As Jerry Falwell Jr. spoke on the Republican convention’s final night, longtime observers of the Christian Right movement, of which his father was a founder, had to shake their heads in wonder. Gone was the usual claim that the Republican candidate was a Man of God motivated by profound faith and humbled by a sense of religious duty. Gone was any long recitation of Christian Right issue positions or accomplishments. Gone, perhaps most significantly, was any reminder of the covenant between conservative Christians and the Republican Party in which the former took the spiritual risk of political engagement in exchange for the latter’s promise to turn back the cultural clock.
Instead, Falwell emphasized Trump’s pledge to change the half-century-old IRS rule in which nonprofit groups (including churches and other religious institutions) were told they had to choose between tax-exempt status and the ability to endorse political candidates and engage in direct electioneering activities — a pledge the tycoon made in a recent meeting with conservative Evangelical leaders designed to win them over. Like many of these leaders, Falwell, who endorsed this Philistine at the very beginning of the 2016 cycle, has in a crude, transactional manner sold out, like a ward heeler with a constituency that needs favors from the Boss.
Yes, Trump has also gone to some lengths to promise judicial appointments sure to support reversals of the constitutional right to abortion and same-sex marriage. And, even more important, he’s made the Christian Right’s enemies his own — the “elitists” and “cultural relativists” of the secular left and mainstream media, the Muslims that deny Jesus as the exclusive Way, and the disparagers of Israel’s biblical role in the Last Days. Going along with this politician’s ambitions is a small matter of overlooking his crudity and egoism; his instrumental treatment of other people (especially women); his deep involvement in the Babylon of mass popular culture; and his “populist” manipulation of very un-Christian racial and ethnic resentments.
It’s hard to know what goes through the minds of people who consider themselves followers of a messiah who preached love for one’s enemies as they cheer Trump’s declarations that he wants to torture and kill terrorism suspects and their families, and deport millions of Christians and their children into destitution and violence, and reverse years of conservative Christian investment in criminal-justice reform, and intimidate other countries into letting America always be first. Like Falwell, they do mostly refrain from claiming that Trump — who has not been able to bring himself to admit the need for divine forgiveness — is himself a man of faith, though the Christian Right warhorse tried to suggest he was a “Baby Christian” who had only recently found God. But for the most part, they implicitly treat him as the Scourge of God (as Attila the Hun was once described), a pagan sent to smite the wicked.
Some conservative Christian leaders may simply emulate other conservative ideologues who, as a purely practical manner, have decided to go along with the Trump candidacy in hopes of inheriting the GOP after he loses, or cashing in chits if he wins. Or perhaps they are just following their flocks, unlike some (notably Southern Baptist spokesperson Russell Moore and longtime Christian Right and homeschooling advocate Michael Farris) who have made a prophetic stand against Trump. As longtime observer of Christian conservatives Sarah Posner noted:
A July 13 Pew Research Center survey found that 78 percent of white evangelicals intend to vote for Trump — meaning Trump will likely match the level of support among white evangelicals enjoyed by George W. Bush in 2004, when white evangelicals made up 23 percent of the electorate, and were an essential 36 percent of all Bush voters.
This is obviously not the first time in Western history that religious people have followed irreligious politicians who promise to fight against the forces of cultural change that threaten all entrenched sources of privilege. But it must be painful to some to observe that, despite the trappings of religious invocations and the country musicians touting their Bible-believin’ (along with their trucks and their guns) as tokens of defiance toward liberals, this has been a profane convention celebrating profane values. Farris recently said the acceptance of Trump represented the “end of the Christian Right.” That may overstate the case, but the days when the GOP could comport itself as the Christian conservative party are gone for the immediate future. Conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat read the draft of Trump’s speech tonight and tweeted: “The speech is basically Buchananism without the religion.” That means culture war with no restraint, and perhaps no survivors. And that’s scary.
By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, July 21, 2016
In American politics, where has God gone?
