Nearly three years into the Trump presidency, I have all but lost my capacity for shock. Every day a scandal erupts, a norm is violated, an institution is strained.
But one odd phenomenon that hasn’t surprised me is Donald Trump’s continued support among the religious right. White Evangelicals support Trump in greater numbers and with more consistency than any other demographic.
Last year, the Pew Research Center found that “regular churchgoers are the most supportive of Trump.” Still today, Pew notes the job approval for Trump among Evangelicals is nearly 80%, while his overall approval rating hovers just above 40%.
Trump is not the epitome of faith, hope, and charity one would expect in an evangelical savior. The man compulsively lies. He embodies pride and greed. He paid a porn star to conceal his adultery shortly after the birth of his fifth child by his third wife. But, he’s their guy!
For decades the leaders of the Christian Right told us that high moral character was a prerequisite for office. It certainly was when President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about a blowjob. They argued the U.S. had a unique, providential relationship with the God of the Bible and warned that too much sin in our midst would provoke the Lord and remove His protection.
After 9/11, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell famously told televangelist Pat Robertson: “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle… I point the finger in their face and say, “you helped this happen.”
Falwell later apologized for the timing but not the essential message – a warning he repeated before and after the 9/11 attacks.
When Disney started hosting annual gay days at Disneyland in 1998, Robertson warned: “homosexuality will bring about terrorist bombs. It’ll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor… I would warn Orlando that you’re right in the way of some serious hurricanes, and I don’t think I’d be waving those [pride] flags in God’s face if I were you.”
With each incremental step toward equality, LGBTQ people were told their existence would bring down civilization. Our immorality would doom the nation. We were scapegoated for everything from natural disasters to financial crises.
And yet, among 2019’s political Evangelicals, immorality warrants a dismissive shrug. The mass amnesia among the Christian Right is astounding.
Recently, after the White House released a photo of prominent Christian leaders laying their hands on President Trump and praying, attorney and political commentator George Conway trolled those leaders hard, tweeting: “Blessed be thy hush money, mayest all quid pro quos be thine, and mayest thy falsehoods persuade the multitudes.”
The jokes write themselves. The finger pointing and pearl clutching were never sincere. Scripture was always selectively used to score rhetorical points. The championing of faith was a tactic to garner greater wealth and influence, not the other way around. They weren’t participating in politics to forward their beliefs; they were feigning faith to win in politics.
And Donald Trump is giving them a win.
Trump is the hero of Evangelicals because he barks at the people they’ve always hated. They view the advancement of equality for LGBTQ people as an illegitimate subversion of authentic America brought on by a cabal of academics, journalists, secularists, and – worst of all – elites. They don’t care about Trump’s ethical failings because he reinforces their belief that they are the “real America” and the supposed not-us-among-us are the true enemies of God, not the pussy-grabber in chief.
Now, not all Evangelical leaders are on the Trump Train. Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler described Trump as an “excruciating crisis” and warned “when it comes to Donald Trump, evangelicals are going to have to ask a huge question: Is it worth destroying our moral credibility to support someone who is beneath the baseline level of human decency for anyone who should deserve our vote?”
It appears he got his answer.
To most politically active Evangelicals, real Christians support Donald Trump. The ideal Christian is not someone who is modest, generous, forgiving, or sexually chaste. The real Christian “owns the libs.”
The emperor was always naked. Now he doesn’t even pretend to wear clothes and doesn’t care who’s laughing.
The support of Trump has provided the religious right with short-term solace at the expense of long-term influence. Great! The most potent weapon against LGBTQ rights – self-righteous moral condemnation and admonitions of an angry God – has been fully neutralized. Outside of their echo chamber, no one believes their politically convenient assertions of faith anymore.
This, my friends, is an opportunity. Public discourse benefits from moral reasoning. For too long, craven hypocrites have cornered the market on collective conscience. Now, with the high ground ceded for a White House photo op, those truly motivated by empathy can more effectively make a moral case for equality. The religious right’s cultural subversion has changed the game. It’s our turn to ask the question:
What would Jesus do?
Gabriel S. Hudson, Ph.D., a democratic theorist, teaches at George Mason University’s Graduate School of Education and The Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of ‘Christodemocracy and the Alternative Democratic Theory of America’s Christian Right.’