The country is poised to roll back decades of progress on gay and women’s rights in order to placate a radical far-right religious agenda. And the unlikely vehicle for this reactionary movement is Donald Trump.
I suppose I’m addressing here the moderates, independents, and libertarians who don’t care what consenting adults do behind closed doors, the non-religious or non-Christian voters who don’t want their children’s education or daughter’s health to be circumscribed by what’s in the Bible, or anyone who recoiled at the revival tent campaigns of, say, Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee.
I imagine many such voters taking comfort in the fact that, far from representing some 21st century reboot of the Great Awakening, Trump comes across as an emissary of profane, urban pragmatism. After all, he is on record supporting a woman’s right to a legal abortion, defending marriage equality, and shrugging off any problems he might have with transgender people in public bathrooms.
On the campaign trail, Trump was a secular totem of material wealth, a brashly irreligious candidate compared to the Republican contenders who made their Christian faith cornerstones of their campaigns. Bobby Jindal signed off one debate by proclaiming, “As Christians we believe that the tomb is empty,” while Trump started one by bragging about the size of his penis. “Were your treasures stored up on Earth or in heaven?” Marco Rubio asked in one of his campaign ads; Trump’s implied response, which he issued at basically every rally, was, “I’m really rich.”
His pandering to evangelicals during the primary was transparent, cynical, and vacuous. His floundering attempt to be perceived as tough on abortion led him to make statements so outrageous and misinformed that even pro-life conservatives said he’d gone too far. He boasted that the Bible was his favorite book, but couldn’t name his favorite part. He stood at a podium at the Baptist Liberty University and said “Two Corinthians” (and subsequently blamed an evangelical for his flub).
So I agree that, at first glance, Trump would seem to be a most unlikely inheritor of the Moral Majority mantle and perhaps the last person to usher in an age of Handmaid’s Tale-esque American theocracy. And yet, in Trump, the radical Religious Right has found an ideological vacuum that they have enthusiastically filled in exchange for their support in November.
“Trump managed to win the primary without a lot of support from Religious Right leaders, but he knows that he needs their help to overcome some evangelicals’ doubts about him and get the kind of turnout he needs from this crucial part of the Republican base,” said Peter Montgomery, senior fellow at People For the American Way.
Perhaps making up for lost time, Trump has spent the weeks since securing his party’s nomination assiduously courting the support of the Religious Right. This included genuflecting to such luminaries of conservative Christian activism as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and Jerry Falwell Jr., who was one of the first evangelicals to hitch his wagon to the Trump train. (Perkins, like many evangelicals, backed Cruz in the primary.)
With Trump’s tacit blessing, the Republican platform became the most socially conservative it has ever been in its history. It is replete with uniquely strident language opposed to LGBT rights. The platform specifically includes a pledge to countermand the recent Supreme Court decisions enshrining marriage equality, namely U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which held in 2015 that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. Furthermore, in his role as a Republican delegate, Perkins added provisions endorsing parents’ right to use discredited conversion therapies on their children to “cure” them of being LGBT.
The sole openly gay Republican on the drafting committee, a Washington D.C. delegate named Rachel Hoff, tried to insert language into the platform that acknowledged LGBT people. When the effort failed, she reportedly fought back tears as she told the committee, “All I ask today is that you include me and people like me.” But the GOP was “hell bent on doubling down on anti-gay language in the platform,” said Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans. In a subsequent letter to the group’s members, Angelo wrote “This isn’t my GOP, and I know it’s not yours either. Heck, it’s not even Donald Trump’s!”
It is now.
“He let them have their way with the platform on LGBT issues; he has promised them the Supreme Court of their dreams; and he pledged to get rid of the law against electoral politicking by churches,” Montgomery said, referring to the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the federal tax code, which prohibits churches and other nonprofits from endorsing and opposing political candidates.
In addition to LGBT issues, the platform reaffirms the party’s opposition to legal abortion even in the case of rape or when the health of the mother is at stake; it argues for introducing the Bible into public schools; it makes explicit appeals to a higher power that precedes the Constitution; and it wants to enshrine the conservative gloss on “religious liberty” as immune to judicial interpretation and even from any subsequent constitutional amendments. (This echoes the tack of the First Amendment Defense Act, which is backed by Republicans in Congress.)
When Fox’s Bret Baier asked Trump to account for the fact that the GOP platform was far more more socially conservative than he was, Trump shrugged it off. “Just so you understand — no platform — I am a representative of the party. Many of the things on that platform has been amazing! In fact some of them I was really surprised that we won, including very strong borders, et cetera et cetera. I mean, we won. I think what’s happening with the platform is very good. Do I agree with everything? Nobody ever has,” he said.
In other words, Trump does not care what social conservative agendas are pursued on his watch.
And that makes the selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence all the more disquieting. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Trump’s campaign promised Ohio Gov. John Kasich carte blanche to run domestic and foreign policy for Trump’s administration, should he join the ticket and be elected VP. (And what would Trump, the nominal President, spend his time doing? Why, “Making America great again,” Donald Jr. reportedly said.) Is there any reason to doubt that Pence was offered the same freedom?
If Trump is a far cry from the image of a classic evangelical conservative, Pence is the poster child. He has often called himself “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” He came under nationwide scrutiny last year after he backed a controversial “religious freedom” bill, which gave businesses latitude to flout civil rights statutes. It was only after a backlash from the Indiana business community that he supported a bill with softened language to make clear that the law did not permit discrimination against LGBT people.
Pence also signed into law one of the most draconian anti-choice bills in the country, an expansive collection of rules and provisions designed to obstruct access to a legal abortion. A federal judge ultimately ruled that the law was unconstitutional and blocked it before it went into effect. Luckily for the anti-choice lobby, the Trump-Pence ticket will surely appoint a dream team of conservative Justices to the nation’s highest court to make sure that never happens again.
Ultimately, the Religious Right is untroubled by Trump’s crass secularism, multiple affairs and divorces, erratic record on social issues, and patent illiteracy with Christianity. They are a political movement in search of political power. Trump has already made clear his intention to turn over the reins to them. And so: In Trump they trust.
To evangelicals eager to chip away at the wall between church and state, this is undoubtedly welcome news. To everyone else, it should be deeply troubling.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.