Of course this is an inadequate way of posing the question. God is always present for believers, even if the political workings of the divine can be hard to discern. And religious people continue to occupy points all along the spectrum. Just ask Hillary Clinton about her Methodism.
But especially among Republicans, religious issues have taken a back seat in the party’s discourse and religious leaders are playing a diminished role in the 2016 campaign.
This was not how things started. Many had the remarkable experience during the primaries of hearing Ted Cruz declare to his followers: “Awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from the abyss.” You can’t get much more religious than that.
But Cruz failed to awaken and unite religious conservatives, a reason why Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee. The split this year among conservative evangelicals was profound.
On the one side were those, mainly Cruz supporters, still voting on abortion, gay marriage and other moral issues. On the other were those among the faithful so angry about the direction of the country and what they saw as the marginalization of conservative Christianity in public life that they opted for the strongman who could push back hard against their enemies.
Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, spoke for the second group. “Most Americans know we are in a mess,” Jeffress declared, “and as they look at Donald Trump, they believe he is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly.”
Jeffress reflects a profound pessimism among conservative Christians that contrasts sharply with the movement’s hopeful spirit in its Reagan Era heyday.
The current gloom grows out of an implicit awareness of the reality shrewdly captured in the forthcoming book, “The End of White Christian America,” by my friend and colleague Robert Jones. Although conservative Christianity will remain important, the sheer force of demography means it will never again enjoy the public influence it once had.
And in imagining that Trump will somehow reverse the trend, Christian conservatives are taking a big risk. As he has on so much else, Trump has been entirely opportunistic in his approach to religion. By some measures, he’s running the most secular Republican campaign since the 1970s.
In the early primaries, particularly in Iowa and the South, Trump tried hard to identify with a constituency he knew would be key to his success. “I love the evangelicals,” Trump said. “Why do they love me? You’ll have to ask them — but they do.”
His efforts were often awkward. He mangled references to the Bible, referred to communion as “my little cracker,” and once momentarily mistook the communion plate when it came around for the donation plate. But none of this seemed to matter.
He also was far-sighted. Long ago, he put some money where his political needs would be. As Betsy Woodruff reported last year for The Daily Beast, The Donald J. Trump Foundation contributed $100,000 in 2012 to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and in 2013 gave $10,000 each to The Family Leader, an influential Iowa evangelical group, and to Samaritan’s Purse.
Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, said nice things about Trump early on. But he took Trump to task in April when the candidate distanced himself from North Carolina’s law barring transgender people from using bathrooms that corresponded to their gender identity. Characteristically, Trump quickly walked the statement back and proclaimed himself a states’ rights advocate on the question.
Nonetheless, his initial signal on the North Carolina law marked a new phase in the campaign. As voting moved to Northeastern states with fewer evangelicals, Trump spoke much less about religion and his evangelical love affair. Among his winks to social moderates: praise for Planned Parenthood for having done “very good work for many, many — for millions of women.”
Trump’s comments on immigrants, political correctness and Muslims suggest he is far more anti-multicultural than he is pro-religion. He talks more about symbols and public icons than about faith or morals. “If I become president, we’re gonna be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store,” he said last October. “The ‘Happy Holiday’ you can leave over there at the corner.”
It’s an empty promise, since no president could force “every store” in America to give a Christian greeting. But the fact that he chose to make the media-driven Christmas wars a centerpiece of his argument to Christians shows that his real engagement is with identity politics, not religion.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 2, 2016
The 2016 election is transforming the religious landscape of American politics.
It’s hard to imagine a Democratic presidential candidate receiving a mid-campaign invitation to speak at the Vatican.
But on Friday, Bernie Sanders put out word that on April 15 he’ll attend a gathering of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Both Sanders and Hillary Clinton, his front-running rival, have regularly praised Pope Francis.
And on the day of Sanders’s announcement, Francis released “The Joy of Love.” The groundbreaking document signaled what can fairly be called a more liberal attitude toward sexuality and the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics.
The pope didn’t change church doctrine on gay marriage but was offering another sign that he’s pushing the church away from cultural warfare and toward a focus on poverty, economic injustice, immigration and the plight of refugees.
