Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to Rolsky’s “‘The Evangelicals’ and the Rise of Donald Trump.”
By. L. Benjamin Rolsky
On June 21, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gave yet another speech in front of evangelical Christians. This time, he spoke from the sixth floor of the Times Square Marriott Marquis in front of thousands. Unlike his last speech, Trump gave this one from the heart of a city that famed evangelist Billy Graham once equated to the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorra. In essence, Trump’s speech addressed a national constituency of Christian voters unhinged from its traditional allegiance to conservatism and the Republican Party. This pattern of party affiliation has been anything but accidental in the recent history of American religion and politics. In fact, one could argue that such allegiances have contributed to the public perception that Christianity, or religion generally considered, is inherently conservative in content and purpose once it reaches the public square. While Trump’s words may help us to understand the nature of his appeal and subsequent electoral successes, the manner in which various conservative Protestants leaders spoke to and about him tells us something different, namely, something about how conservatism itself has adapted to less-than-perfect candidates in the name of political expediency. In short, Trump’s encounter with conservative evangelicalism reveals the crumbling yet defiant intellectual architecture of “the New Right.”
Trump’s less-than-perfect fit within evangelical circles could not be missed during this speech. It took no less than three different introductory speakers to get him to the stage for his conversation with fellow one-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Former candidate Ben Carson joined Huckabee and others in offering Trump their support. “My main goal was to become middle class,” Carson described, “I’d think, wow, if I could just be middle class, that would be so cool. This is a place that allows you, no matter where you came from, if you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, to define your own destiny.” For Carson, Trump represents this promise to defend what makes America the greatest country in the world—its middle-class lifestyle. Evangelist Franklin Graham followed Carson in his introductory remarks, but it was Jerry Falwell Jr. who gave the strongest endorsement of Trump. “Many of you knew my father well,” Falwell began, “He was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter because Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been married and divorced and remarried…while Jesus never told us how to vote, he gave us all the good common sense to choose the best leaders.” Falwell even went so far as to equate Trump’s address to Reagan’s famous 1979 “Endorse You” speech in front of another group of similarly concerned conservative evangelicals. “Donald Trump shuns the censorship that is rooted in political correctness and speaks the plain common-sense truth that so many have been longing to hear.” Not only is Trump an attractive candidate for what he says, but he’s also an attractive candidate because he speaks the truth—one that is as plain as the biblical text itself.
Like his speech in front of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Trump’s Marriott address left much to be desired by his evangelical audience. He reminded his potential supporters that they live in an age defined by persecution of Christians in general and conservative Protestants in particular. Yet despite the severity of this declaration, Trump nevertheless remained a family man at heart. When asked about his children, Trump’s best advice was, “No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes.” He also admitted that attending church from a young age would be a “tremendous asset” to one’s upbringing. For Trump, it’s about “freeing up your religion, freeing up your thoughts” despite federal regulations against tax-exempt support of presidential candidates. Rather than interpreting these measures as protective of a pluralistic American public, Trump viewed them as inherently oppressive, another instance of state-sanctioned violence against a religious minority in the name of political correctness and state-authored censorship of Christian witness in the public square.
For Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, evidence for such claims can be found in the words of President Obama himself:
They talk about ‘freedom of worship.’ Why have they changed that? Well, freedom of worship means that you are confined to your churches and your synagogues, but freedom of religion, as identified in the Constitution, is in the public square, it’s everywhere. So they have tried to limit us to our church activity.
Not only did Trump agree with Dobson wholeheartedly, but he decided to take his claims one step further.
I think it may be my greatest contribution to Christianity—and other religions—is to allow you to go and speak openly.
Despite Trump’s lack of familiarity and experience with politics and communities of faith, it hardly seemed to matter to those in the audience. As Franklin Graham remarked before Trump’s speech, nobody is perfect—especially those in the Bible. This particular argument, combined with the support of Dobson, Falwell Jr., and others, unwittingly laid the groundwork for comments from Trump such as: “And the evangelicals were so incredible. They really get me, they understand me, and it’s an amazing group.” These words may have resonated with Trump’s audience that afternoon, but similar descriptions and applications of “religion” to American politics have arguably characterized New Right strategy since the election of Ronald Reagan. In this sense, “the evangelicals” is less of a community and more of a placeholder for a conservative coalition coming undone at the seams.
