose support is scattered among a half-dozen emphatically religious candidates.

But that’s not what seems to be happening with Trump. He seems to be getting more support from the “values voters” than from the anti-worker, anti-consumer, anti-SEC-EPA-FDA-OSHA Wall Street crowd. He is, at least for now, the preferred candidate of the white evangelical voting bloc.

My sense is that this is — horrifyingly — due to Trump’s policies and his rhetoric. It seems like an ugly accusation, but I think we should take these white evangelical voters at their word and accept what they’re telling us: They really do like Trump’s ideas, his tone, and his language.

But before we get into that, I want to discuss Amy Sullivan’s interesting suggestion that Trump’s popularity among white evangelical voters also reveals something else. It shows us that these voters might actually prefer a candidate who is not one of their own. “Why are white evangelicals supporting Trump?,” Sullivan asks. “It goes back to Jimmy Carter.”

Well, to Jimmy Carter and to George W. Bush. Carter, Sullivan argues, was Strike One. W. was Strike Two.

Carter, Sullivan says, was the first born-again candidate supported by white evangelicals who saw his devout Christianity as a sign he was “one of us” — just as they believed the same thing decades later about George W. Bush. She argues that white evangelical disappointment with these two white evangelical presidents means that they’ve developed a more skeptical view of candidates who share their sectarian outlook, and that they’re thus more open to supporting a guy like Trump, even though his faith isn’t anything like theirs.

More than that, perhaps. White evangelical voters’ disappointment with the experience of Carter and Bush may mean that they now view candidates who share their sectarian language with a greater skepticism than they direct to non-evangelical candidates who claim to share their agenda despite not sharing their particular forms of religious expression.

I suspect Sullivan is right about that. I think the presidency of Jimmy Carter was seen by white evangelical voters as an initial warning that this kind of religious-affinity voting might not always work out. But they gave it a second chance in 2004, only to be even more greatly disappointed by the multiple disasters of Bush’s second term.

Sullivan’s thesis of “disappointment” with such sectarian affinity voting is supported by white evangelical voters’ overwhelming support for Mitt Romney in 2012. And it might, perhaps, help to explain their apparent willingness to support a guy like Donald Trump today.

"There's a bear in the woods," Ronald Reagan reminded voters in 1984. That bear was not abortion or gays. It was Russia (and black people).
“There’s a bear in the woods,” Ronald Reagan reminded voters in 1984. That bear was not abortion or gays. It was Soviet Russia (and black people).

But while Sullivan’s overall theory may be true, her description of why white evangelicals were disappointed in Bush is a bit off, and her description of their disappointment with Carter is almost completely wrong.

White evangelicals — like Fox News viewers — were disillusioned by the lack of results from all the years of a Bush presidency and GOP majorities in the House and Senate. As Sullivan says, white evangelicals are angry that their party didn’t defund Planned Parenthood and pass a double-plus DOMA banning gay marriage while enjoyed control of both Congress and the White House.

But while they may be disappointed in George W. Bush for not giving them everything they wanted, they’re far more disappointed — and far angrier about — all the things Bush did give them and all the things he did with their full and enthusiastic support.

Bush invaded Iraq for no good reason, creating one of the worst military debacles in the history of this or any other nation. And Bush let go of the reins on Wall Street, creating the reckless, unregulated era of speculation that crashed the global economy in the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Those disasters define the Bush presidency, and Bush created those disasters with the full and specific support of white evangelical voters.

Even worse, white evangelical voters still support those same positions. They want the next Republican president to do the same things, twice as hard — repealing Dodd-Frank and going to war with Iran. These voters don’t resent Bush for his wanton invasions or his reckless deregulation of big business. They resent him for making wanton militarism and reckless deregulation look bad.

This is Donald Trump’s sales pitch. He’s not telling these voters that he would pursue a different agenda from the one George W. Bush pursued. He’s telling them that he will somehow do all those same things and, this time, make it all work this time because he’s Donald Trump and he’s a winner and it’s gonna be classy and yooge and America.

Which brings us to Sullivan’s discussion of white evangelical voters’ disappointment with Jimmy Carter. That disappointment was real, but the reasons Sullivan suggests for it are simply anachronistic  — a projection of the present back onto the past to see things there that did not yet exist.

