The More Trump Struggles, the More the Christian Right Loves Him

Trump tells Christian-right audience they are together “under siege.” Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Of all the startling political events of 2016, one that baffled an awful lot of people was the exceptional support Donald Trump received from conservative Christians, and especially the white evangelical voters that he won by an unprecedented 80-to-16 margin. Now Tim Alberta reports that, if anything, the bond between Trump and the leadership of the Christian right is stronger than ever, even as other elements of his coalition are thought to be experiencing a bit of buyer’s remorse.

Talking with these leaders at last week’s Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting, Donald Trump’s first foray into public view after James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Alberta reaffirms something acute observers of the Christian right have realized for a while: They do not mistake Donald Trump — a frankly heathenish character whose efforts to sound pious usually come across as comical and painfully inauthentic — for “one of their own.” But they have a mutually transactional relationship with the man that is almost refreshing from their point of view, given the disappointments and occasional betrayals they experienced from pious GOP pols from Reagan to George W. Bush. Here’s how Alberta puts it:

[F]or Christians who feel they are engaged in a great struggle for the identity of America—and fear that their side has been losing ground—the most important question is not whether Trump believes in their cause, but whether he can win their wars. “Jimmy Carter sat in the pew with us. But he never fought for us,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told me after the president’s speech. “Donald Trump fights. And he fights for us.”

It is hard to underestimate the goodwill Trump stored up via the successful installment of Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. Hillary Clinton’s election might well have put the preeminent Christian-right goal of reversing Roe v. Wade out of reach for a generation. But beyond averting that disaster, Trump set up a very public process for choosing a SCOTUS pick that all but gave the Christian right a veto, and ultimately picked the jurist probably most favored by the Christian right, not only because he is viewed as a sure vote to overturn Roe, but because of his conspicuous involvement in judicial efforts to expand “religious liberty” rights to violate anti-discrimination laws.

And despite his lack of legislative accomplishments, Trump has pleased Christian right leaders and the rank and file in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways: his gestures of unilateral support for Israel, his appointment of a secretary of Education widely viewed as a religiously motivated warrior for diverting public education funds to private — including religious —schools and home-schooling parents, his hostility to the “pagan” cause of climate change activism, and his lusty participation in very old conservative wars on Planned Parenthood and Obamacare. From the point of view of many old-school Christian-right moralists, the best thing about Trump’s lack of religiosity may be his apparent immunity from Bush-style “compassionate conservatism.”

But as Alberta also notes, there is an additional source of solidarity at work on Trump’s behalf that is actually becoming more powerful as he struggles with adversity in Congress and in Washington generally:

One fascinating explanation, proffered repeatedly during conversations with evangelicals over the past year, is that they identify with Trump because both he and they have been systematically targeted in the public square—oftentimes by the same adversaries. This explains why Trump, speaking last week to the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual gathering in Washington, offered an extraordinary sentiment in pledging to support the evangelical community.

“We’re under siege. You understand that,” the president said. “But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever.”

It was a stroke of polysemantic genius from Trump and his speechwriters. As heads nodded in agreement across the hotel ballroom, media outlets seized—as the White House knew they would—on the phrase, “We’re under siege.”

In Christian-right circles, it has become an article of faith that Christianity itself is “under siege” from secularists, feminists, LGBT folk, scientists and other academics, liberal bureaucrats and politicians, and a pervasive culture of political correctness that makes advocates of traditional patriarchal culture and religious dogma uncomfortable. As someone who explicitly —and implicitly via the very crudeness that otherwise repels religious people— attacks political correctness every day, Trump is emphatically the enemy of the Christian right’s enemies. And the more he is embattled, the more the president shares a sort of fellowship of self-pity with conservative Christians who view themselves as losing the national culture wars and becoming isolated in their “heartland” enclaves.

This dynamic could well mean that, more than the white working class and even more than the alt-right, conservative white Christians could be Trump’s last and strongest ditch of support if he continues to fail legislatively and struggles with scandals over possible ties to Russia and his many conflicts of interest. And given the importance of this constituency to Republicans in many parts of the country, these allies in the pulpits and the pews may be the most valuable the president could possess.

The More Trump Struggles, the More Christian Right Loves Him