On the Republican side, the conservative evangelical movement is divided over Donald Trump’s candidacy. Many of its leaders have denounced him in uncompromising terms they usually reserve for liberal politicians.
One of his toughest critics has been Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Can conservatives really believe that, if elected, Trump would care about protecting the family’s place in society when his own life is — unapologetically — what conservatives used to recognize as decadent?,” Moore wrote early this year in National Review.
He added: “Trump’s willingness to ban Muslims, even temporarily, from entering the country simply because of their religious affiliation would make Jefferson spin in his grave.”
Such denunciations are good news for Ted Cruz, who began his campaign at Liberty University, an evangelical intellectual bastion, and had hoped to unify evangelical conservatives.
But in primary after primary, Trump has won a large share of self-described “born again” or evangelical voters, particularly in the South. In the Southern-inflected Super Tuesday contests in March, his showings in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama were exceptionally strong.
Evangelicals made up 77 percent of Alabama’s Republican primary electorate, and Trump carried them 43 percent to 22 percent over Cruz. Among non-evangelicals, Trump beat Cruz 41 percent to 18 percent, with roughly a third in this group casting ballots for either Marco Rubio, who has since dropped out, or John Kasich.
Even in defeat in Wisconsin on Tuesday, Trump did about as well among evangelicals (he won 34 percent of their ballots) as among non-evangelicals (36 percent).
In one sense, it is not surprising that the politics of white evangelicals are evolving. Their social issue frame and the most important institutions in their movement were created in the late 1970s and 1980s. But this year’s developments do suggest, as Elizabeth Bruenig (now of The Post) argued in the New Republic, that “the old-fashioned model of reaching evangelicals no longer appears functional.”
Robert Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute (and with whom I have collaborated), sees many evangelicals now as “nostalgia voters.” Writing in the Atlantic, he said they are animated less by “a checklist of culture war issues or an appeal to shared religious identity” and more by an anger and anxiety arising from a sense that the dominant culture is moving away from their values.
A backlash around race, which led many white Southern evangelicals toward the Republicans in the 1960s even before the rise of the religious right, also appears to be at work. It is conjoined with opposition to immigration. And evangelicals, like other Republicans, are split by class and their degree of religious engagement.
Were Cruz to secure the Republican nomination, traditional patterns of white evangelical voting might well reassert themselves.
But with Pope Francis lifting up what can be called social justice Christianity, cliches that religion lives largely on the right end of U.S. politics might finally be overturned.
This view was already flawed, given, for example, the long-standing activism of African American Christians in the politics of economic and racial equity. Clinton especially has been engaged with black churches from the outset of the campaign.
Her own deep commitment to her Methodist faith and its social demands is central to her identity. It could be the key to solving her much-discussed “authenticity” problem, because faith is a powerfully authentic part of who she is.
In the meantime, a Jewish socialist presidential candidate will head off to the Vatican to make a case about climate change and social justice quite congenial to Francis’s outlook.
In today’s American politics, religion is working in mysterious ways.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 11, 2016
Mike Lee wants you to know that Ted Cruz prays a lot.
The Utah Republican senator told a packed room at a barbecue joint in Easley, S.C., that in Washington, when “all the powers in the world” seem to have turned against people who believe in liberty, freedom, and Jesus Christ, Cruz is always there.
“In those moments, Ted is among the first to suggest we pray together,” he said.
In the final days before Palmetto Staters decide who will win their long-coveted support, the timbre of the race here has taken a distinctly Bible-Belt tone. Instead of speaking to pragmatic New England sentiment and detailing how he plans to win in November, the Texan is explicitly appealing to South Carolinians’ Protestant Evangelical sensibilities.
And Donald Trump, in his own very special way, is making a similar pitch.
But between their supporters on the ground, there isn’t a whole lot of love-thy-neighbor going on.
When asked at the barbecue place about tension between their supporters, Easley resident and staunch Cruz backer Scott Watkins chuckled.
“You mean other than the fistfights?” he said, grinning.
