As stunning to me as the widespread Republican support for Donald Trump — an opportunist, a know-nothing, a recent Democratic donor — may be, nothing has been as perplexing as is the widespread support for Trump among evangelicals, as evidenced by his wins in Louisiana and Kentucky on Saturday. How could a vulgar, thrice-married billionaire whose bullying and nastiness have driven the presidential contest into the rhetorical gutter get the support of people of faith?
I am not Christian, let alone an expert in the evangelical community, so I reached out to my longtime friend Peter Wehner, who has thought and written extensively about the intersection of faith and politics. (He, along with my colleague Michael Gerson, wrote the indispensable “City of Man” a few years ago, a must-read on the subject.) What follows is the first part of our discussion conducted via email. Part 2 will follow later today.
RUBIN: Where are the values voters when you need them? I’m mystified Trump is getting so much support from genuinely religious people while spewing hatred. What is going on here?
WEHNER: It’s a great question, and a mystery to many of us who are evangelical Christians and social conservatives. I’ll answer that in a moment but let me say at the outset, it’s important to point out that while Donald Trump is winning a plurality of self-described evangelical voters in many states, the term “evangelical voter” is somewhat elastic. For some, it’s a kind of broad cultural identification; for others, it refers to a creedal faith. Those in the latter camp are more faithful churchgoers – and that group tends to be less supportive of Donald Trump. To put it another way: The un-churched are more supportive of Trump than regular churchgoers.
In addition, impressive and important voices in the evangelical world like Russell Moore and Max Lucado are speaking out against Trump, and I imagine more will follow. I’ve heard from many evangelicals who are pained and alarmed at the rise of Trump and Trumpism.
RUBIN: That’s worth keeping in mind. Still, a large number of evangelicals are supporting Trump. How do you explain that?
WEHNER: It’s complicated, and among the tentative explanations I’ve come up with, based in part on personal interaction with others and in part based on my survey of stories and the data, is that some blue-collar, non-college educated Christians — like blue-collar, non-college educated non-Christians — are drawn to Trump’s positions on trade and illegal immigration.
In addition, many Trump supporters who are self-described evangelicals are terribly worried about the state of America, enraged at the so-called “Republican establishment,” and feeling increasingly powerless and desperate. There’s also a growing grievance culture among some on the right, and Trump gives voice to those grievances, their bitterness, their anger. They have in a sense given up on traditional politics and the political system, and so they find themselves supporting someone they believe will overthrow the tables in the temple courts.
He may be a wrecking ball, but he’s wrecking what deserves to be wrecked, in their minds.
Beyond that, I think many on the right — including people on the Christian right — are caught up in the Trump persona. They believe he’s the epitome of strength, of power, of kick-ass toughness.
“I think we have likely slipped past the point of no return as a country and I’m desperately hoping for a leader who can turn us around,” one evangelical wrote me. “I have no hope that one of the establishment guys would do that. That, I believe, is what opens people up to Trump.”
These people feel increasingly disrespected and beaten down, and they see Trump as fighting the very elites they believe, with some reason, has disparaged and disrespected them. He might not share their faith or embody moral virtue — he may even be a moral degenerate — but he’s our moral degenerate. He’s fighting political correctness like we wish we could.