Surprisingly, Trump’s political platform relative to evangelical interests reflects both contemporary and historical commitments to conservative politics writ large. At times, Trump even combined the two by bringing a past issue into a present context. “We’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again, and we’re going to be saying a lot of other things,” Trump declared. “When coaches aren’t allowed to pray on the field with their team, going into battle? That’s a disgrace, and that’s gonna change.” In this instance, Trump combines a resentment of political correctness with the classic church/state debate over visible displays of Christianity in the public square. Regardless of Trump’s shortcomings, they seemed to be largely offset for his evangelical audience due to those who surrounded him, assuring those listening that Trump knew what he was talking about because of his seemingly intimate relationship with the likes of Falwell Jr., Reed, Graham, and others. Reagan may have been married, divorced, and remarried, but he nevertheless fit the New Right bill because he was a master communicator. Trump fits the bill because he speaks the truths that many are seemingly too scared to speak. In this sense, the master communicator has been replaced with the master rabble rouser in the name of presidential politics.
One might argue that the expediency apparent in the evangelical encounter with Trump is simply be the cost of doing business. As we’ve seen on the hit television show House of Cards, difficult decisions have to be made by the candidate or President, often resulting in another’s pain or misfortune. In this instance, Trump’s collective speeches to evangelicals are illustrative of a transitional moment for a party—one that has been in the works since the candidacy of a fellow rabble rouser from the Western half of the United States, Barry Goldwater. In this sense, Trump the candidate is an outgrowth of more than half a century’s worth of party reconstitution and realignment along re-drawn religio-political borders. As a result, the once predominant Bible Belt, a uniquely Southern geography, no longer defines conservative evangelical politics. Instead, the image of a Sun Belt more accurately describes the newly constituted Republican Party, but at what cost? To what extent does Trump represent both the worst and, yet, the only hope for a party in disarray?
For former governor Mike Huckabee, Trump is anything but a threat to establishment Republican politics. In fact, he may be its best shot. “We have Hillary Clinton, and we have you. You want to make America great again. You bring disruptive leadership to this country that will challenge the institutions that have virtually ruined America that many of us know, grew up in, appreciate and want to hand to our kids and grandkids” [emphasis added]. Nearly everything one needs to know about Trump’s appeal to social conservatives, including the very evangelicals he was addressing, can be found in Huckabee’s notion of institutional disruption. The brilliance of New Right strategists like Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips, and Paul Weyrich was their effective melding of Old Right economic conservatism with New Right social conservatism. This successful blending of campaign platforms led to the reconstitution of the Republican Party along more socially conservative “Family Values” lines of argumentation. At the same time, it also paved the way for a candidate like Trump, one who seemingly is able to address both the highest and lowest economic classes without alienating either. Trump is not a leader because he brings people together; Trump is a leader because he disrupts institutional life by utilizing division and derision as ways of uniting his supporters.
In this sense, Trump’s leadership style epitomizes New Right political philosophy to the proverbial “T.” For Howard Phillips, one of its principle architects, such a philosophy does not need much explanation, “Organize discontent. That is our strategy.” On the surface, Trump the candidate seems to validate the efficacy of this argument, but he does so through disruption, even at the expense of conservatism itself. Moving forward, fellow conservatives, evangelical or otherwise, will have to decide if such division is worth it for a party once known for its moderate wisdom and economic wherewithal. One could argue that the Great Communicator and the Compassionate Conservative helped transform the party from the inside out based largely on New Right appeals to Sunbelt social conservatives—most notably evangelicals themselves. However, if conservative business interests have remained largely in the background when it comes to the Republican Party and conservative mobilization in the twentieth century, then Trump’s presumptive candidacy signals a fundamental shift away from the movement’s recent social base and a return to its classic Old Right economic foundation in the most derisive of socio-racial terms. At what cost, to both party and community, remains to be seen.
Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr