A Rank-and-File/Elite Split Among Conservative Evangelicals, Too

As the annual Values Voters Summit–for many years the leading Christian Right clambake and cattle call in the country, sponsored by the old-school-theocratic Family Research Council–gets underway in Washington today with eight Republican presidential candidates making appearances, much of the talk will be about strange hold that Donald Trump (who speaks at the event today) has on conservative evangelical voters. Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches, who’s been attending these things for years, has this preview:

As I discussed with the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore earlier this week on bloggingheads, and have addressed here at RD, Trump is exposing fractures in the religious right. On the one hand, he’s attracting close to a third of “born again” registered Republicans, according to CNN polling conducted after last week’s debate. At the same time, many evangelical elites, most notably the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, have chastised Trump over his immigration stance. But as the CNN poll found, 49% of self-identified “born again” registered Republicans believe Trump to be the best positioned candidate to handle immigration. That’s a pretty stunning number given Moore’s very public rejections of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and is indicative of one kind of split among these voters.

But voters who will self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical” to a pollster are not a monolith. As Warren Smith argues at WORLD magazine, “watching Joel Osteen on TV doesn’t make you an evangelical.” Smith calls the evangelical support for Trump a “myth;” others, like Keith Miller, have argued that evangelicals with high church attendance are less likely to support Trump than others (possibly those who casually watch Osteen in their living rooms)?

While it might appear that all these voters share something in common—a strong belief that America is in decline—they come to it from very different vantage points. Trump supporters appear moved by his angry tirades against the vaguely-identified destroyers of what made America great. For conservative evangelicals, historically this discontent has been far more specifically laid out, and deeply rooted in their religious and political views (which are tied together). For these evangelicals, America is in decline because of secularism, abortion (and contraception and Planned Parenthood), marriage (and the Kim Davis-baker-caterer range of issues), and the meaning of the Bible in public life. If conservative evangelicals support Trump, they are supporting a candidate who quite obviously doesn’t share the priorities they have long claimed are central to their religious and political identity.

It’s been pretty clear from Trump’s behavior that he doesn’t understand this world very well. He’s appeared on David Brody’s segment on the Christian Broadcasting Network, but even there can’t seem to summon any evidence of basic biblical knowledge, or even a sense of what this base’s ideological commitments are.

I think it’s probably true that less observant conservative evangelicals are most attracted to Trump, but that’s still a lot of people. At the elite level, however, his support in this community is pretty close to zilch, as Sarah reports:

With a base fractured over Trump, many will look to what the elites are saying. WORLD has been conducting a monthly survey of evangelical “insiders,” who have not been picking Trump as their favorite. This month’s survey finds Marco Rubio in the lead with 37%, followed by Ted Cruz (19%), and Carly Fiorina (18%). It’s not a scientific poll, and it surveyed just 91 people, but Trump only registered 1%.

It’s interesting that Rubio, who seems on the brink of becoming the new front-runner among GOP elites, is relatively strong in this segment of the party as well. He bears close watching at the VVC, along with Trump, who has another chance to show he’s not as religiously illiterate as he sometimes appears to be.

For all I know, of course, Rubio and Trump and the other six candidates in the house could be blown away by an appearance from another special guest: Kim Davis. Maybe someone will start a draft presidential campaign for her. She’s technically a Democrat, of course, but that’s easy to change. And she has significantly more experience in public office–nearly ten months, if I’m not mistaken–than the three top candidates in the Republican field.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.