There was a time in America, not so long ago, when thumping your dog-eared King James, warning about the threat posed by the queer-o-sexuals, and arguing that life began at the moment you noticed that glint in your girlfriend’s eye while watching Beach Blanket Bingo at the Podunkville Drive-In theater could transform you into a political kingmaker. From at least the late 1960s until the mid 2000s, presidents ranging from Richard Nixon, to Jimmy Carter, to Ronald Reagan, to George Dubya Bush ceremoniously kissed the totally not gay rings of Evangelical Grand Poobahs whose political clout ensured that so-called “Values Voters” would turn up at the polls to reclaim America for one VERY specific God.
But in the year 2016, America has a new God. His will is capricious. His hair is supernatural. And His wealth is so yooooge it would make King Solomon blush. This God is Donald J. Trump, and he appears to have rendered the once mighty Religious Right as impotent as a crew-cut Samson.
Historians, journalists, and pundits alike are already trying to take stock of what Trump Hath Wrought upon the GOP. The braggadocious billionaire has seemingly shattered the Republican Party’s once solid coalition of Christian fundamentalists, libertarian utopianists, brown-people-bombing foreign policy hawks, and Busch Light-swilling, Middle-American Bubbas. Yet none of the GOP’s disparate collection of contradictory bedfellows has felt Trump’s burn more than the Religious Right, a movement whose time in the political sun has been waning for years.
Political observers have been proclaiming the Religious Right’s demise for a while. In the fall of 2007, the New York Times Magazine declared the “Evangelical Crackup,” the result of a movement “coming apart beneath its leaders” in the wake of the second Bush presidency’s failures. “That disappointment,” the Times’ David Kirckpatrick wrote, “has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world” and especially “over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party.” A year later, when the election of a dusky Muslim Socialist seemed guaranteed to usher in the End Times, Cal Thomas of the right-wing website Townhall wrote the Religious Right’s epitaph. “Thirty years of trying to use government to stop abortion, preserve opposite-sex marriage, improve television and movie content and transform culture into the conservative Evangelical image has failed,” Thomas lamented.
For the remainder of the Obama years, the Religious Right continued to die more ignominious deaths. Even after the GOP triumphed in the 2010 and 2014 Midterm elections, pundits like The Week’s Damon Linker claimed that “the religious right is finished,” since the movement was losing every culture war that it has staked its identity on fighting: abortion was still legal, the gays could get married in some states, organized prayer was still not cool in public schools, and worst of all, Americans were less religious than ever.
Now, enter the Trump. The thrice-married, womanizing playboy who literally appeared on the cover of Playboy and claimed that his favorite bible verse was the one he couldn’t remember is now the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. Trump’s coronation spurred more journalistic declarations of the Religious Right’s now undeniable irrelevance. The New York Times asked, “Is This the End of the Religious Right? Salon proclaimed 2016 to be “The Christian right’s Trump-ageddon.” And Rolling Stone argued that Trump represented the Religious Right’s ironic “Come-to-Jesus” moment. The question was obvious: how could a political movement Heaven-bent on restoring bible-based morality to American life rally behind an ass-grabbing, mammon-worshiping Philistine like Donald Trump?
Yet for all the hyperbolic talk about the Religious Right’s impossible Trump dilemma, plenty of Evangelicals have thrown their support behind the GOP’s Great Orange Savior. A poll back in January showed Evangelicals flocking towards the Donald, who racked up the support of 37 percent of white Evangelical Republicans. Even is deep-red states like Mississippi, where Evangelicals make up 75 percent of GOP voters, Trump came out on top. Beyond the primaries, The Donald’s greatest Evangelical victory came when Jerry Falwell Jr. — president of Liberty University and son of the late Moral Majority founder and Religious Right icon the Rev. Jerry Falwell — endorsed Trump. Falwell Jr.’s endorsement came even after Liberty University hosted the presidential campaign announcement of the far more Jesus freak-y Ted Cruz.
Thus, the mystery remains: if the Religious Right is a spent force, why are they still engaged in GOP politics, and why are some (but not all) Evangelicals rallying behind a candidate like Trump, who clearly isn’t one of their own?
The Religious Right isn’t the cultural force that it used to be, but it’s not dead either. In fact, Trump’s courting of the bible thumpers reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the Christian Right can be as politically malleable as any movement. Like any other coalition, the Religious Right is tribal: it wants its side to win. In this respect, the Christian Right has always been willing to pick its battles and to move on to new culture wars after they’ve planted white flags on other metaphorical battlefields.
Contrary to popular thought, the origins of the Religious Right lay not in its opposition to abortion, but in the triumph of the Civil Rights movement. Before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, the majority of Evangelical Protestant denominations considered abortion to be an issue for procreation-obsessed Catholics. As historian Randall Balmer notes, in 1968, the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today defended abortion on the grounds of “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility,” a common stance among Evangelicals of the time.
