Many headlines trumpeting Donald Trump’s victory in the Nevada Republican caucuses credit voters’ anger with the federal government. But the real lesson of Trump’s rise is not about fury, but faith. Trump's momentum reveals that the conservative Christian voting bloc is a splintered remnant of the kingmaking machine it once was. And perhaps this is good news both for Trump for and the conservative Christian movement itself.
Leading up to the Iowa caucus, Tony Perkins of Family Research Council helped corral old-guard religious-right leaders for a secret meeting to determine which nominee they would support for president. Texas Senator Ted Cruz narrowly beat out Florida’s Marco Rubio.
Thirty years ago, such a blessing would have sealed the nomination. But not today.
One kind of conservative Christian—described by Yahoo’s Jon Ward as “most likely to be under 45 and less politically active than the Cruz evangelical”—instead threw their support to Marco Rubio. Another faction of the faithful—ordinary evangelicals and the more God-and-country type of Christians—rallied behind real-estate mogul Donald Trump. This group included Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and son of one of the founders of the religious-right movement.
To an outsider, conservative Christian support for these three candidates appears to be something of a draw. But no candidate has endured more resistance from prominent Christian leaders than The Donald. The editor of the leading evangelical magazine in America, Christianity Today, declared “Trump threatens to Trump the Gospel.” R.R. Reno, the editor of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things, warned America may be heading for a “Trumpaggedon.” Russell Moore, the political spokesperson for the 15-million member Southern Baptist Convention took to the opinion pages of The New York Times to dissuade evangelicals from supporting Trump.
Again, such fierce opposition from so many evangelical leaders just three decades ago would have shipwrecked a Republican candidate for president. But not today.
Though Ted Cruz won the heavily evangelical Iowa caucuses, his win was so narrow that Trump walked away with seven delgates to Cruz’s eight. In New Hampshire, Trump won a sweeping victory including among evangelical Christians. In South Carolina, Trump won a plurality of conservative Christian votes, beating out Rubio and Cruz yet again. And in Nevada, Trump captured four out of 10 evangelical voters—his best showing to date.
Despite a torrent of resistance from conservative Christian leaders, Trump has managed to garner increasing support from evangelicals in the Midwest, West, Northeast, and even the Deep South. While religious and political commentators have been predicting the demise of the religious right for years, Trump’s collective wins demonstrate the downfall has finally occurred. Not because the movement itself has disintegrated, but because the movement has become so fractured it can no longer effectively mobilize itself.
When the religious right first emerged, it led with politics, rather than theology. That movement has given birth to a new generation of conservatives who vote accordingly. While some in the movement bemoan the Trump supporters within their ranks, these are the ideological offspring of the religious right’s first wave. Partisan preachers politicized the movement and now reap the whirlwind.
Though evangelicals still comprises as much as a quarter of the total American electorate, their various theological, political, and social fissures have widened in the 21st century. As the movement has splintered, so has its leadership.
Thirty-six years ago, the religious right gained national attention when it helped elect Ronald Reagan as president of the United States. The conservative Christian movement during those years was headed by a handful of organizations and leaders—Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, James Dobson and Focus on the Family. These leaders stood together, aligned their advocacy, and effectively mobilized their constituencies behind chosen candidates.
Today, there is not one single leader of the evangelical movement or even an oligarchy of a handful or so. There are dozens of leaders within the movement who hold to views that range across a political spectrum. They fight among themselves and across evangelical lines. According to The Hill, even the secret coterie who recently voted to support Cruz is now considering shifting their support to Rubio—further evidence that even the most mobilized subset is divided.
And today’s conservative Christian leaders don’t hold the same level of sway over the faithful either. So evangelicalism is now faced with a situation in which there are more leaders with less loyal followings. Not exactly a recipe for wielding political power.
This development has been felt since at least the 2012 Republican primaries. That year, 150 religious right leaders gathered in Texas in a meeting similar to the one where Cruz was chosen this year. They agreed to endorse Rick Santorum, but in the South Carolina primaries a week later, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney split two-thirds of the states evangelical vote. In 2008, the politically moderate John McCain won the Republican nomination despite having what some believed to be “an evangelical problem.” As the late Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Many evangelical Christians will likely blame their waning influence on the “moral decline” of America or the influence of the “liberal mainstream media” or other scapegoats that fit the narratives they often spin. But the truth is much simpler. Conservative Christians lack strong moral leaders who can create a unifying political vision.
This is all good news for Donald Trump who has stepped into that vacuum and hopes to walk through it all the way to the White House. But it could also be good news for conservative Christian movement in America. Evangelicalism has languished under partisan political captivity since at least the 1980s, leading to an exodus of young people and less partisan Christians who seek a faith that is more than a handmaiden to Republican politics. Though a Trump nomination may damage the GOP and America itself, it may finally undo the damage done by religious-right leaders decades ago.