Since their rise in American politics in the 1970s, there is an old joke about how the “Religious Right” is neither “religious” nor “right.” Back when it was relevant, you could make the same joke about the Moral Majority.
But despite being the least outwardly religious candidate in generations, thrice-married Donald Trump – he of “Two Corinthians” fame – managed to whip white evangelical Protestants into a fervor reminiscent of tent revivals from the Second Great Awakening.
White evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump by an astounding 81-16 margin. To put that in perspective, this same group went for GW Bush in 2004 by a mere 78-21 margin. Trump took a 57-point spread and turned it into a 65-point spread. Depending on your perspective, this is either a ‘Holy Ghost’ moment or a ‘holy shit!’ moment. I’m in the latter.
How did a self-admitted adulterer with five children from three different women manage to woo smug, self-righteous finger-wagging moral scolds? It turns out that the spiritual foundation of the religious right is built not on bedrock, but rather on shifting sand.
In both June 2011 and October 2016, a PRRI survey asked the following blunt question: “Can an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life?” America as a whole has grown more tolerant of “immoral behavior,” but no group more so than white evangelical Protestants. While acceptance of immoral behavior was only 30% in 2011, that number skyrocketed to 72% in October of 2016. That’s an eye-popping 42-point change!
How could such a seismic change happen in so short a time? William Galston of Brookings, (Brookings partnered with PRRI on the 2016 survey) has the obvious answer:
What could have happened to so alter the sentiments of white evangelicals on matters so central to their understanding of the relation between morality, faith, and public life? I can think of only one credible answer: the candidacy of Donald Trump, whose new-found positions on religious liberty, abortion, and the Supreme Court have moved evangelicals to set aside, perhaps only temporarily, their long-held views on the moral and spiritual prerequisites for political office.
(While Galston and others put forth a “greater good” argument for abandoning long-held beliefs in what a leader ought to be, many authors ignore the underlying racist history of white evangelical Protestantism. But that is a topic for another day. For more, read the Rev. Dr. William Barber II.)
White evangelical Protestants were willing to accept not only “sexual immorality” in the form of adultery, but many other sins of commission and omission. Trump bragged to a reporter about sexual assault, and the religious right shrugged their collective shoulders. Trump abandoned all pretense of ‘religious liberty’ when he called for a ban on Muslims, yet white evangelical Protestants cheered, so long as it was others on the receiving end of persecution. Trump lied, continuously and repeatedly, to the point where reporters grew weary of correcting his outlandish whoppers. But white evangelical Protestants obviously care more about the Second Amendment than the Ninth Commandment (or Seventh or Eighth for that matter). Trump’s embrace of white supremacy flies in the face of religious teachings about us all being God’s children, yet that didn’t stop God’s flock from flocking to the voting booth to vote for him.
What do white evangelical Protestants get in return for abandoning their principles? While silver was the coin of the realm for Judas, political influence is the coin of the political realm today. And the religious right is about to cash in.
Before Trump has been sworn in, the far-right bigot brigade is salivating at the thought of writing discrimination into our laws. Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz (R-Alberta) are already discussing the reintroduction of the Orwellian-named “First Amendment Defense Act.” This bill, according to a summary of a version of the bill introduced in 2015:
Prohibits the federal government from taking discriminatory action against a person on the basis that such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.
In layperson’s terms, this would give free and unfettered license for individuals and companies to discriminate against same-sex couples. Or unwed heterosexual couples. Lunch counters could be segregated once again, based not on skin color (yet), but rather on who a person loves. And the discrimination would be allowed and sanctioned based solely on an individual’s deeply held religious belief.
And if discrimination against our LGBTQ brothers & sisters is allowed, why not discrimination against marriages between different faiths? Different races? A law like this, which the religious right hopes has a better chance of passing under a President Trump, opens the door to all kinds of discrimination, something America has been fighting to lessen, not increase, for centuries (not always successfully).
White evangelical Protestants will also get at least one Supreme Court Justice, if not more. The shift that one or more appointments could have cannot be underestimated. If you thought the War on Women was bad before, honey, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Forget about equal pay for equal work. Just start stockpiling coathangers, because there is a fair chance that whatever rights women have to make decisions over their own bodies is coming to a screeching halt.
Will Congress allow churches to be both tax-exempt and contribute unlimited funds to political campaigns? It’s being discussed.
Will Republicans blather on about religious liberty while conducting not-so-secret surveillance on mosques, something churches would balk at in a heartbeat? That’s the plan.
Will career staffers who support LGBTQ equality be “ferreted out” at certain agencies? Hate-groups are counting on it.
The list of atrocities could go on and on and on. And likely will for the next four years. Now more than ever, we need to be fire ants.
While Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, the religious right abandoned their principles with a pull of a lever. With one vote, people traded “love thy neighbor” for racism. Rather than the compassion of “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself,” this group voted to “build a big, beautiful wall” to keep out the brown folks.
Before the election, religious historian Charity Rakestraw wrote, “The Religious Right is facing a reckoning, where believers will have to either confront the fact that politics is a secular sport or they will have to reconfigure their spiritual agenda and commit to promoting a truly morally bound candidate. In other words, we might be watching the evangelicalism’s Come-to-Jesus moment.”
Trump took white evangelical Protestants to the mountaintop and showed them all the glories that could be theirs: anti-choice Supreme Court Justices, laws to persecute the LGBTQ community, and pure, hate-filled bigotry in the highest office in the land. All they had to do was abandon all they knew to be right and bend their knee to Trump.
They couldn’t bow down fast enough.