The real issue that drove the pre-Roe Religious Right was a regional split over Civil Rights. To be sure, conservative Evangelicals had been active in politics for decades before the Civil Rights movement, when they lobbied against liquor, Catholic influence in the government, creeping communism, sexual promiscuity, and the Federal Government’s perceived growing assault on “state’s rights.” Evangelicals are a diverse lot, and they’ve never been single-issue advocates.
In the 1950s, however, mainline Evangelical Protestants such as the Rev. Billy Graham split with more fundamentalist proponents of “biblical inerrancy” on several issues, especially race and civil rights. Southern, mostly Baptist Evangelical leaders such as Bob Jones, Jr. and Jerry Falwell labeled Civil Rights agitators agents of communist subversion and enemies of southern states’ rights. These stances won allies in the form of segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater, but caused a split with northern Evangelicals and centrist politicians who balked at such overt racism in Jesus’ name.
In a way, the success of the Civil Rights movement created the modern Religious Right. In his book God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right, Daniel Williams writes that, “the end of the civil rights movement facilitated the formation of a new Christian political coalition, because it enabled fundamentalists and evangelicals who had disagreed over racial integration to come together.”* In the wake of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, Evangelicals from different denominational backgrounds launched grassroots movements to politicize Christian voters around issues such as abortion, gay rights, feminism, and secularism in schools — all issues that the increasingly secular Democratic Party was embracing. In order to win in the 1970s, Williams writes, “Republicans had to siphon votes from the Democrats, and the Republicans’ political strategists believed that a shift to the right on social issues would be the easiest way to do that.”*
This was the origin of the Religious Right as we know it today: a reactionary movement dedicated to using the levers of government to remake America in the image of Christian fundamentalism. No figure embodied the modern Christian Right more than the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the southern Baptist minister who founded the Moral Majority in 1979 as a way to thwart the United States’ drift towards secularism.
In his 1981 jeremiad Listen, America, Falwell stated that, “It is now time to take a stand on certain moral issues, and we can only stand if we have leaders. We must stand against the Equal Rights Amendment, the feminist revolution, and the homosexual revolution. We must have a revival in this country.” Falwell called for nothing less than the Christianization of America (as he saw it, anyway) and aimed to use the Republican Party as the vehicle for this holy crusade. For his efforts, he won meetings with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and became a permanent fixture in GOP politics until his death in 2007.
Needless to say, Falwell’s dream of American revival didn’t quite come to pass. This is because the Religious Right’s influence on the Republican Party has always been more peripheral than direct.
No explicit Christian Right candidate has ever won the GOP’s presidential nod. Southern Baptist minister and Christian Broadcasting Network chairman Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988. He lost. Remember when Gary Bauer of the “Unapologetically Pro-Family, Pro-Life, and Pro-Growth” Campaign for Working Families association ran for president in 1999? Of course you don’t. Then there were the unsuccessful presidential runs by Baptist Minister and last-remaining-Ted-Nugent-fan Mike Huckabee in 2008 and 2016. True, George W. Bush managed to squeeze out a reelection in 2004 based in part on support from Evangelicals who rallied behind state bans on same-sex marriage, but these victories proved pyrrhic with the subsequent election of Barack Obama and the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the land. The Religious Right has long been influential in GOP politics, but it’s never been a truly dominating force.
Two factors, the Religious Right’s political malleability and its exaggerated influence on the Republican Party, help explain why it’s a weakened, but by no means spent force in the Age of Trump. As Stephen Prothero writes in Politico, the Evangelicals who support Trump aren’t the same Evangelicals that rallied behind Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in the 1980s. Having suffered defeat after defeat in the culture wars, today’s Evangelicals “find it harder and harder to see the difference between the teachings of the Bible and the policies of their beloved candidates. What would Jesus do? Probably whatever your favorite candidate is doing.”
Just as the Religious Right moved on from its Civil Rights defeats, so has it moved on from subsequent setbacks involving same-sex marriage, prayer in schools, and the continued secularization of American culture. Like any political movement, the Religious Right now just wants to win, and Donald Trump is all about winning. Old guard veterans of past culture war struggles may rightly label Trump a despicable representative of the Christian message, the kind of shameless Caesar who would open a casino in the Temple, but as long as he’s winning, many Evangelical voters are lining up to play the slots.
By breaking down the wall that separates church and state, Prothero writes, the Religious Right “politicized” and “undermined” Christianity. As as result, many Evangelical voters are now “Republicans first and Christian second.” The Religious Right will continue to be a force in American politics, but whether it will be unequivocally sacrificed on the cross of Trump remains to be seen.
* See Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 6-7.