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Trump's popularity with evangelicals is a disaster for the religious right

A cautionary tale for leaders who claim to speak for the “values voter.”

Donald Trump appears at the Values Voter Summit. Al Drago/CQ Roll Call

As much as any election in recent memory, the 2016 presidential election is about values — about what America ought to be. Hillary Clinton says that it’s about “what kind of country are we going to be?”; Donald Trump tells us we can elect him and make “every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true.”

But the “values voters” are nowhere to be found.

The prominent white evangelical Republican voters themselves are still there — they’re among Donald Trump’s most stalwart defenders, in fact.

That’s exactly the problem.

For decades, the religious right held power within the conservative movement and the Republican Party based on the idea that millions of voters cared deeply about religiously inflected issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, school choice and school prayer, and deeper problems with a hypersexualized mass culture that takes sex outside of marriage as a given. Republicans tended to nominate candidates that shared these concerns — or at least treated them with serious respect — and were invested in the project of returning morality to public life. To do otherwise was to risk displeasing an important faction of their base.

But in 2016, the person who’s done the most to debase public discourse has been the Republican nominee himself: a man whose leaked-tape controversy forced major newspapers to print the words “grab ’em by the pussy” unexpurgated. Still, the people traditionally thought of as fighting for moral values in elections remain among his strongest allies.

It’s an awkward turn of events, to say the least, among people in positions of leadership in religion or religious politics — who support Trump reluctantly, if at all. Trump managed to win over the flock without the shepherds, and that’s a problem for the shepherds’ continued influence in the Republican Party.

It’s also a cautionary tale for anyone who’s accrued power as a representative of a group in a coalition — either the Republican coalition that will be left to piece itself together after Trump, or the Democratic coalition that (assuming Hillary Clinton wins) will continue to jockey for influence over the priorities of a new White House.

Trump is immoral in his personal life and insincere in his promises — and white evangelicals love him

The era of the “values voter” crested with the presidency of George W. Bush. In the 2004 election, exit polls showed that “moral values” were the most important voting issue to a plurality of voters; 22 percent cited moral values, while only 20 percent cited the economy or jobs.

This year, there’s Donald Trump.

Donald Trump holds up a Bible during a speech at the Values Voters Summit.
Donald Trump and “his” Bible.
Al Drago/CQ-Roll Call

Donald Trump has demonstrated to the public, over the course of his campaign, all seven of the deadly sins. He may have occasionally quoted from the Bible on the stump (though he once attributed a quote to “Two Corinthians,” a huge red flag that he hadn’t spent much time with religious texts), but his life and his campaign has demonstrated very little fealty to religious morality.

And white evangelicals aren’t turned off at all.

Even as voters in other groups have cooled on him, in the wake of the leaked “pussy tape” and the allegations from a dozen women that he nonconsensually kissed or groped them, white evangelicals have stayed relatively firm.

They continue to support him for president: A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which was in the field when the tape came out, found that white evangelical support for Trump remained steady even as support among other groups (like white Catholics) dropped.

They continue to find him “honest and trustworthy.” Only 44 percent of them believe he has “good moral character,” but even in that they’re the kindest religious group to Trump by far (including voters of no religion).

Indeed, their support for Trump appears to have led them to change their minds about whether, in principle, politicians need to conduct moral lives.

Public Religion Research Institute chart showing shifts in public opinion on the question of whether "an official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically, and fulfill their duties in their personal and professional lif Public Religion Research Institute

The “values voter” — at least as she was understood to exist for the last 20 years — no longer exists, if she ever existed. She’s simply been assimilated into the Republican base.

That might not matter for the outcome of an election: After all, Democrats have pitched themselves as the party of family values in the 2016 race, but they were never seriously trying to win over the white evangelicals who propelled George W. Bush’s reelection. But it has tremendous implications for who has power in the post-Trump Republican Party.

How “social conservatism” went from identity politics to values politics

Matthew Continetti, a conservative writer (and erstwhile Sarah Palin booster) is one of the professional conservatives who’ve found themselves looking in from the outside as their party and their movement enthusiastically adopt Donald Trump. Last week, he wrote an essay in the Washington Free Beacon tracing the genealogy of the intra-conservative tensions that Trump has brought back to the surface. It’s an incredibly useful read.

One of the points that Continetti makes is that “social conservatism” actually predates what we think of as the “religious right.” In Continetti’s telling, social conservatism surged as a response to liberal “social engineering” of the 1960s — desegregation and busing, the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, LGBTQ visibility, and other rights movements.

It was social conservatives who backed George Wallace’s third-party run in 1968. (Comparisons between Wallace and Trump are abundant this election.) Nixon won them over in his 1972 reelection bid, according to Continetti, “by emphasizing the issues of crime and disorder, and by unleashing his vice president to attack the bias and countercultural values of the media.”

The wing of the conservative movement that embraced Wallace voters is what Continetti refers to as the “New Right” — the faction of conservatism that is triumphant today with Trump’s rise. He argues the “new right” is actually much better-established within the conservative movement than the religious right.

Continetti writes:

While the two groups overlap, it is worth distinguishing the New Right from the religious right. True, the Reverend Jerry Falwell was a New Right leader. Due to its numbers, the religious right contained populist elements. But the religious right was also much more friendly to establishments than the New Right. It did not seek the overturning of the American system but to reform it along the lines of Evangelical principle and Catholic social thought. It was much more universal in its appeals. It defined itself less in oppositional terms. The New Right was against busing, the religious right was for school choice. The exemplary New Right leader is (Pat) Buchanan. The exemplary religious right leader is President George W. Bush.

