R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.
Donald Trump won the white evangelical Christian vote in the South Carolina primary and the Nevada caucuses. This support has been evident for months, causing evangelical leaders to wring their hands. Last year, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s influential Washington organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote a New York Times op-ed headlined: “Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?”
Maybe, but the reason so many evangelicals are for Trump is fairly simple to explain. Religious conservatives have been losing a lot lately. This has put them in a rebellious mood.
Evangelical Christians have become more well-educated and economically successful over the past two generations. They are not the same as the white working class that has been left behind by our increasingly globalized economy (although there’s certainly overlap). Today, a higher percentage of whites with college degrees go to church than whites with a high school degree or less.
But in one respect, the evangelical dentist in Greenville, S.C., has a great deal in common with the beer-drinking fellow in South Carolina’s Lowcountry who cobbles together a living. Both suspect that Republican Party grandees don’t see a future for them in the United States.
During the past two presidential election cycles, there’s been open discussion about the future of social conservatism in the Republican coalition. The consensus among big-money people on the right is that this once-important group has reached its use-by date. The pillars of the party have tired of disasters such as failed U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri. In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican National Committee issued a postmortem that recommended, among other things, a change of tone, “especially on certain social issues that are turning off young voters.” That evangelical dentist in South Carolina has become a political liability — unless, of course, he’s willing to keep his mouth shut in public.
The plan was straightforward: turn socially conservative Christians into the African Americans of the Republican Party, a bloc of voters with no place else to go but who can be managed and kept at a distance from the party’s new brand.
Events have shown that the Republican Party won’t spend political capital on causes important to evangelical voters. In 2014, then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed legislation that would have significantly strengthened religious liberty protections in the state. She did so because of an outcry from every sector of the establishment, including the Republican Party establishment.
Anyone who missed that demonstration of Republican political priorities certainly saw things clearly last year in Indiana. Again, it was a matter of religious liberty. Again, the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party would not defend legislation when it came under withering attack. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) was blindsided. He had thought, wrongly, that the new strategy was to assure conservative Christians that the party would protect religious freedom while playing down controversial moral issues. But it turns out that if establishment Republicans have to choose between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Human Rights Campaign, they opt for the latter.
Thus the support for Trump among evangelicals in South Carolina and Nevada, which, in all likelihood, will hold up elsewhere. Religious conservatives feel they have been pushed aside in today’s cultural politics, just as the working class is increasingly sidelined by economic changes. Both are seen as dead weight by an establishment dominated by the “creative class.”
Trump is a brash pugilist. He called former president George W. Bush a liar for saying there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Commentators were shocked. Bush has been a darling of the religious right. Shouldn’t this crude broadside undermine Trump’s support among evangelicals?
No. They’ve voted and voted and voted for candidates put forward by the Republican establishment. Where has it gotten them? Like so many people in Middle America, religiously and socially conservative voters are ready to smash things.
They may come to regret their support for Trump. But I don’t blame them.