Emotions are particularly frayed in a small-ish region of the densely Evangelical state called the Upcountry, which has become ground zero of the Trump/Cruz Battle Royale. It’s where the pair—and their very passionate supporters—are waging a holy war of Old Testament proportions.
And as is the case with any war, geography matters. The northwest corner of the state is overshadowed by the Appalachian Mountains, and what it lacks in glitz (think Charleston) or policy-making clout (that would be Columbia, smack-dab in the center), it makes up for in religious faith and conservative single-mindedness. About 40 percent of the state’s Republican primary voters live in this Appalachian region, and their support helped save George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush’s then-flagging presidential bids. The forces that dominate Upcountry politics are also ones that outsiders find totally perplexing—and none less so than Bob Jones University. The school has just 3,000 students—one-third of whom were homeschooled—and it’s so conservative that they aren’t allowed to watch any movies above a G rating without a faculty member present (seriously). It’s also a popular pilgrimage location for Republican presidential contenders, since the school’s community is highly organized and politically active.
So while Lee was focused on praying, and Watkins joked about fistfights, others cast the disagreements in more ominous tones. Joanne Meadows, former president of the Greenville County Republican Party, said conflict over whether to back Cruz or Trump had strained some families.
“There are a lot of houses that have been divided,” she said soberly. “There’s a lot of emotion in this.”
She added that she’s backed Cruz since meeting him at a Republican Party dessert social, and that she’s had some very involved debates about her pick with skeptical neighbors.
In this part of the state, though, it isn’t just a question of neighbors sniping at each other over glasses of iced tea. Cruz’s foes have gone after him in labor-intensive ways. Dan Tripp, South Carolina state director for the pro-Cruz Keep the Promise super PAC, emailed over pictures of numerous large Cruz road signs with smaller “TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” signs stapled all over them. One sign had the words “CHEAT,” “FUCK,” and “CHEATER” scrawled on it in orange spray paint.
Tripp estimated that upwards of one-third of the super PAC’s large pro-Cruz highway signs had been stolen or defaced. Even in an ugly South Carolina presidential primary, he added, that’s a lot.
Trump’s messaging to Evangelicals focuses less on his personal faith and more on Cruz’s alleged lack thereof; the mogul has spent the past few weeks questioning the Texan’s devotion to Christianity.
“How can Ted Cruz be an Evangelical Christian when he lies so much and is so dishonest?” he tweeted last week.
There’s a reason Trump singles out Evangelicals; South Carolina is one of the least Catholic states in the nation —2010 data shows only Mississippi and Tennessee have a smaller percentage of Catholics—and Evangelicals made up 65 percent of 2012’s Republican primary voters.
And it could be a winning strategy.
“There are Evangelicals that are extremely skeptical of any politician who tells them exactly what they want to hear, appearing to be too perfect in their philosophy and faith,” said Robert Cahaly, an Atlanta-based consultant who does work in South Carolina.
“As Carson, Trump, Rubio, and the media continue pointing to examples of tactics and actions which are inconsistent with Cruz’s carefully crafted persona, they actually erode the fundamental essence of his support,” he added.
Thus far, it’s working out. Recent CNN and PPP polls show Trump is leading among Palmetto State Evangelicals.
That may be why churches are now battlegrounds. The South Carolina politics blog FitsNews posted pictures of fliers that reportedly blanketed Upstate churches on Wednesday evening (when many host Bible studies and mid-week services). Churchgoers returning to their cars found fliers under their windshields highlighting recent reports that Cruz doesn’t tithe very much.
“Canadian-born Ted Cruz may not even be eligible to be president,” read one flier, next to a picture of the Texan with a Pinocchio nose. “Has a habitually habit of lying and spreading falsehoods on the campaign trail, all while waving a Bible around, taking selfies of himself praying and even signing autographs in the Lord’s House.”
Cruz’s explicitly religious pitch brings its own risks. And if those attacks work and Cruz loses badly in South Carolina, he may have trouble resurrecting his campaign elsewhere.
