The so-called alt-right may have grabbed most of the attention since Donald Trump’s victory, but it’s the Christian right that got him over the line. And experts say they are much more likely to influence how he governs.
Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at Political Research Associates, has studied the Christian right for decades. He says that when it comes to their relationship with the morally erratic Trump, it’s all about the art of the deal.
“The Christian right has matured as a political movement. They recognize that you can’t always get political leaders who conform with your beliefs as consistently and wholly as you’d like.”
“Even though he doesn’t appear to be their guy, they can make deals with him that would make him into their guy in a way that no one else has ever been.”
Ralph Reed, chairman of the evangelical Faith and Freedom Coalition, appeared to confirm Clarkson’s analysis when he spoke to Fox News. “They were never under any illusions that Donald Trump was one of them,” he said of his evangelical flock. “And by the way, they never asked him to be. All they asked was that he shared their issues agenda and that he would fight for it. He persuaded them on both of those points.”
A lot of post-election coverage (some of it unnecessarily fawning) has considered the newer, shinier, openly white supremacist alt-right movement. And people are right to be concerned about the influence of its White House sympathizers like Steve Bannon. But the fascist core of the movement likely numbers around 10,000 or less. Trump, ever the opportunist, has already cut loose some of the more outre leaders, like Richard Spencer. Also, the wide variety of right-wing actors who lay claim to the alt-right tag are already riven by infighting.
The upsurge of hate crimes around the country should be monitored and resisted, but it seems possible that the “hipster fascists” have already peaked in terms of their national political clout. Recent bizarre speeches by Richard Spencer presage a future of increasing isolation.
The Christian right’s adherents, on the other hand, include tens of millions of the most disciplined voters in the country. And there’s a very good case to be made that they won Trump the election. Just look at the numbers.
In 2016, white evangelical Christians composed 26 percent of the electorate—just as they did in 2012, 2008, and 2004.
And their quarter of the total vote in 2016 went 81-16 percent for the Republican. This gave Donald Trump a slightly bigger share of evangelicals than Mitt Romney, the pious Mormon, in 2012, or war hero John McCain in 2008. Trump even slightly outdid George W. Bush’s 2004 share, even though W identified as a born-again Christian.
According to exit polls, these numbers and proportions meant that the evangelical vote alone almost entirely negated Clinton’s advantage among nonwhites. (Of the 29 percent of voters who were nonwhite, Clinton got 74 percent of the vote.)
And while there’s been a lot of talk about the “white working class” and its grievances, other figures suggest that the combination of race and religious identity may have been even more potent.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, “the proportion of white Christians in each of the 50 states is more strongly correlated with support for Trump than is the proportion of white residents without a college degree in the state.” If we use education as a proxy for class, in the states that flipped Trump it mattered less than religion.
The places where Trump outperformed expectations to clinch the election—like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa—all have white Christian majorities.
As the PRRI’s CEO Robert P. Jones points out, in 2016, when we measure the United States as a whole, white Christians (a category that includes white evangelicals, but is not limited to them) are only 43 percent of the population.
His recent book, The End of White Christian America, predicted that white Christians would, on the whole, decline in their demographic and electoral dominance. He stands by the overall argument, but admits 2016 didn’t exactly bear out his conclusions.
“Where I was wrong, where I was surprised, is that I said in the book that Mitt Romney’s campaign was the last one in which you could plausibly stack up enough white Christian voters to get you over the line.”
“I would say that what you are seeing is that last gasp of this particular group, rather than any reversal of major trends.”
The key this year was turnout. The Obama coalition, faced with an uninspiring Democratic candidate, stayed home in droves in key states. The Christian right—losing ground demographically and in the culture wars—came out to vote. While Clinton piled up redundant votes in safe states like California, evangelicals helped to pry loose the upper Midwest for Trump.
The fact that they did may seem puzzling. Trump is on his third wife, cheerfully admits to serial adultery and even sexual assault, and has been inconsistent over time on the kinds of moral issues—abortion, homosexuality—that exercise evangelicals. His own expressions of faith seemed pro forma; he generally gives the appearance of being the most godless candidate in living memory.
As a result, some evangelical leaders, like Russell Moore, were firmly in the #nevertrump camp, seeing the candidate’s moral flaws as disqualifying. (Moore declined the opportunity to comment on this story.)
Millions of evangelicals were able to get past this, in part, because of their fear and loathing of Hillary Clinton. Clarkson says they voted from similar sentiments to many other voting blocs, choosing, as they saw it, the lesser of two evils.
“One candidate was beyond the pale and another candidate was acceptable to them.”
Despite Trump’s apparent “lack of a serious religiosity,” and a very mixed record on abortion and homosexuality, Clinton was more feared on the grounds of policy.
“She was not just pro-choice but seen as pro-abortion, she was seen as pro-marriage equality, she was seen as pro-gay rights, she was seen as anti-family. She represented the kind of demonized feminism that has animated their movement for a couple of decades now. It’s hard for liberals to see how people are affected by those issues, but they are.”
Clinton has held her place as a bete noire of the Christian right for decades.
Carin Robinson, a political scientist who coauthored Onward Christian Soldiers? The Christian Right in American Politics recalls that when she was studying the Christian right in the 1990s, “On numerous occasions I received mailings from these groups that said Hillary Clinton was going to take away my Bible. She has been used as a means of mobilizing, inspiring fear and getting evangelicals to vote.“
Having her appoint a Supreme Court justice was the worst propsect of all. Robinson says that “The evangelicals I have spoken to, it just came down to that Supreme Court nomination, and having that crystallized by the death of Scalia. It was all about that empty chair.”
