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Politics and Religion: Trump and the Evangelicals

02/11/2016 11:50 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2016

After New Hampshire

The Evangelical Seduction Interruptus

Already in Iowa the evangelical movement toward Donald Trump was underway, for better or worse.

Evangelicals were roughly 66 percent of the Iowa Republican caucus vote. In New Hampshire, the share in Tuesday's election was about 22 percent, or about one-third the impact. With Iowa out of the way, Donald Trump became more natural in his New Hampshire campaigning, yet he upped up the ante on profanity that did not play well in Iowa and could haunt him among evangelicals down the line, particularly in South Carolina.

Now that the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are history, we should discuss the impact of the evangelical voters; these "values voters," though in future states a fraction of their Iowa share, remain an important constituency.

When Trump announced for president last year, many pundits expected him to skip the Iowa caucuses. For Iowa's evangelical voters, Trump wasn't exactly the candidate from central casting. His second place showing, impressive by historical standards and especially for a "New York values" guy, disappointed, mainly because Trump read his own clippings and foolishly raised expectations. With Trump's New Hampshire win, he remains formidable, though hardly inevitable.

Evangelicals are most important in Iowa but hardly trivial in other states, especially South Carolina. In a narrower Republican field, Trump does not have to carry this vote, but he needs to do respectable. Near the end of the Iowa campaign, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) used Twitter to ask Trump if he had "repented to harmed children and spouse" for extramarital affairs, perhaps a preview of the coming anti-Trump campaign among social conservatives in South Carolina.

"I really appreciate the support given to me by the evangelicals," Donald Trump said in a 30-second Iowa ad released two days before the February 1 caucuses and also appearing on Facebook, an ad that might play well in South Carolina. "They've been incredible. Every poll says how well I'm doing with them. And you know, my mother gave me this bible, this very bible many years ago." Trump then holds it up, open to the "Holy Bible" title page. "In fact, it's her writing here," he adds, as he flips to the first page. "She wrote the name and my address and it's just very special to me. And, again I want to thank the evangelicals." Speaking with conviction, he ends with emphasis and impact: "I will never let you down." The spot cuts to the words, all caps, white on black: "TRUMP: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"

How many of the other candidates could do a sales pitch with the Bible? Rand Paul, possibly after his last debate performance in Iowa but he was on stage only because Trump's boycott opened a slot, and he has now suspended his campaign. Huckabee or Santorum? Maybe, but even Iowa voters saw these two past winners in their state as anachronistic. And now they are both are out of the race. Scott Walker, a favorite in early, meaningless Iowa polling, dropped out long ago, partly because he was not a closer on camera.

Ted Cruz? His roots in this constituency are deep, yet with a similar ad script, Cruz might have seemed robotic. Even in his lengthy Iowa victory speech, Cruz did not approach intimacy. In contrast, Trump was acting but seemed natural. For several days in Iowa, Cruz was busy fending off inconclusive but unrelenting attacks on his "Canadian citizenship" -- Trump planting doubt provided a further excuse for some social conservatives to rationalize Trump. The high-tech Cruz campaign even made a tactical blunder a few days before the Iowa caucus with its controversial mailing to drive voter turnout. The mailing implied the targeted voter had committed a "voting violation" -- a deception that turned off a few evangelicals. The maneuver also allowed the Iowa secretary of state to attack Cruz for misleading voters. Can anyone imagine salesman Trump, always a couple of moves ahead in the chess game, authorizing such a blowback mailing?

But who cares, the Cruz people will properly note, their guy placed first. But this is due largely to his tremendous investment of time and money, and an incredible "ground game" volunteer operation. Political novice Trump mistakenly assumed he could win Iowa without a full-scale volunteer operation. Finally, Trump's refusal to appear at the final debate probably hurt him among undecided voters, who broke considerably for Rubio and Cruz, not for Trump.

Months ago Carson, an impressive man with perhaps the most potential, especially with evangelicals, was on track to win Iowa, but his momentum peaked with lackluster debate performances. Weeks ago Carson's campaign was in disarray with staff firings or resignations, and then, after Iowa, more downsizing. By contrast, Trump's do-it-yourself campaign has seemed to be working. Trump makes his decisions unilaterally, and his political instincts have mocked the conventional wisdom. Some evangelicals projected into Trump's rebellious campaign a rebellion against the secular culture. When the votes were counted in Iowa, Carson -- who months ago I would have expected to win Iowa -- helped split the evangelical vote and came in fourth. Carson was reduced to raising the specter of a dirty trick by the Cruz camp, spreading a press report, while some caucus voting was still going on, that Carson was getting out of the rate. And Trump orchestrated the escalation of the Cruz-Carson feud. It remains to be seen whether the fallout will hurt Cruz down the line.

Trump's 30-second spot, tailored beautifully for Iowa and likely produced without all the anxiety, meetings, and conference calls of consultants, pollsters, and ad-makers, showcased the clarity of Trump's message. The simplicity of his delivery is further evidence why his potential for the general election cannot be underestimated.

