It was just another day in American politics where nothing much changed, as in Sanders, Trump easily win West Virginia primary; Trump picks up Nebraska too – as if it mattered. No one was running against Donald Trump in either state – his last two opponents dropped out a week ago – and the math shows that no matter how many of the remaining Democratic primaries Bernie Sanders wins, even all of them, by landslides, Hillary Clinton has this locked up. The best that Sanders can do now is nudge Clinton a bit more toward his issues, social and economic justice for the forgotten, and away from her infuriating Republican-lite neoliberalism. He can be a pain in the ass, and probably should be. The Democrats should be Democrats again.
A choice would be nice. This year the Republicans are offering anger – at Latinos and at Mexico specifically, and at China, and at all Muslims, and at those Black Lives Matter folks who don’t respect our fine white policemen or the law either, and at gays and specifically those transgender folks who claim that God put them in the wrong body, as if God makes mistakes, which He never does. All these folks are ruining America. Donald Trump says so. In fact, God says so. How can you argue with that?
There is a counterargument. Let Jack Jenkins tell you a story:
During a town hall campaign event in Iowa this past January, a woman stood and asked Hillary Clinton an unusually blunt question about faith. The woman, a high school guidance counselor, said she identifies as both a Democrat and a Catholic Christian, but expressed frustration about having to defend her support for Clinton to conservative friends who insist that progressivism and Christianity are incompatible. How, she asked, does Clinton – a self-identified Methodist Christian who also happens to be one of America’s most famous Democrats – grapple with the same question, and how does her faith in things such as the Ten Commandments square with her left-leaning politics?
It’s a deeply personal question that many politicians would dodge, or at least explain away with a platitude about the value of faith and family. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the famously on-message Clinton, whose demeanor and accent critics often dismiss as duplicitous and disingenuous, launched into a lengthy, nuanced, and uncharacteristically unscripted articulation of her faith.
“Thank you for asking that. I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist,” Clinton responded. “My study of the Bible has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do. And there is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up … I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith.”
“I do believe that in many areas judgment should be left to God, that being more open, tolerant and respectful is part of what makes me humble about my faith,” she added. “I am in awe of people who truly turn the other cheek all the time, who can go that extra mile that we are called to go, who keep finding ways to forgive and move on.”
There’s nothing extraordinary there, other than context. The other side hasn’t been making that argument, even if they are the Jesus People. Things over there are a bit more muddled:
With preacher’s son Ted Cruz and the often pastoral John Kasich dropping out of the race for the White House this week, the GOP flock has winnowed to Donald Trump, a man whose grasp of the spiritual is dubious at best. Unlike virtually every other Republican nominee from the past three decades, The Donald is infamous for his bumbling inability to speak coherently about the Bible, much less his own theological beliefs, earning him scorn from an uncommonly ecumenical consistory of critics: right-wing evangelical leaders, heads of Trump’s own Presbyterian denomination, and even Pope Francis have all condemned the businessman’s uneven approach to matters divine.
Not so with Clinton, whose longstanding dedication to Methodism is well documented, and whose support among certain faith constituencies is years in the making. In fact, set alongside Bernie Sanders’ devotion to secular Judaism, Clinton currently occupies an unusual position in American politics: she, a Democrat, is now the most overtly religious candidate running for president in 2016.
Clinton is the most overtly religious candidate running for president this time around? Who knew? Jenkins goes on to explain Clinton’s religious background in the context of mainstream Protestantism in America, in excruciating detail, and notes there is a political power in her rather conventional faith:
The experience also honed Clinton’s ability to “speak Jesus,” allowing her to develop a spiritual parlance that transcended the white, suburban Methodism of her youth. While visiting Columbia, South Carolina in May 2015, Clinton asked local African American pastor Rev. Frederick Donnie Hunt what Bible verse he was studying. When Hunt replied 1 Corinthians 13, Clinton responded, “Oh I know it well,” and proceeded to recite the verse from memory and offer a short exegesis about its meaning.
Soon thereafter, Hunt announced his support for Clinton’s candidacy.
“I was impressed and glad that she knew the scripture that I was reading and studying at the time,” Hunt later told CNN. “It impressed me that someone running for president has that background. It is important to me that we have a president that has some belief.”
