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.