“If Trump wins South Carolina by double digits in spite of Scalia’s death and the renewed emphasis on the need for a conservative Supreme Court, it calls into serious question Cruz’s ability to rally evangelical voters—the lynchpin of his base,” emailed Robert Jeffress, a pastor from Dallas who has opened several Trump events in prayer but hasn’t endorsed.
That said, Cruz’s backers believe God is on their side. Maryanna Tygart, a retired nurse, traveled from her home in Indiana to South Carolina to volunteer here for Cruz.
“It was so crowded this morning, I tell you what, I was almost in tears,” she said as she waited to get her picture with him at a Republican Women’s Club event in Greenville. “We didn’t even have room big enough or enough phones for people to work, and there were so many people going out door-to-door and canvassing—and it was like, yes! Praise the Lord.”
By: Betsy Woodruff, The Daily Beast, February 19, 2016
On the surface, the political dynamic is baffling. Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of a legendary right-wing TV preacher and the head of one of the nation’s largest evangelical universities, threw his official political support behind Donald Trump – a secular, thrice-married casino owner who’s never really demonstrated any interest in, or knowledge of, matters of faith.
And yet, here we are. Falwell has not only offered a spirited (no pun intended) endorsement to the Republican frontrunner, he’s even gone so far as to say Trump “reminds me so much of my father.”
There’s a fair amount to a story like this one, but let’s start with a blast from the recent past.
In November 2007, another thrice-married New York Republican was running for president, who also had a secular track record of supporting abortion rights and gay rights. And yet, a high-profile televangelist – Christian Coalition president and Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson – nevertheless threw his support to that GOP candidate, Rudy Giuliani.
Social conservative activists and leading religious right groups howled, for reasons that are probably obvious. Giuliani was the antithesis of everything evangelicals were looking for in a Republican presidential candidate, and yet, Robertson ignored his allies and threw in his lot with the secular, Catholic adulterer.
Why? Because Robertson’s priorities weren’t (and aren’t) at all similar to those of many other evangelical leaders: the “700 Club” host saw a Republican leading in the polls; he wanted a seat at the table with a man he perceived as a future president; and so Robertson followed the prevailing political winds.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know this was a poor bet – Giuliani failed spectacularly as a candidate, earning exactly zero delegates – but it was a reminder that Robertson is a partisan first and a culture-war ideologue second, while other prominent social conservatives reverse the two.
And Robertson isn’t the only social conservative who thinks this way.
In the current GOP race, prominent political evangelical leaders effectively limited their top choices to five Republican presidential hopefuls: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson. Trump was an afterthought.
Cruz emerged as the religious right movement’s standard bearer, but like Robertson eight years ago, that didn’t stop Jerry Falwell Jr. from going his own way.
Of course, there’s also the larger question of why Falwell’s fellow evangelicals would even consider Trump in the first place. We can’t say with certainty whether the Liberty University president has partisan or electoral motivations, but that’s a separate question from what other social conservatives are thinking as they, too, rally behind Trump.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent published a good piece on this last week.
Instead, Trump’s success among evangelical voters may be rooted in the fact that, more than any other GOP candidate, Trump is able to speak to their sense of being under siege. Trump somehow conveys that he understands on a gut level that both Christianity and the country at large are under siege, and what’s more, he is not constrained by politically correct niceties from saying so and proposing drastic measures to reverse this slide into chaos and godlessness.
I recently talked to Robert Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, who has been studying evangelical opinion for many years. His research has led him to believe that Trump is very good at speaking to evangelicals’ sense of a lost, mythical golden age in America that predates the political and cultural turmoil of the 1960s.
In other words, we’re talking about a group of voters – largely white, older, social conservatives – who hear Trump vowing to “make America great again,” and believe him, without much regard for his ignorance about religion, his messy personal life, or his previous policy positions.
If a secular, thrice-married casino owner who uses phrases like “Two Corinthians” is eager to champion a vision of a bygone era, these evangelicals appear to care more about the message than the messenger.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 26, 2016