That’s the sort of thing Republicans say, although not so much about Donald Trump, which may be a problem for the Republicans this year. Sarah Posner, who wrote God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters – a book about the odd connection between those ultra-rich evangelical pastors who preach the “prosperity gospel” and the politicians who find that useful – wonders if we’re seeing the end of the Religious Right:
For a constituency that has made conservative religious values, sexual purity and Bible-driven policy the cornerstone of its politics, Mr. Trump – the twice-divorced, foul-mouthed businessman who praised Planned Parenthood’s health services and nonchalantly gave Caitlyn Jenner permission to use the women’s room in Trump Tower – seems an odd choice.
He is the problem here:
The religious right faces a reckoning, not just because members of its ranks supported, enabled or acquiesced to Mr. Trump. His success means religious and political leaders must figure out how a religious movement entangled itself in partisan politics and ended up being marginalized by the party it embraced.
The evangelical-Republican alliance, while certainly formidable and enduring, has suffered from growing tensions. Chief among them are inflexible ideological litmus tests on certain issues, such as abortion and gay rights, while internal disagreements over political issues like immigration, as well as core theological concerns, were shrugged off.
For more than thirty years, religious conservatives have been a loyal and, crucially, a predictable voting bloc for the Republicans. This resulted in a lasting deal for Republican candidates: Pledge fealty to the “Christian nation,” promise to ban abortion and (at one time) same-sex marriage, and evangelicals will form an essential and reliable segment of your voting base.
That may be falling apart now, although evangelicals have been a forgiving lot:
Ronald Reagan deviated from the movement’s standards on divorce, but he was adept at using religious language, such as “shining city upon the hill.” George W. Bush had an imperfect past, but was redeemed, in evangelical eyes, through religious salvation. In 2004, as 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush, they made up 36 percent of the Bush vote.
And they may forgive Trump:
His lack of familiarity with the Bible has been a frequent target of ridicule. He publicly declared himself to be against abortion in 2011, when he first toyed with a run for president. While Mitt Romney’s change of heart on abortion – which he dutifully and repeatedly addressed – gave him the flip-flopper label, Mr. Trump has so far repelled any similar branding.
That’s because he’s found a way to navigate through the current cultural chaos:
Mr. Trump gambled on two dynamics that were already altering the evangelical-Republican relationship. First, he recognized how the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage marked the end of the road for one of the religious right’s major issues. He declined, for the most part, to weigh in on the religious right’s new formulation on gay rights, which is to frame it as an issue of religious freedom for conservative Christians.
Mr. Trump has frequently proclaimed that when he is president it will be acceptable to start “saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again!” as if the so-called war on Christmas is the sum total of the movement’s religious freedom concerns.
Second, Mr. Trump exploited the evangelical divide on immigration. In doing this, he was following the lead of Republican officials who have ignored the argument by evangelical leaders that welcoming immigrants is a biblical imperative.
The plan was to say pleasant things and ignore the real issues, but that has its limits:
Perhaps these pro-immigration evangelicals might have forgiven a candidate who met their requirements on social issues but who backpedaled on his support for immigration reform. But Mr. Trump’s misogynistic and racist language drove these evangelicals away from him.
But he didn’t drive all of them away:
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.
He’s simply a familiar type now, the guy who says God will make you rich if you do this and that, and send money:
Although Ted Cruz used the traditional religious right playbook to win in Iowa, Mr. Trump’s subsequent successes in beating Mr. Cruz among evangelicals – including across wide sections of the Bible Belt – demonstrated that many Republican voters, and even many evangelical Republicans, were more swept up in Trump-style nativist culture wars than battles over abortion, marriage or, especially, bathrooms. Mr. Trump understood he could unite nativists and culture warriors using his diatribes against political correctness as an all-purpose code to stoke conservative resentments.
So, screw the gospels. Get angry. Get rich. God rewards the angry, with the good stuff. They’ve heard this before, and they like it, but Posner notes that’s only a subset:
Mr. Trump has some big-name evangelical endorsements, notably from Jerry Falwell Jr., but he has vocal opponents within the religious right as well. Many historically Republican evangelicals may stay home, or vote for the Democrat or a third party.
It doesn’t mean that the union of America’s evangelicals and the party is over forever. But at least in 2016, many influential voices within the religious right are not interested in entering into a suicide pact with the Republican Party.
