How the Christian Right Has Come to Love Trump
Joshua Wilson is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Denver. He is the author of The New States of Abortion Politics and The Street Politics of Abortion: Speech, Violence, and America's Culture Wars. Wilson's areas of research includes law and society, social movements, abortion politics, American conservative politics, and American constitutional law and civil liberties.
In an administration full of “firsts,” Mike Pence marked another over the weekend by being the first ever vice president to publicly speak to Focus on the Family – a longtime leading organization in the Christian Right.
Pence’s closeness to the Christian Right may make this seem unremarkable, but it would arguably have not been surprising if President Trump appeared himself.
Focus on the Family has never hosted a President, but white evangelicals have been his most loyal supporters. As Pence stated, the group has, “an unwavering ally in President Donald Trump.”
This episode and the relationship underlying it also illustrates something important about evangelicals and the Christian Right; that is, their elevation of political pragmatism over moral principle. And, thus far into the Trump presidency, this move has paid handsome political dividends for the group.
From the beginning, the Christian Right’s embrace of the crass, materialistic, thrice-married real estate and reality TV mogul has raised eyebrows.
Trump is the moral antithesis of the Christian Right’s proclaimed values, and past data suggested that those values guide the white evangelical vote. Despite this, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump – a higher percentage than voted for George W. Bush, who is an evangelical.
What’s more, white evangelical support for him has actually risen despite a constant barrage of negative press about the president. Around the 100-day mark of his presidency, 78 percent endorsed the president’s performance, with over two-thirds of those very strongly approving of the president, dwarfing the general public approval rating of 39 percent.
Christian Right leader (and early Trump supporter) Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s explanation for his movement’s embrace of Trump is that, “Rank-and-file evangelicals are…trying to save the country and maybe vote on social issues next time.”
The “rank-and-file’s” turn to pragmatism is seen in a PRRI/Brookings report comparing 2011 and 2016 data. White evangelicals, for example, jumped from 30 percent to 72 percent approval of elected officials who commit immoral acts in their personal lives.
Other data also show that their chief concerns going into the election were far from traditional “culture war” issues. While this may be a temporary shift with white evangelical voters rationalizing to accommodate a candidate that otherwise appeals to them, the Christian Right’s elites have been embracing this kind of pragmatic thinking for a lot longer.
For decades, the Christian Right’s strict commitment to religious principle inhibited cooperation between movement leaders and between the Christian Right and secular conservatives. It also limited their use of politically motivated litigation.
Beginning in the 1990s, however, the center of gravity within the Christian Right movement migrated toward a set of more politically strategic actors, such as Pat Robertson from the Christian Coalition, Jay Sekulow, the head attorney at the American Center for Law and Justice, and Alan Sears from Alliance Defending Freedom. Though not without their differences, each of these leaders demonstrated a pragmatic willingness to engage in compromise for political and legal victories.
One site where the conflict between principle and pragmatism played out is in the internal battles fought in new Christian Right law schools. Within Robertson’s own law school at Regent, the early leadership fights reflected concerns about preserving a religious mission and identity, versus practical considerations seen as threatening them. Here, as elsewhere, the pragmatists won.
It is also seen in Christian Right litigation. They have become savvy litigators who recognize opportunities in secular cases, the need to position themselves to appeal to secular conservatives, and the value of using secular precedent that Christian conservatives may otherwise find offensive.
The Christian Right’s embrace of Trump can thus be understood as a continuation of this trend of elevating pragmatism over strict principle. Trump has rewarded the group’s loyalty by appointing government officials who reflect the core of the Christian Right movement.
In addition to selecting Pence, Trump has placed natural law enthusiast Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, appointed New Christian Right donor Betsy Devos as the Secretary of Education and National Right to Life lobbyist Theresa Manning as Secretary of Health and Human Services, tapped Jerry Falwell, Jr to lead a task force on higher education, and hired American Center for Law and Justice’s Jay Sekulow as his personal lawyer.
So while Trump’s statement in front of the Freedom and Faith coalition that, “[i]n my first 100 days – and I don’t think anybody has ever done more, or, certainly, not much more” is a questionable claim at best, if we qualify that statement with “for the New Christian Right,” it rings quite true.
In a matter of months, Trump has successfully moved this group from the political margins to the center of power. And they have rewarded the president with their enduring loyalty.