Essay

The Revival of the Old Religious Right

By | November 11, 2016

Supporters of Donald Trump pray at a campaign rally on November 5, 2016.

Supporters of Donald Trump pray at a campaign rally on November 5, 2016.

The obituary has been written many times over. The old-guard Religious Right would be diminished, perhaps vanquished, over its support of Donald Trump. In its place were new evangelical leaders—the Russell Moores and the Never Trumpers—who would preach piety, and not politics. There were growing numbers of evangelicals of color who were changing the face of evangelical America. There were young people who cared less for their parents’ culture wars. There were evangelical women who spoke out loudly when Trump bragged about sexual assault. Enough is enough, they said.

But then Trump won, and overwhelming numbers of white Christians helped carry him to victory. According to Pew’s analysis of early exit polls, his support among white evangelicals (81 percent) matched or topped that of Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush, whose turnout of values voters is often touted as key to his 2004 election. White Catholics went for Trump, 60 to 37 percent. Mormons, wary of Trump in the primaries, even in the end supported him 61 to 25 percent. On Wednesday, in both shock and awe, Religious Right leaders found themselves on the winning side.

“Weeping is for a season but joy comes in the morning,” the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins told reporters on Wednesday morning, quoting the Bible. “For many conservatives, joy awaited them this morning when they saw that Hillary Clinton was not going to be president.” At the National Press Club in Washington, Perkins, along with some of Trump’s faith-based political operatives, walked victory laps. Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List said, “The pro-life movement is in the strongest position that it has been in over 40 years—since Roe v. Wade. This election has delivered a very powerful punch.” The Christian conservative activists were emboldened, citing their base’s high turnout, and their ability to secure a pro-life Supreme Court justice, defund Planned Parenthood, protect religious freedom, and redirect national security. “There were an awful lot of premature obituaries written of the religious, conservative, and pro-family movement in this campaign,” the longtime Religious Right operative Ralph Reed told the room. “We can now say this morning, as Mark Twain did, that the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.”

They are already earning seats at the table. Trump’s transition team and the longlist for his cabinet read like a who’s who of the Religious Right of yore. Former Governor Mike Huckabee, once a values voters’ evangelical pick, and Governor Sam Brownback, a socially conservative Catholic, are being considered for agency posts, according to Buzzfeed. Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow at Perkins’ Family Research Council and a longtime public servant known for anti-LGBTQ stances, is overseeing domestic policy for the transition team, according to Politico. On the lists are other politicians who have boosted Religious Right causes, including Senator Jeff Sessions, Reagan aide and former Attorney General Ed Meese, and immigration hardliner Kris Kobach. Then there is Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, who has a long track record of socially conservative policies—from voting against LGBTQ rights to enacting one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. It’s difficult to know what policies Trump will enact; he has no governing history. But these men have long histories in government, and like the second coming of the Christian Coalition, they could portend a robust future for Religious Right policies.

The repeated question has been: How could values voters support Donald Trump, he of apparently little faith? For one, his surrogates testified to his redemption narrative, one of a born-again, nascent faith and a conversion to the pro-life cause he once rejected. The sins of his past could be erased. But even as his brash, unredeemed self, Trump has fit into the longtime Christian conservative strategy of co-belligerency, as Neil J. Young wrote for Religion & Politics. “A co-belligerent,” said the Religious Right thinker Francis Schaeffer, “is a person who may not have any sufficient basis for taking the right position but takes the right position on a single issue.” For some of Trump’s Christian supporters, that issue may have been abortion. No matter his values or faith tradition, as a co-belligerent, Trump could be the vessel for conservative Christian values.

But then as now, the Religious Right did not organize only on the basis of Roe v. Wade. Race cannot be separated from its history nor this present moment. That we are witnessing a surge of white Christian voters to Trump’s side after two terms of our first black president cannot be dismissed. Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer has made the case that the Religious Right was galvanized in the 1970s not by abortion alone but by keeping segregation, the old order, in place. One of the architects of the Religious Right, Paul Weyrich, told him that he had not been able to rally evangelicals around school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, or life issues. “I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” he told Balmer. “What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.” Schools like the fundamentalist Bob Jones University did not admit black students, and the government eventually yanked their tax exempt status—a move that incited the mostly white, mostly male Christian conservative leaders to rail against the government intrusion into Christian practices.

This 1970s political mobilization of conservative Christians formed in part to protest the progressive movements of the 1960s. They longed for the America of the past. In some ways, it’s the same 1950s America that 72 percent of likely Trump supporters said that they thought was better than the current era, in a PRRI poll taken before the election. The traditional values of yesteryear, and the pledge to make America great again, are to the benefit of white Protestants, a shrinking demographic. What churches will do to support the people of color among their flocks—many of whom are hurting—remains to be seen. As the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore wrote, with hope, in his call to the church after the election: “Moreover, no matter what the racial and ethnic divisions in America, we can be churches that demonstrate and embody the reconciliation of the kingdom of God.”

There is still another lesson from history, though. During the 1980s rise of the Moral Majority, Christian conservatives backed another divorced celebrity with Hollywood ties to the White House. But Ronald Reagan did not always do the Religious Right’s bidding. He nominated Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who upheld abortion rights. He did not oversee the overturning of Roe v. Wade. During Reagan’s first week on the job, when The Washington Post’s Lou Cannon asked a staffer what the president would give the Moral Majority, he replied, “Symbolism.” Reagan paid lip service to Christian conservatives, but often declined to make their biggest national plans a priority. Will this year’s faith-based political operatives be truly welcome in Trump’s White House? If so, we may be witnessing a revival of the old Religious Right. If not, the next four years may prove to be the last gasp of a dying movement.

Tiffany Stanley is managing editor of Religion & Politics. Follow her @tifflstanley.

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