It seems some of these folks still take the gospels seriously, and the Washington Post’s Katie Zezima shows us a bit of that:
Pastor Gary Fuller planned a Sunday service focused on involving Christians in the political process and featuring a speech by the pastor father of Sen. Ted Cruz. But after a week in which Cruz abruptly dropped out of the race, his father scrapped his appearance here and Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, a dismayed Fuller kept the political portion short.
“Vote according to your convictions,” Fuller told congregants at Gentle Shepherd Baptist Church who will cast ballots in Nebraska’s presidential primary Tuesday. “What you believe is the right thing to vote for, according to the Scriptures.”
He told congregants that the church can’t and won’t promote one candidate over another. But Fuller has a hard time stomaching Trump as the Republican nominee and plans to vote for Cruz on Tuesday, even though the senator has dropped out of the race.
“In a sense, we feel abandoned by our party,” Fuller said. “There’s nobody left.”
In seems that Trump, in winning over one set of evangelicals – the angry ones who know they truly deserve to be rich, damn it – lost all the others:
Even progressive Christians – evangelicals and Catholics, among others – who don’t necessarily vote Republican are alarmed that Trump is attracting many voters who call themselves religious. A coalition of nearly 60 Christian leaders – many progressive and some conservative – published an open letter last week asking voters of faith to reject Trump and his “vulgar racial and religious demagoguery,” warning that the nation faces a “moral threat” from the candidate.
“Certain kinds of political appeals and certain kinds of political developments are fundamentally antithetical to the Christian faith and must be named as such,” said David Gushee, a professor of ethics at Mercer University who signed the letter.
There is consternation about the hard line Trump takes on immigrants and about the morality of a thrice-married man who has long bragged about his sexual conquests. But another factor is at work as well: The traditional social and cultural positions that drive many religious conservative voters – including same-sex marriage and abortion – have been cast aside by a candidate who seems to have little interest in fighting the culture wars.
Ah, but there’s a reason for that, even if it’s sad:
“Trying to use social issues as primary issues to define a campaign has not borne out as effective for those candidates who embraced it,” said Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates for conservative gays and lesbians.
But there are voters like Fuller for whom “it’s always about social issues.” He cast ballots for John McCain and Mitt Romney despite not loving their platforms, but he felt they were men of character who would do right by the country. Many at a Baptist conference he attended last week were shaking their heads, he said, unsure about how to handle the upcoming election; supporting Hillary Clinton and her liberal positions seems contrary to everything many of them stand for.
“I got the idea of ‘Who would Jesus have voted for, Herod or Pilate?’ and probably neither one, and that’s where I feel we’re at here,” Fuller said.
This may be the end of the Religious Right – something else Donald Trump killed – and Heather Digby Parton looks at how this happened:
The current split among the evangelical right started to become obvious when Donald Trump was feted as an exalted visiting dignitary by Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. It turned out that he had visited before, and had been making gestures of friendship for some years. Indeed, Jerry Falwell Jr. is a big fan, who says that Trump reminds him of his own father.
It became clear that this wasn’t an anomaly when Trump’s electoral success among this cohort derailed Ted Cruz’s southern strategy, with which he had hoped to corner the Christian Right and therefore take the delegate lead long before the campaign got to more godless environs. That didn’t work out, obviously, and Cruz along with everyone else was surprised by the willingness of so many people who call themselves conservative Christians to vote for man who is anything but pious and repeatedly shows that he is religiously illiterate.
It was another hostile takeover, but Parton notes that something else was going on here:
Evangelicals do boast higher worship attendance numbers than other faith communities, and those who do go to church regularly tend to vote and behave in ways that match the greater evangelical agenda. But that doesn’t mean they all sit in the pews every Sunday, nor does it mean they blindly accept whatever their pastor tells them: anywhere from 35 to 40 percent of evangelicals attend church occasionally, seldom, or never. You’re less likely to see this more wayward subset of evangelicalism singing hymns on Sunday morning, but they’re happy to identify as evangelicals on opinion polls anyway, and have often been the group lifted up by progressives as examples of evangelical “hypocrisy.”…
As it turns out, these biblically “prodigal” evangelicals are the heart of religious support for the equally prodigal Trump: According to the Wall Street Journal, only 38 percent of Trump supporters attend worship weekly or more, compared to 56 percent of social conservative voters and 43 percent of Republican establishment voters.