She suggests that white evangelical voters in 1980 were disappointed in Carter due to his support for abortion rights and civil rights for LGBT people. But neither one of those Big Deals was yet a Big Deal. White evangelicals in 1980 were not yet the genital-issue culture warriors they would be transformed into during the following decade. They were Cold Warriors, not culture warriors.

Carter’s support for abortion rights was not a surprise or a departure. The white evangelical voters who supported him in 1976 knew where he stood and never expected that to change. It just wasn’t a thing yet. Culture-war issues were very much second-tier concerns for those voters, but even at that lower-level of concern those issues were not the ones that would come to preoccupy and define the voting patterns — and the very substance of religion itself — for white evangelicals a decade later. In 1980, school prayer and the Equal Rights Amendment were both a far bigger deal in the culture wars than abortion had yet become.*

But, again, white evangelicals’ disappointment in Carter wasn’t mainly about that. It was about the Russians. They worried that Carter made America look weak against the Soviet Union. The Iran hostage situation played out as a metaphor for that concern. And even Carter’s greatest triumphs — like the Camp David Accords or the Panama Canal treaty — reinforced the sense that this was a president who preferred diplomacy and conciliation to the muscular militarism and expansion of power abroad that these voters preferred (and that Ronald Reagan promised to deliver).

I’m speaking here partly from memory, because I am Old and I can do that. I can remember 1980. Maddox, Taveras, Flynn, Mazzilli in the Mets infield; Henderson, Morales, Youngblood right-to-left; Alex Trevino catching; Swan, Zachry, Burris, and … rats, I forget the rest of the starting rotation.

But the point there is that 1980 is not a distant, unknowable world lost in the mists of ancient history. It is possible for many of us living now to remember living then — and even to remember, despite years of Orwellian propaganda saying otherwise, that 1980 was not 1988. I remember being a white evangelical supporter of Ronald Reagan attending a church filled with white evangelical supporters of Ronald Reagan and a private Christian school filled with even more of us. It wasn’t a culture war election. Abortion and LGBT rights weren’t anywhere near the first page of anyone’s list of priorities. It was about the Russians.

But don’t take my word for it. Memory can be unreliable. And it can be anecdotal and thus misleadingly idiosyncratic. Maybe I happened to attend a white evangelical church and private school that both coincidentally were detached from and unrepresentative of the rest of the white evangelical subculture of the time.

Fine. We also have written records and documentation from 1980. We can look it up even if we don’t personally remember it. (Pete Falcone and Mark Bomback, for the record.) Alas, it’s not quite as easy to Google the past as TV shows make it seem. White evangelical magazines and newsletters haven’t been digitized and posted into searchable online databases any more than most newspapers have. But libraries have stacks and you can visit them to read contemporary white evangelical accounts and commentary on the 1980 election to contest my memory of that time.

I’ll just offer one example here — “Christianity and Democracy,” the 1981 manifesto/declaration written by then-Lutheran minister Richard John Neuhaus. It’s about the Cold War, not the culture war. It’s an argument that everything should be about the Cold War — an argument and a conclusion widely hailed and endorsed by white evangelical leaders at the time.

Neuhaus’ journal, First Things, reprinted the declaration 15 years later. By that time, the Cold War had ended and the culture war had risen to such central prominence for its constituency that some apologetic introductory explanation had to be offered for that now-strange-seeming emphasis: “At that time the Cold War was the dominant fact in international affairs and largely shaped domestic politics.”

In 1996, as in 2015, it seems strange to read a religious right manifesto that never mentions abortion or feminism or Teh Gay — a manifesto that insists something else was far more important, something else was of paramount importance. But there was nothing strange at all about such a document in 1981 or in 1980.

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* There was one other culture-war issue that had a far greater impact on the 1980 election — the one Ronald Reagan made the central subtext of his campaign from day one. And on that point, Jimmy Carter really was perceived to have not just disappointed, but betrayed, the white evangelical Christianity of white evangelical voters. But that’s too large a topic to include here, so let’s come back to that later.


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