How Donald Trump Has Split the Christian Right

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Donald Trump Delivers Convocation At Liberty University
Donald Trump has created the first real crisis of conscience within the Christian Right since Reagan.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2016 Getty Images

Politically active conservative Christians — together known as the Christian Right — have certainly experienced defeat in GOP presidential primaries before.  But the defeat of the candidate most conspicuously identified with the Christian Right, Ted Cruz, at the hands of Donald Trump feels different. In part that’s because Trump’s candidacy created a schism within the Christian Right’s own ranks. Trump pretty evenly split the conservative evangelical and traditionalist Catholic vote with Cruz and others in the GOP primaries, to the chagrin of many conservative Christian leaders who viewed Trump as a man whose policy views, personal morality, and all-around hatefulness made him an inappropriate candidate for people claiming to follow the Prince of Peace.  

Now that Trump has triumphed, however, there’s a stirring among Christian conservatives that goes far beyond the usual pre-convention demands that the party and its candidate make social issues a priority and eschew any heresies. It’s best reflected in the war of words that has broken out between Trump and his camp and Russell Moore, chief political spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention. Throughout the 2016 primaries, Moore has excoriated Trump and warned conservative evangelicals to reject his devilish charms. But now he’s lashing out at Trump-supporting evangelicals with a level of contempt usually reserved for liberal secularists (per this passage from his recent New York Times op-ed):

 A white American Christian who disregards nativist language is in for a shock. The man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking “foreigner” who is probably not all that impressed by chants of “Make America great again.”

In a tweet after Trump started attacking him as a “nasty man” via social media, Moore cited chapter and verse (1 Kings 18:17–19):

When he saw Elijah, he said to him, ‘Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’” the verse reads. “‘I have not made trouble for Israel,’ Elijah replied. ‘But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals.’”

What Moore is doing is urging his fellow believers to take a prophetic stance — a protest against fundamental social wickedness — against Trump and the Christians who support him. No prominent conservative Christian has done anything like this with a Republican political leader since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign rang in the political marriage of conservative Christians and the GOP that created what we know as the Christian Right. 

Moore doesn’t speak for all Christian conservative leaders, obviously.  Some, like longtime Christian Right leader Tony Perkins, seem to be following the old formula of fencing in the GOP nominee with platform planks and pledges on particular issues before putting on the party yoke and supporting him. And a few others, most famously Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., dived into the churning waters of Trump’s brand of cultural conservatism from the get-go. But the fact remains: This once unified movement has split and could for the first time in decades stay split through a general election. 

One of our most insightful observers of the Christian Right, Sarah Posner recently observed that Trump may represent a subculture of American Christianity that’s declaring its independence from the larger tribe:

Deliberately or not, Mr. Trump may be the perfect candidate for an evangelical subculture that has increasingly become enamored with the prosperity, or health and wealth, gospel. In trying to build a singular religious faction that agreed on some core issues (like abortion), the Republican Party has courted that subculture, even though many evangelicals consider prosperity theology to be heretical. Mr. Trump acts more like a televangelist than an evangelical.

To put it more broadly, Christian Right leaders have for a long time encouraged the people in the pews to conflate their faith with cultural conservatism and nationalism, standing as Christian soldiers against the secularist trends that were transforming God’s Redeemer Nation from its Judeo-Christian moorings in patriarchal families and bourgeois values. What Trump has exploited, like many political leaders in 20th-century Europe, is that a lot of culturally threatened conservative white Christians are willing to throw away the cross in favor of their flag, their race, their tribe, and everything that’s familiar. The big question is whether fear and hatred of the secular-socialist enemy can once again paper over the growing division between Christian nationalists and people who follow Moore in arguing that Christ has no nation. 

The headline the Times chose to give Posner’s column on the conservative Christian split was: “Is This the End of the Religious Right?” That’s a question that many observers have been asking for decades. Posner herself isn’t answering it positively; in a separate piece for Rolling Stone she agrees with the Trump-hating Erick Erickson that conservative evangelicals may just “suck it up” and back the mogul. I’d add that if Trump goes down in ignominious defeat, his candidacy could actually strengthen the Christian Right in the long run by disciplining or expelling its fascistic elements.  But in the meantime, one of the fascinating subcurrents of this election will be the hurling of Old Testament thunderbolts by conservative Christian figures at the leader of the political party their predecessors claimed as Christ’s own.