On one level, I understand the support evangelical Christians extend to Donald Trump. Many of the explanations provided to Washington Post reporter Julie Zauzmer appear legitimate so long as I’m willing to grant legitimacy to opinions and beliefs that strike me as reactionary and anti-scientific. I get that some people who see marriage as a sacred institution have trouble accepting same-sex marriage and don’t want to see the White House lit up in rainbow colors. I can empathize with business owners who want to be able to deny service to anyone for any reason. I understand that people want to protect their ability to impart their values to their children without government interference or widespread social or political condemnation. I can see why they saw the Obama administration as a threat and why they see Trump as a defender. But I am not sure that these things really get to the heart of Trump’s standing with evangelicals.
Trump ran stronger with conservative Christians than either John McCain or Mitt Romney, and I can see a partial explanation for that. McCain famously denounced the Christian Right back in 2000 after his failed primary bid for president. Romney comes from a rival proselytizing faith. Trump isn’t an evangelical so he’s not a true member of the team, but at least he’s not an enemy or a competitor. Yet, why did he do better that George W. Bush, who actually was a member of the team?
Trump is transparently a fraud, and this very much includes his ludicrous professions of personal faith. His relationship with evangelicals in completely cynical and transactional and many right-wing Christians are aware of the true nature of this arrangement. They used to tell us it was important to them that Dubya restored dignity to the office of the presidency, but although they continually profess personal discomfort with Trump’s personal morals and much of his behavior, they say they’ll take the bad in order to get the good.
What I suspect is that Trump’s popularity with the Christian Right is actually tied to his behavior, and his policies are comparatively less important.
Consider that Barack and Michelle Obama are model church-going Christian parents who appear to have a happy monogamous relationship. They’re generally honest, and spectacularly honest for a political family. The values they emphasize are consistent with biblical injunctions against theft and dishonesty, as well as biblical exhortations toward charity and care for the poor. They want us to do unto others and we would have them do unto us. But if these types of considerations are important to evangelicals, they appear to be negotiable when it comes to Trump.
If they like Trump, as some say, because he’s reducing the number of abortions in the country, it’s hard to see how his policies on reproductive freedom are different from any other Republican presidential candidate of recent vintage. The same is true for the kinds of judges he is appointing. I think what distinguishes Trump and makes him an evangelical champion actually is his habit of insulting and demeaning his enemies, because Trump’s enemies are frequently the same people who evangelicals see as the enemy. In other words, he’s popular precisely because he’s a bully:
Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot.
“You’ve just got to accept the bad with the good,” [Defense Department employee Rickey] Halbert said.
I don’t need to have any personal respect for some of their beliefs to accept that many “white Christians feel mocked and threatened” for holding them. I can understand why they enjoy having the world’s most powerful man mock and threaten those they fear and resent. What I find harder to accept is that they’ll take this help when it comes tied to a man whose entire life has mocked and disrespected the values of the Christian faith.
I would think that biblical literalists would be particularly unforgiving of Trump’s disrespect for the sanctity of marriage. They would not approve of the way that he defrauds vulnerable people by offering bogus services or refusing to honor contracts with small businessmen. They might even object to the way he seeks to deny asylum to those in need. When it comes to the Ten Commandments, Trump is in comical violation, as all he does is covet and build idols, bear false witness, and commit adultery. He takes the Lord’s name in vain quite a bit, too.
It’s not perplexing to me that Christians have a multitude of beliefs that don’t all come together as a uniform and internally logical system. But I do notice what is negotiable and what is not. With evangelicals, not much is supposed to be negotiable, but it turns out that the truth is almost the complete opposite. You can be the worst, most disrespectful person towards the actual tenets of the faith so long as you insult and belittle the people who don’t share the faith.
I’m not one to say what Christians should and shouldn’t believe or how they should or shouldn’t feel, but we pretty much teach our children not to behave like Trump. We don’t need our leaders and representatives to be saints, but if we’re saying we’re concerned about other people’s personal morals, a good place to start is with having a leader who exemplifies what we want to impart to our children: be honest, be kind, be humble, help those in need, set a good example. The Obamas would be popular with evangelicals if these were the things that were most important to them. Instead, their number one priority is having someone willing to lie and be mean who is working on their behalf.
I have a much easier time respecting the Christian Right’s religious views than their political decisions, so I guess they’ll love it if the president singles me out for mockery.