Writing in the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne ‘worries’ that GOP may be losing its religion
But especially among Republicans, religious issues have taken a back seat in the party’s discourse and religious leaders are playing a diminished role in the 2016 campaign.
This was not how things started. Many had the remarkable experience during the primaries of hearing Ted Cruz declare to his followers: “Awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from the abyss.” You can’t get much more religious than that.
But Cruz failed to awaken and unite religious conservatives, a reason that Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee. The split this year among conservative evangelical Christians was profound.
On the one side were those, mainly Cruz supporters, still voting on abortion, same-sex marriage and other moral issues. On the other were those among the faithful so angry about the direction of the country and what they saw as the marginalization of conservative Christianity in public life that they opted for the strongman who could push back hard against their enemies.
Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, spoke for the second group. “Most Americans know we are in a mess,” Jeffress declared, “and as they look at Donald Trump, they believe he is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly.”
… in imagining that Trump will somehow reverse the trend, Christian conservatives are taking a big risk. As he has on so much else, Trump has been entirely opportunistic in his approach to religion. By some measures, he’s running the most secular Republican campaign since the 1970s.
… Trump’s comments on immigrants, political correctness and Muslims suggest he is far more anti-multicultural than he is pro-religion. He talks more about symbols and public icons than about faith or morals. “If I become president, we’re gonna be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store,” he said last October. “The ‘Happy Holiday’ you can leave over there at the corner.”
It’s an empty promise, since no president could force “every store” in America to give a Christian greeting. But the fact that he chose to make the media-driven Christmas wars a centerpiece of his argument to Christians shows that his real engagement is with identity politics, not religion.
In a way, yes. But there’s not necessarily a contradiction between the two. I cannot speak for Evangelicals, of course, but I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to think that that label covers a wide range, from the deeply devout to those who use it as some sort of broader ‘tribal’ or social-cultural identifier.
Turn to another Washington Post article (by the appropriately named Geoffrey Layman) back in March and we find this:
The key to understanding Trump’s support among evangelicals is to realize that some evangelicals’ commitment to the faith is shaky, too. Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church. In short, the evangelicals supporting Trump are not the same evangelicals who have traditionally comprised the Christian Right and supported cultural warriors such as Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz.
But evangelical support for Cruz and Carson, who are grouped because of their close association with evangelicalism and moral conservatism, was higher among those who attend church more frequently. In contrast, Trump did best among evangelicals who are never, almost never or only occasionally in the pews.
These aren’t the only evangelical Trump supporters. He still attracted a plurality of those who attend at least every Sunday. Nevertheless, Trump performed worse among devout evangelicals than among non-devout evangelicals.
Why is this? A considerable literature on religion and politics suggests that evangelicals who attend worship services irregularly tend to have less formal education and lower incomes than more devout evangelicals. They tend to care less about moral and cultural issues and vote more on the basis of economic concerns. In some cases, they are less tolerant of religious and racial minority groups….
Infrequent church attenders cared less about the traditional Christian Right policy agenda and more about Trump’s agenda of creating jobs, improving Americans’ economic welfare and stemming the tide on immigration. The graph below shows that infrequent church attenders were less likely to prioritize two “moral and cultural” issues (abortion and “morality and religion in society”) as one of their four most important issues. But they cared much more about jobs and economic welfare.
Similarly, evangelicals who attend church less frequently are also less socially conservative. They are less likely to favor religious exemptions to the federal requirement that employers cover prescription birth control in their health-insurance plans. They also are less enthusiastic about allowing business owners to refuse on religious grounds to provide services for same-sex weddings. Trump’s lack of commitment to social conservatism may not bother these less-observant evangelicals very much…
Even allowing for this distinction (which sounds convincing), it would be wrong to assume that the more devout Evangelicals will not opt for Trump this fall. How they decide to vote when there is a Santorum or a Cruz on the ballot is one thing, but when the alternative is Hillary Clinton the calculation could be very different.
As to the longer-term influence of the Trump candidacy on the internal politics of the Republican Party, we’ll have to see, not least to see whether he wins (unlikely, in my view, but I’m not known for the accuracy of my predictions concerning Trump). If I had to guess, the religious right (loosely defined) will continue to remain a powerful force in the GOP, although one that is deferred to a little less and understood somewhat better.
That’s no bad thing.