The Religious Right Is in a Battle for Souls, and It’s Losing to Donald Trump

What’s the mood among influential Christians? Sad! 

Donald Trump.
Donald Trump joins Jerry Lamon Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, on Jan. 30, 2016 in Davenport, Iowa.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Twice a year, the Ethics and Public Policy Center brings a bunch of journalists to Miami to talk about religion, society, and politics. This week’s gathering, which kicked off two days before Florida’s Republican presidential primary, is grim. Sen. Marco Rubio, the candidate favored by many of the pundits, reporters, and organizers on hand, is facing extinction. Donald Trump, who is poised to deliver Rubio’s death blow, is on track to win the Republican nomination. 

I’ve been coming to this conference, the Faith Angle Forum, for years. I’ve never seen anything like this mood. These people—evangelicals, Bible-believing reporters, conservative media stars—detest Trump. They feel him tightening his grip on their people and their party. The moderates already feel lost. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who has been preaching compromise to hardline Republicans, is here. He laments at one point, “I’m representing a political ideology that’s dead.” The Christians, meanwhile, sense that they’re in a battle for souls, and they’re losing.

Three weeks ago, when Rubio was rising in the polls, a pro-Rubio super PAC likened the young senator’s battle against Trump to the struggle between Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. The analogy has proved apt, but not in the way Rubio’s supporters intended. Everyone at the Faith Angle Forum is thinking about you-know-who, even when they don’t say his name. At breakfast, an attendee explains to me why Hillary Clinton lavished excessive praise on Nancy Reagan: because in the current context—meaningful glance—people are looking back at the Reagans with nostalgia. At lunch, Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard confesses that his book on Jack Kemp, the Republican presidential candidate who tried to broaden conservatism by using the free market to solve the problems of minorities, isn’t selling so well in the present climate.

Most of the people who come to Faith Angle are theologically or politically conservative. But they’re not authoritarian. In Monday’s opening presentation, Jamie Smith, a philosopher at Calvin College, dismisses simplistic religion by observing, “As soon as you have cable, fundamentalism is dead.” Michael Cromartie, the conference organizer, punctures sectarianism with a joke: “The problem with theocracy is, everybody wants to be Theo.”

These people oppose Trump for many reasons. They condemn his viciousness. They scorn his arrogance. They reject his “nativism, religious prejudice and misogyny.” In side conversations, one conservative journalist says Trump is a menace to the First Amendment, and another excoriates Trump’s “proto-fascism.” During the conference, the Deseret News—whose editor, Paul Edwards, is a regular at Faith Angle—publishes an editorial denouncing Trump’s “hate-filled diatribes against Muslims and undocumented immigrants.” The editorial reminds Mormons that “incitement to mob violence” once targeted and killed their own leaders.

Many of the attendees and organizers are evangelical. For them, Trump’s support among self-identified evangelicals is an embarrassment and a puzzle. Smith suggests that many of these voters are only “nominal evangelicals.” They say they’re evangelical because in South Carolina and similar states, that’s what you’re supposed to say. But they don’t live a Christian life or even go to church. According to Cromartie, Trump’s support among putative evangelicals plummets when the sample is narrowed to those who attend church at least once a week.

It sounds as though Smith and Cromartie are just making excuses. But they go further. Smith calls out the “straight-up xenophobia” among Trump’s supporters. “Their religious identity is a stalking horse or code for something else,” he argues. Evangelicalism, Smith suggests, can be used as a fig leaf to “cover your American nationalism.” He accepts pastoral responsibility to confront the underlying prejudice, through “theological correction within the Christian community.”

One thing you’ll learn from a conference like this one, if you didn’t know it already, is that there are thoughtful, responsible people in evangelical circles and in the right-wing media world. These people aren’t yahoos. They don’t even hang out with yahoos. But that’s part of the problem: How can they reach the yahoos when they don’t know them? Smith pokes fun at secular liberals who have no contact with devout Christians, but he seems totally unfamiliar with Trump’s evangelicals. In a side conversation afterward, a conservative writer makes a similar confession: She interviews people at churches, but Trump’s people don’t go to church, so she doesn’t meet them. Liberals, it turns out, aren’t the only elites who are out of touch with today’s angry white voters.

A pall of despair seems to have descended on the attendees here. A few are sympathetic to Sen. Ted Cruz, but most prefer Rubio, and they’re bracing for his destruction. In a conversation at the bar after dinner, several are interested in what the GOP could become if, instead of turning to Trump’s anger or Cruz’s absolutism, it pursued a more hopeful message and a more ethnically diverse coalition. The conversation turns to the final days of the South Carolina primary, when Gov. Nikki Haley, a daughter of Indian immigrants, and Sen. Tim Scott, a black American, campaigned with Rubio across the state.

Today, that moment seems lost. When we gathered here in Miami a year ago, more than a dozen Republicans were lining up to run for president, and I told Cromartie to bet on Rubio. When we convened again in the fall, Rubio was surging, and I told Cromartie what a lucky dog he was that his guy would be the nominee. This time, I told Cromartie that unless six pollsters were wrong by 20 percentage points, Rubio was toast. Cromartie was crestfallen.

What depresses the Faith Angle crowd isn’t just the perversion of Christianity or the demise of Republican sanity. It’s the emergence of sycophants such as Gov. Chris Christie, Ben Carson, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., who are luring conservatives and evangelicals to Trump. The conference attendees view these men as fools or sellouts. Kathleen Parker, a Washington Post columnist who often comes to Faith Angle, says they must pay: “The only real strength of Trump’s candidacy has been to expose and shame the cowards and opportunists among us. Remember them.”

Maybe she’s right. Maybe the 2016 campaign will turn out like the Harry Potter stories: The Dark Lord rises, the Death Eaters come out to embrace him, and in the end, he is defeated, and his acolytes are punished. But maybe, in real life, where we have no magic wands, the cowards and opportunists win.