What if I had told you two years ago that the initial front-runner in the race for the 2016 GOP nomination would be a New Jersey Casino mogul who had been divorced three times, bankrupted four times, and had avidly defended single-payer health care, abortion rights, and Planned Parenthood? And what if I had told you that he received enthusiastic support from religious fundamentalists?
Though no one anticipated it, the situation we find ourselves in isn’t as illogical as it sounds. Trump has built his polling lead on a single pressing issue – ‘Murica for ‘Muricans. That’s it. Nevermind abortion or gay marriage, among a large bloc of fundamentalists, that simple Trumpian formula is a perfect distillation of their most deeply-held views.
So far, polling indicates that Trump is the leading candidate among Republicans who consider themselves evangelicals. That popularity is reflected among fundamentalist activists and pundits. As a commentator on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network explained, “Donald Trump and evangelicals are breaking bread together because there is this common bond.”
Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has described Trump as a “breath of fresh air.” David Lane, the activist who helped organize the massive political prayer rally that launched Rick Perry’s 2012 campaign, issued this bizarre statement without a hint of irony, “America is starving for moral, principled leadership. I hope that Donald Trump brings that.”
Bob Van der Plaats whose fundamentalist outfit acts as a kingmaker in Iowa, described Trump this way, “I do believe Iowans and Americans are sending a clear message through Mr. Trump. That message is this: heartfelt, non-scripted leadership that is bold and courageous is what we want.” And Phyllis Schlafly, the pearl-clutching prude who wrote the book on modern fundamentalist activism, gushed with praise at the “plainspoken truth” of Trump’s “refreshing” immigration platform.
Some of the same people who expressed concern that maybe Obama isn’t authentically Christian are fawning over a guy who claims that he hasn’t “sought forgiveness” because he hasn’t done anything wrong. He has described communion as “when I drink my little wine and have my cracker.” Just last week he forcefully defended Planned Parenthood, explaining that “we have to look at the positives.”
Phyllis Schlafly is sufficiently undiplomatic to lay bare the ugly logic of the religious right. While flattering Donald Trump for his courageous stand against immigrants, she explains her main objection to Sen. Marco Rubio:
“Rubio’s statement [on immigration reform] was made in Spanish on the Spanish-language network Univision, which is reason enough to eliminate him from serious consideration. When somebody is running for president of the United States, why should we have to get somebody to translate his remarks into English?”
Take a look at her quote and identify what was “reason enough to eliminate him.” It was not his alleged softness on abortion or prayer or evolution or any other apparently religious matter. Schlafly and others like her are being moved by the culture war issue that looms above all others – preserving a culture of white supremacy.
In case any ambiguity remains, Ann Coulter, the Andy Kaufman of politics, repeats out loud what the nasty voices in Republicans’ heads are whispering. Coulter was riffing on the exciting possibility of becoming Trump’s Homeland Security Director when she dropped this gem:
“There will be no celebration of Cinco de Mayo, there will be no Ramadan, in fact there won’t even be a Feast of the Immaculate Conception – we are an Anglo-Protestant country, and you will learn about the Battle of Valley Forge.”
For a significant block of fundamentalists, the real meaning of social conservatism can be reduced to Coulter’s formula: We are an Anglo-Protestant country. That’s the only context in which the Tea Party’s ‘take back America’ chant makes sense. Christian nationalism and white supremacy overlap to an extent that few people inside or outside the fundamentalist movement are willing to openly acknowledge.
There are prominent social conservatives who are deeply hostile to Trump’s campaign. Almost all of them object to Trump solely on the basis on their prior commitments to other, more orthodox fundamentalist candidates. Very few have expressed the slightest discomfort with Trump’s racist blather, limiting their criticism to his religious bona fides.
In fact the main fundamentalist candidates in the race, Cruz, Carson, and Huckabee, have all been cheerfully friendly to Trump. They are each jockeying to win the votes turned loose when and if his campaign implodes.
There is some principled opposition emerging from elite Catholic conservatives and the thin intellectual tier of the evangelical movement. Unfortunately, these two groups are small and mostly distant from grassroots political activism. In advance of the first Presidential debate, New York’s Cardinal Dolan issued a blistering criticism of Trump’s “nativist” policies, equating them with anti-Catholic bigotry from the mid-19th century. His comments earned heated scorn from Catholic conservatives.
Trump may be an Easter Sunday Christian with scant reverence for his little wine and cracker, but he nonetheless fits squarely in the center of America’s fundamentalist tradition. At the heart of religious fundamentalism, whether the believer is Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or Jedi, are these two ideas:
1) The culture I have inherited comes from sacred, revealed truth and is the only way to live righteously.
2) Nothing I discover, learn or observe about the world must be allowed to modify the assumptions of that culture in any manner.
In other words, the central defining feature of religious fundamentalism is bigotry endorsed by God. Nothing in that formula could be remotely friendly to cultural outsiders. Those two foundational beliefs have put religious conservatives consistently on the wrong side of every movement for Civil Rights in the nation’s history. In that context, Trump’s manner, methods, and policies are a perfect fit for today’s religious right.