Parton adds this:
For all of his advanced voter models and analysis, it appears that Cruz didn’t delve deeply enough into the actual beliefs of the evangelical voter to see that many of them hold “moral values” much closer to Trump’s than to his own. Those biblically “prodigal” evangelicals tend to be divorced at higher rates than even the godless atheists, have higher incidents of premarital sex and sexually transmitted diseases and are more likely to be involved in domestic violence. Indeed, rather than being devoted to Jesus, at the moment their evangelical fervor seems to be directed at Donald Trump.
It was reported earlier [Posner] that some evangelical preachers of the “prosperity gospel” are all in with the Trump campaign, which is hardly surprising. He is nothing if not conspicuously prosperous.
And of course this had to get hot:
At least some members of the Christian Right are not amused, most famously the Southern Baptist convention’s Russell Moore, who has written several scathing op-eds criticizing Republicans for backing Donald Trump. And just as it has happened among the other factions of the GOP coalition, this conflict has broken out into open warfare. Moore appeared on “Face the Nation” on Sunday and let fly:
“One of the key aspects of conservativism is to say, character matters in public office and in the citizenry and virtue has an important role to play in our culture and in our politics… And so when you have conservatives who were saying in the previous Clinton era that character matters, rightly so, who now are not willing to say anything when we have this sort of reality television moral sewage coming through all over our culture and conservative who previously said we have too much awful cultural rot on television, who now want to put it on C-SPAN for the next four years and to give a model to our children really with either of these two candidates of an amoral sort of vision of America that isn’t what we believe in.”
In fairness, Moore also called Hillary Clinton decadent just to be even-handed, although I don’t know that she’s called anyone a “pussy” on the stump or discussed her genitalia in a debate. Maybe I missed it. Needless to say, Trump was angry, and he fired back on Twitter….
Parton then documents that particular Twitter war in detail, not that it matters, and ends with this:
It wasn’t very long ago that we were seeing magazine cover stories about preachers and other Christian leaders’ outsized influence on American politics, with titles such as “Thunder on the Right” and “The Right Hand of God.” They were political powerhouses as much as religious leaders going back to the earliest iteration of the Christian Right, the Moral Majority. They didn’t just have tremendous influence, they had literal veto power within the Republican Party. Now, with a few notable exceptions, most of them are either signing on to the ugly, proto-fascist Trump movement or sitting quietly in the back of the bus, saying little as the Republican Party bows its head to an amoral man on a white horse. For these men of God, it practically begs the question: What would Jesus do?
As noted, some of them are now asking themselves that very question, and in a second item, Posner adds this:
“What we’re watching is a fundamental transformation of one of the two political parties,” says Denny Burk, a professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, part of the SBC’s flagship seminary, and a Moore admirer. It is not clear “what’s going to emerge on the other side,” says Burk, and “I don’t think social conservatives have a representative in this fight.”
Trump “might get 50 percent of the evangelical vote,” predicts Tobin Grant, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University who writes frequently about evangelicals and politics. That’s a far cry from Mitt Romney’s 79 percent of this voting bloc in 2012, which wasn’t enough for him to win the presidency.
“I think that Trump is uniquely disqualified,” says Burk. “He has done some egregious race-baiting; he has said that when he becomes president, he will encourage the United States military to commit war crimes. I have seen with my own eyes him encourage violence.” Trump is, Burk says, “a unique threat to our constitutional order.”
Burk and his evangelical allies pull no punches about their fears of Trump’s neo-fascist proclivities. The writer Matthew Anderson, a leading evangelical intellectual, has referred to Republicans supporting Trump as “Vichy Republicans.”
But many of these religious conservatives won’t vote for Clinton…
Why not? Hillary Clinton really is the most overtly religious candidate running for president this time around, and she doesn’t seem to be faking it – for what that’s worth. If the Religious Right can’t deal with that perhaps they should fade away.
And why are we even talking about this? Most of the founding fathers were Deists – God wants us to solve our own problems – and the problem now is Trump or Clinton. He’s not going to help with that. We’re on our own, as Jefferson and all the others did mention when they set up the country. Hell, the Religious Right never did get America. God and Trump have nothing to do with each other. Now they know.