The relationship between the Republican Party and its most important constituency group, the Christian Right, has often been compared to a marriage of convenience that does not involve a lot of mutual respect or trust.
As a couple of thousand Christian Right activists gathered in Washington for the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit this weekend, it was more obvious than ever that the GOP is straining the loyalties of the faithful. The star attraction, Donald Trump, was, after all, the fifth-place finisher in the presidential straw poll at last September’s VVS.
But like a long-suffering spouse, the Christian Right is sticking with Donald Trump as we head toward Election Day because he is convincingly the enemy of its enemies and is willing to make a few key gestures in the direction of the righteous, albeit in a clumsy and offhand way.
None of the Christian conservative leaders who have made opposition to Trump (e.g., Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention) a matter of conscience were allowed near the podium of the VVS. Still, much anxious rhetoric was aimed at those who are thinking about voting third or fifth party or staying home. Former representative Michele Bachmann characteristically used the most extreme words possible to condemn that temptation, comparing the election to the choice God gave the Hebrews in presenting his covenant with them: “I have set before you life and death. Which will you choose?”
But while there may be some questions about turnout rates on the margins, you did not get the sense listening to Trump address the gathering that he is especially worried about this particular slice of the electorate. He did not bother to mention abortion or same-sex marriage (though his promises to appoint “Federalist Society” Supreme Court justices in the mode of Antonin Scalia was a well-understood dog whistle on those subjects), which may be a first for a Republican nominee talking to this kind of gathering.
As has been his habit when in Christian Right company of late, Trump placed greatest emphasis on promising something of interest almost exclusively to evangelical clergy: repealing the “Johnson Amendment” that prevents candidate endorsements and other electioneering from the pulpit for tax-exempt religious (and for that matter nonreligious) organizations.
As Amy Sullivan has pointed out, the evangelical rank and file don’t appear to support this idea — yet it always gets big applause from the leadership, and also illustrates the purely transactional nature of Trump’s appeal to politically active Christian Right elites. They really have nowhere else to go now that Trump has conquered the GOP, yet he’s willing to promise them a tasty policy snack that makes it easier for them to swallow their misgivings about supporting this crude philistine.
For the benefit of the more credulous, Trump’s running-mate Mike Pence, the designated conservative whisperer of the ticket, came along and told the VVS attendees on Saturday that “at the very core, the very heart, of this good man is … a faith in God and a faith in the American people.” This is about as convincing as James Dobson’s unsupported claim that Trump is a “baby Christian,” like one of those ancient barbarians who converted to Christianity but needed a while to figure out the new faith was incompatible with slaughtering prisoners or keeping concubines.
Trump mostly has faith in himself and in the golden calf of worldly success. But he’s the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, and thus leader of that mess of pottage for which Christian Right leaders have exchanged their birthright. So what are they to do?