The Religious Right's Come-to-Jesus About Trump

Evangelicals may "suck it up and go to Trump," but first they're reckoning with what his nomination means

Evangelical leader Russell Moore recently wrote that Donald Trump's campaign "is forcing American Christians to grapple with some scary realities that will have implications for years to come." Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Very early Monday morning, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, as is his custom, delivered an insult-by-tweet — one that would have been a heresy in politics as we knew it pre-Trump. But in our Trumpian world, it was just another data point in his long march to bring down the Republican Party — and the religious right.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a frequent Trump critic, had penned an op-ed in the New York Times Friday, arguing Trump's campaign "is forcing American Christians to grapple with some scary realities that will have implications for years to come." Apparently in reaction to Moore's piece, which asserted that evangelicals reject racism and nativism, Trump tweeted that Moore "is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!"

This wouldn't be the first time, of course, that Trump had used social media to insult a prominent conservative. But Trump's attack on Moore — his attempt to simultaneously question Moore's sincerity and standing to speak for American evangelicals — is yet another piece of evidence that Trump, in his willingness to blow up the GOP, is game to blow up its most reliable voting bloc as well.

It was a classic Trump move: pick at a scab, exploit a weakness that's an open secret. In this case, the weakness was a power vacuum among leaders of religious conservatives, one that led to a paralysis and inability to staunch Trump's ascent to the nomination of a party that has long catered to, and depended on, the votes of white evangelicals.

Trump has been bragging about his evangelical support since he began receiving favorable coverage, dating back to last summer, at the Christian Broadcasting Network — the media empire launched by Pat Robertson, whose Christian Coalition pioneered the evangelical get-out-the-vote strategy. But despite besting Ted Cruz among evangelical voters in several states, including in the Deep South, Trump faces a divided religious right. That means it will be harder for him to mobilize these otherwise reliable Republican voters in November. But it also means religious right leaders will have to clean up the detritus Trump has made of their movement.

"What we're watching is a fundamental transformation of one of the two political parties," says Denny Burk, a professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College, part of the SBC's flagship seminary, and a Moore admirer. It is not clear "what's going to emerge on the other side," says Burk, and "I don't think social conservatives have a representative in this fight."

Trump "might get 50 percent of the evangelical vote," predicts Tobin Grant, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University who writes frequently about evangelicals and politics. That's a far cry from Mitt Romney's 79 percent of this voting bloc in 2012, which wasn't enough for him to win the presidency.

"I think that Trump is uniquely disqualified," says Burk. "He has done some egregious race-baiting, he has said that when he becomes president, he will encourage the United States military to commit war crimes. I have seen with my own eyes him encourage violence." Trump is, Burk says, "a unique threat to our constitutional order."

Burk and his evangelical allies pull no punches about their fears of Trump's neo-fascist proclivities. The writer Matthew Anderson, a leading evangelical intellectual, has referred to Republicans supporting Trump as "Vichy Republicans."

But many of these religious conservatives won't vote for Clinton, either, putting the #NeverTrump camp in a bind. For example, Charmaine Yoest, former president of the anti-abortion group Americans United for Life, uses Twitter to promote a #NeverHillary hashtag. (Yoest did not respond to an interview request for this article.) Other anti-abortion leaders have signaled their willingness to support Trump over Clinton.

In a last-ditch effort to fend off both Trump and Clinton, a "master group" of about 40 conservative activists are busy plotting a counter-Trump move, says Erick Erickson, the conservative activist, pundit and founder of the website The Resurgent. "More than half" of this group is religious conservatives, Erickson says, and includes evangelical GOP donors. These activists "didn't like Trump to begin with and haven't liked what he has done going forward," Erickson tells Rolling Stone, "including the Moore tweet." Those sort of attacks by Trump, says Erickson, "further emboldens a lot of them" to try to beat Trump — somehow.

According to Erickson, the group seeking a Trump alternative is equally opposed to Trump and Clinton, but he acknowledges all of the group's available options are a long shot. In one scenario, he says, a third-party candidate — a "sacrificial lamb," possibly — would aim not necessarily to win the general election, but to deprive both Trump and Clinton of the requisite 270 electoral votes, thus throwing the election to the (presumably still Republican-controlled) House. "It is exceedingly complicated and there are no guarantees," Erickson says. The lack of certainty, of course, includes the unknown Trump effect on down-ballot races.

What's more, this third-party effort is running out of time, owing to ballot access deadlines in many states. Erickson says that while there are donors willing to support a third-party ticket, efforts to recruit a candidate, such as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, an outspoken Trump critic, have thus far been unsuccessful. "Everyone says they want to have a definitive answer by the end of this month," Erickson says of the pro-third-party group.

But running a third-party candidate, or leaning on delegates to back off of supporting Trump at the convention, won't resolve the underlying tension that landed religious conservatives in this position in the first place. There is little doubt, even among evangelicals, that Moore, the telegenic public face of evangelicalism's largest denomination, does not represent all evangelicals nor even all Southern Baptists. Moore ascended to his position after the 2013 retirement of his predecessor, Richard Land, following controversial racist comments and plagiarism charges. Moore was thought to be the new face of the denomination — its Pope Francis, if you will — not backing down from its opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage, but adding issues like immigration to the agenda. (Through a spokesperson, Moore declined to comment for this story.)

But Moore has been out in front of rank-and-file evangelicals in supporting immigration reform. "On immigration," says Grant, "there's no question" that Moore is "definitely to the left of people in the pews."

Other evangelicals also question whether Moore — who, like his predecessor, is a frequent go-to guy for reporters — demonstrated sufficient influence to mobilize evangelicals to robustly oppose Trump. "Look at Russell Moore. He's an influential guy within the Southern Baptist Convention. He's been all over Trump. Where are his followers?" asks Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at the evangelical Grove City College and a widely published critic of the Christian nationalist flank of evangelicalism, which sits to Moore's right as well. "There are not enough of them, apparently, to offset this Trump tide. There's a little bit of rejection of leadership at the party level and at the religious level."

Trump not only sidelined the culture war issues, he put immigration at the forefront of his campaign, thus testing, and ultimately undermining, Moore's claim that evangelicals were turning away from nativism and xenophobia. Even more fatefully, though, Trump recognized that neither the Moore camp, nor even the proudly Christian nationalist Ted Cruz, could overcome his flair for stoking the conspiratorial tendencies of some segments of the religious right.

"The religious right failed because our leaders were insane half the time," says John Mark Reynolds, a Republican philosopher and writer who, unlike many of his fellow travelers, may end up voting for Clinton. "We allowed millions and millions of Americans to decide there's a cabal of super-rich people who control everything and they don't have rights," laments Reynolds, who recently founded the Saint Constantine School in Houston, Texas. "Evangelicals I know who are for Trump are convinced he is fighting the new world order."

"Do not underestimate the number of people motivated by conspiracy thinking," Reynolds adds.

In the Republican Party, says John "Mac" Stipanovich, a Florida party lawyer and lobbyist who has become a ubiquitous Trump critic in the media, there has "always been a not insignificant minority outside mainstream" who are "anti-government, paranoid, low-information kind of people. They will always be with us."

It appears that Trump has exploited that group to his advantage, although obviously they do not comprise the entirety of his evangelical support. Still, "I've been horrified by the number of [college-educated] people I personally know who will accept that Rafael Cruz may have helped kill John F. Kennedy because they no longer believe anyone in authority," says Reynolds.

Erickson says that in the end he suspects many evangelicals "will suck it up and go to Trump," although he believes that will be insufficient for Trump to capture the White House. "It's a no-win situation for Trump and everyone else."