Another way to put the divide between the two: The religious right was less interested in white racial politics.

This makes sense. After all, evangelism and religiosity aren’t exclusively white phenomena. As it’s played out in 2016, nonwhite evangelicals are firmly in the Democratic camp, but that didn’t necessarily have to be the case — and the leaders of the religious right were often the people most interested in bringing them into the Republican fold. Ronald Reagan (who bridged the New Right and the religious right) may have said that Latinos are Republicans who don’t know it yet, but George W. Bush was the Republican who performed best among them.

It took Donald Trump to demonstrate that religious right leaders didn’t necessarily command their flocks

The election of Barack Obama granted new energy to the oppositional conservatism of the New Right, from the Tea Party to birtherism. But initially, this didn’t look like a challenge for the religious right at all — it looked like a huge boon.

The aesthetics of the conservative movement in the post-Obama, pre-Trump era blurred the lines between defending America as a “Christian nation” and a white nation.

Two men wearing "One Nation Under God" shirts at a Glenn Beck rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2010.
A Glenn Beck rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2010.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty

The “constitutional conservatism” of Glenn Beck and Cleon Skousen (always more of a historical narrative than a legal philosophy) treated Christianity as an important part of the America of the Founding Fathers. Mourning the demise of that America could mean mourning the demise of values in public life, or mourning the federal government’s insistence on helping “other people” (nonwhites) with welfare. (It certainly didn’t hurt that birtherism played so well with the belief that Barack Obama’s liberalism proved he wasn’t a “real Christian.)

For another thing, though, the waves of Republicans who won state legislative and congressional seats in 2010 and 2014 were on board with the primary policy issue of religious conservatism: They were anti-abortion. Abortion laws have been rolled back in plenty of states over the past six years, and congressional Republicans have been as committed to defunding Planned Parenthood as they have anything else in the current Congress.

This was the movement that turned Ted Cruz into a rising star in the GOP. It was supposed to be the movement that made him the “outsider” candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Except that, it turns out, there was another “outsider” candidate — one who didn’t care about the agenda of the religious right, but was all-in on the resentment politics of the New Right, Donald Trump.

Religious right leaders were deeply skeptical of Trump. Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats, who has traditionally been seen as a kingmaker for the religious right in the Iowa caucus, didn’t just endorse Cruz — he went after Jerry Falwell Jr. after Falwell endorsed Trump. “I’m just confused and flabbergasted,” he said. “People see Trump is not a conservative.”

For a while, so were the voters those leaders purported to represent. As late as April, according to a Pew survey, Republicans who went to church at least once a week were less likely than other Republicans to support Trump. But by the time he sewed up the presidential nomination, Trump had won most of the Republican base to his side — including white evangelicals. By June, Pew found, churchgoing Republicans were slightly more likely than their less-religious peers to support Trump.

You can’t be a kingmaker if you don’t actually command voters

That’s put religious conservative leaders in an awkward position. Some, like Falwell, were already on board with Trump’s New Rightism — or at least appalled by the unequivocal support for abortion that they associate with Hillary Clinton.

Many of them have followed the lead of the voters and endorsed Trump, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Ted Cruz was a latecomer to the Trump Train, but has campaigned on his behalf; Vander Plaats, meanwhile, says he’s voting for Trump but stresses he’s “not going to be a lapdog,” sounding more than anything like some of the highest-profile Democratic endorsers of Bernie Sanders.

Bob Vander Plaats appearing at the premiere of “God’s Not Dead 2.”
Bob Vander Plaats appearing at the premiere of God’s Not Dead 2.
Jason Davis/Getty

Plenty of religious leaders are simply unwilling to get on board. Trump’s white evangelical support might be stable, but it’s still slightly lower than Republicans usually pull among that demographic group (with percentages in the high 60s as opposed to the typical 70+). As late as October, 40 percent of Protestant pastors were still undecided voters. Some evangelical conservative leaders, like Russell Moore, have been among the most prominent never-Trumpers.

It’s not that Trump hasn’t bothered to do anything to win over religious conservatives. On their key issue — abortion — Trump has at least genuflected in their direction. He’s used what he imagines to be pro-life rhetoric, and he’s promised to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who’d overturn Roe v. Wade.

But so did John McCain and Mitt Romney — two candidates who never won the enthusiastic support Trump commands among the evangelical base. Trump's certainly no more sincere in his promises to appoint conservative justices than McCain and Romney were, but voters don't seem to care.

If a candidate can simply pay lip service to your key issue to win over your voters, you’ve lost all your power. You don’t get to have any clout in selecting a candidate — and you don’t get to require that candidates demonstrate either consistency or sincerity in advancing your cause.

But it appears, for all the world, that religious conservatives are either more willing to trust Trump for less than immigration hawks were to trust McCain and Romney for more. Or that Trump’s abortion lip-service is simply a fig leaf to excuse the support of religious conservatives who are already loyal to the GOP nominee.

Either of those is very bad for the Bob Vander Plaatses of the world, who’d like to be in the position of helping select future GOP nominees — not to mention the Ted Cruzes of the world, who’d like to be the nominees selected. They may express the views of millions of Republican voters. But they don’t get to claim, after 2016, that the road to those voters runs through their leaders — or even, particularly, through “values” at all.