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.