The Religious Right's Donald Trump Dilemma

The Republican candidate’s speech at Liberty University divides evangelical leaders, revealing a split in the so-called values vote.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

There were many unbelievable moments over the course of Donald Trump’s speech on Monday at Liberty University, the evangelical college founded by the late Jerry Falwell.

There was his citation of the Bible: “Two Corinthians 3-17, that's the whole ball game ... Is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that's the one you like.”

There was the part where he ranked his favorite books, calling The Art of the Deal “a deep, deep second to the Bible. The Bible is the best. The Bible blows it away.”

There was his pledge to win the war on Christmas: “If I'm president, you're going to see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores, believe me.”

And there was a delightful new twist on his oft-repeated claim that Americans will be overwhelmed with winning: “If I'm president, you'll say, ‘Please, Mr. President, we're winning too much. I can't stand it. Can't we have a loss?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, we're going to keep winning.’”

But the most breathtaking part of Trump’s appearance may have come before he spoke. It was his introduction by Jerry Falwell Jr., the school's president and son of its founder, who praised the thrice-married, socially liberal tycoon at great length.

Falwell lauded Trump’s generosity and worldly success; he called him “a breath of fresh air.” He compared Trump to his father and to Martin Luther King Jr., who also “spoke the truth, no matter how unpopular.” Trump, he said, “cannot be bought—he is not a puppet on a string like many other candidates.” Though Falwell’s comments were, he said, not an endorsement, he repeatedly imagined a Trump presidency as a boon to America. “In my opinion,” he said, “Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”

Many evangelical leaders, however, do not share Falwell’s affection. As Trump was speaking, Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist leader, issued a stream of disapproving tweets: “Trading in the gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery,” Moore wrote. He added: “This would be hilarious if it weren't so counter to the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The evangelical writer Matthew Lee Anderson recently compared Trump to a prosperity-gospel televangelist—and indeed, Trump’s evangelical outreach has included a meeting with prosperity-gospel preachers. Many of the Liberty students, whose attendance at Trump’s speech was required, were reportedly cool to his bombast. As Liberty alum Jonathan Merritt put it, “If evangelical engagement with politics is driven by a politics and morality, Trump may be facing an impossible task.” (The Falwells, with their history of racism and misogyny, have often spoken for a branch of the religious right that more thoughtful leaders find distasteful, Merritt noted; in this, Jerry Falwell Jr.’s comparison of Trump to his father may not have been so far off.)

Nonetheless, Trump is currently leading among white evangelical voters, many of whom are willing to forgive his theological lapses in favor of other appealing qualities. “Spirituality is a big issue, but we need somebody who’s strong,” a Kentuckian named Charles E. Henderson told The New York Times. “Lots of times the preachers and everything, they have a tendency to be just a little bit weak.” Trump’s success with this group exposes a rift in the religious right akin to the one in the broader GOP: Its leaders don’t necessarily speak for their followers. As Matthew Lee Anderson put it, “While the evangelical leadership has gone other directions, the laity has its own attitudes and impulses—and those have more in common with Trump than most evangelical leaders would like to admit.” Leaders like Moore, who urge tolerance and compassion for gays, immigrants, and refugees, may be out of step with elements of the evangelical rank and file.

In this as in so much else, Trump’s candidacy will prove clarifying. The Republican Party has relied on “values voters” for decades without, in their view, faithfully representing their interests. As Falwell put it in his introduction of Trump: “For decades, conservatives and evangelicals have chosen the political candidates who have told us what we wanted to hear on social, religious, and political issues, only to be betrayed by these same candidates after they were elected.” In Trump, these voters see someone who shares their true priorities.