But even with this hostility to Clinton as a baseline, how did they come to terms with Trump? How did they come to select him in the primary above candidates with other Christian candidates? Jones thinks it was because his campaign messages were not in fact at odds with evangelicals’ values—in fact he was speaking straight to them.
“It was really this bigger argument Trump was making about turning the clock back. If you’re a white evangelical your numbers are slipping due to immigration, and because your children and grandchildren are leaving the church. Trump’s rhetoric gave a sense of turning the clock back to a time when your values, your demographic had sway in the country.”
“He converted values voters into nostalgia voters.”
He says “the data doesn’t really support” the idea that these voters were holding their noses as they voted for Trump. In pre-election surveys, white evangelicals expressed opinions that chimed with Trump’s key messages. The evinced hostility to migrants, and a belief in pervasive “reverse” racism and a sense that the country is adrift.
“When you look at him on the stump, he was saying to evangelicals, ‘your numbers used to be increasing, now they’re decreasing. If you elect me, you’ll have a friend in the white house who will restore power to the Christian churches. I’m you’re last chance, folks.’
But Clarkson instead points to Trump’s concrete offerings.
“To some extent it didn’t matter who the non-Hillary candidate was. The question was, what kind of deal could they strike? This was the most openly transactional electorate for the Christian right we have ever seen. What did they get? We don’t know the answer exactly, but let’s look at the results so far.”
During the campaign, Clarkson said, Trump made all the right noises about easing Christians’ sense of persecution in an increasingly liberal cultural and legal climate. One key issue carried a particular weight. “He said he was going to be very forceful about religious liberty, and particularly the Johnson Amendment.”
This was a change President Johnson made to the tax code, preventing certain kinds of nonprofits, like churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Trump has called for its repeal.
It’s not just the tax code that concerns them, though. “There’s a deeper agenda” for the big evangelical organizations, according to Clarkson.
“They don’t want to comply with civil rights and labor laws, or “complicit,” as they see it, with abortion in any way, or see taxes go into things they don’t support.”
These beliefs frame attitudes from everything from healthcare to gay marriage. Evangelical organizations and their adherents don’t want to participate in healthcare plans that fund birth control or abortion, any more than they want to bake cakes for gay couples or be forced to consider them for employment.
Religious liberty so defined “is a banner they are willing to follow. If he is prepared to appoint Supreme Court justices that support that view, cases like the Bob Jones decision would be vulnerable.”
That was the decision made back in 1983, where the Supreme Court ruled that the IRS could revoke Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status for banning interracial relationships.
Trump’s promises on these issues have been taken very seriously by Christian right leaders.
Jim Daly, of Focus on the Family, wrote in a newsletter the day after the election, “We are grateful for Mr. Trump’s pro-life pledge and look forward to his promise of a pro-life administration, which includes de-funding Planned Parenthood. We’re also optimistic about the president-elect’s pledge to champion pro-religious liberty policies and once again welcome faith in the public square.”
The elevation of Mike Pence as Trump’s running-mate was a big reassurance to leaders like Dobson, and his millions of followers. Pence identifies as an evangelical Christian, and according to Robinson, “has great credentials among Christian right leaders.” Clarkson says that during the campaign, Pence “personally reassured” evangelical voters. “He spoke to voters at the values voters summit and reassured of them of Trump’s bona fides. He told them that he is in favour of religious liberty. And he had the standing to say that.”
Trump has put Pence in charge of the transition team, giving him enormous power over determining the shape of Trump’s cabinet. His decisions have already pleased the faithful.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition has issued statements welcoming the appointment of Tom Price as Health and Human Services Secretary, anticipating that, “he will lead the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare and its unconstitutional mandate.” Similarly, they welcomed Jeff Sessions as someone who would “to make our country a better place and ensure that the concerns of people of faith are upheld at the highest level of our government.” (AlterNet reached out to the Faith and Freedom Coalition for further comments, but its spokesman did not respond to emails before the deadline for this story.)
As for Jerry Falwell Jr., who heads up the evangelical Liberty University, he says that the transition team offered him the Education Secretary gig, before handing it off to billionaire ideologue Betsy DeVos. He was a strong backer of Trump during the campaign, and even censored anti-Trump material in the University’s newspaper.
But Pence may wind up with even more heft after Inauguration Day.
Reports that Trump offered John Kasich a slew of hitherto presidential powers when he was wooing him as a potential running mate gives Frederick Clarkson pause. If Pence got the same offer, “that would make him the most powerful vice president in American history.”
Meanwhile, the things the administration doesn’t do might be as significant as its positive moves. For example, any relaxation of enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by a Sessions Department of Justice will only give white Christian voters greater relative sway. And refusing to fund Planned Parenthood will just make it harder for women to maintain control over their reproductive rights, especially in red states that aren’t inclined to make up the shortfalls.
Trump owes evangelicals, and the early signs are that he will deliver. He will need them again in 2020, and again they might be crucial to the election result.
While it’s true that America is no longer a majority white Christian country, and is grinding toward a minority-majority future, what counts in elections is voters. While Jones thinks that white Christian America is on the slide, Clarkson points to their resiliency, and the way that in spite of population changes, they are still able to make themselves a part of winning electoral coalitions.
“There is a certain wishful thinking that has attended the rise and continuation of the religious right.”
“Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing sector of American Christianity. It is a grouping of people who have gone from being the least political to the most political. They are organized.”
They may be a much more serious long-term danger than the outright fascists, because one of the things they are best at organizing is the vote.