This spot demonstrated how the much-maligned "talking head" is not obsolete. In an age where highly compensated hacks use "B" role or stock footage, or preside over a young editor showing off to tweak fast-moving meaningless computer graphics. This candidate can talk convincingly while he looks into the camera and connects to the viewer.

Whether well directed or self-directed, Trump come across as natural, even in a scripted spot, in contrast to his opponents. In Iowa, Cruz was anointed the consensus candidate against Trump. But Cruz often talks at you, while Trump usually talks to you. Projecting a level of intimacy on television is especially important for Trump to reach skeptical evangelical voters.

It's not simply that Trump is a salesman, or that the script is vintage Trump with the right messaging or the optimum punch line. Previously, Trump seemed like a braggart, with his obsessive boasting about poll numbers. This script made the evangelical voter feel he or she is part of a winning coalition of "evangelicals," thus making it even more socially acceptable to support Trump. And Trump's ending as he does the entire script, with the right emphasis, pacing, and hand features, is powerful: "I will never let you down."

It does not seem to matter to some pro-life voters that Trump has not given money or otherwise supported pro-life legislation. Actually, his public position until recently was pro-choice on account of, according to Trump, the "New York values" that Ted Cruz derided, only to have Trump during the debate outflank the collegiate forensics champion, discussing instead the values of heroic New Yorkers who coped with 9/11.

For internal campaign and media identification Trump's spot was titled "Christian values." What those values are was never spelled out. Expedient as it sounds, a stellar spot is one where each viewer favorably reads into it what he or she wants. There was no mention in this spot of the social issues that might divide a general electorate, nothing about what other candidates like past Iowa winners Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee favored for example, constitutional amendments to outlaw most abortions or to overturn the Supreme Court's same sex marriage ruling. Trump had cut a deal in Iowa, part of "dealing" in the primaries. If he were the party's nominee, there could be a new deal. The general election and the presidency are separable from, say, Iowa deal-making.

"Christian values" seem now for some, more than ever, whatever you think they are. After all, we have Christian egalitarians on the Left insisting that their faith requires income redistribution. Christian environmentalists assert their faith requires support of a global warming agenda. Still other Christians claim their faith requires that we admit large numbers of Syrian refugees. Why not at least cut Trump some slack and allow ambiguity? Isn't that better than saying Jesus would raise tax rates by a certain amount or require a specific mileage per gallon or admit to the U.S. a particular number of Muslims?

And what does it mean to say, as the closing words appear on screen in the ad, that Trump will make America great again. "Trump does not," one former U.S. Senator lamented to me, "seem to need to demonstrate how he would go about making America great again." "You can," Alice in Wonderland said, "make words mean so many different things." This skillful Trump "Christian values" ad was targeted at evangelicals in Iowa, an electorate that went for Santorum four years ago and Huckabee eight years ago. These two men are not simply deeply religious; they felt their faith should inform their public service. Though both added a blue collar appeal to their message this year, their basic past appeal centered on a panoply of social issues -- pro-life, pro-prayer in school, anti-same sex marriage, anti-stem cell research, Supreme Court appointments, among them.

Huckabee, Santorum et al. are also pro-Israel, for example saying that the U.S. should recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a question Trump initially flunked, before he clarified his position only after a briefing. Such an error would plague another candidate. Here's one difference: when Ben Carson made mistakes, his then top foreign policy adviser told the New York Times: "Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East." When Scott Walker was incoherent on foreign policy, his senior aide told the New York Times that "Scott is working on" coming across as "smart." The Trump campaign team is disciplined and loyal but cannot stand up to the candidate when he errs, such as sitting out the Iowa debate.

Trump's incredible outreach to evangelicals made inroads because Trump alone sets the agenda. Can you imagine what would happen to anyone on the Trump team who said, "No one has been able to explain evangelicals to Donald, but Donald is trying to come across to them as sincere."

That Santorum and Huckabee attended Trump's Iowa veterans rally showed not that they deeply care about veterans, they do. But more: (a) they had given up on their campaign for president; (b) they disliked Ted Cruz enough to give Trump a boost (c) they saw Trump as a winner; (d) they wanted to curry favor with Trump; and, most importantly, (e) it was socially acceptable for them to appear with a man that Cruz said embodies the dreaded "New York values" of the urban and decadent counterculture. By Iowa Caucus Day Huckabee was attacking Cruz, not Trump, for inconsistencies; the next day he suspended his campaign. Arguably, Cruz is closer on social issues to Santorum, but within days of the Iowa primary, Santorum dropped out in favor of Rubio.

After the veterans rally that Trump said raised $5 million, he said he would give a million. (If Trump had spent an extra million on an Iowa "ground game," maybe the results would have been different.) Measured against his net worth and income, perhaps Trump's charitable contributions do not rise to Christian tithing. But his generosity remains substantial and was a setup for the fortuitous disclosure that Ted Cruz has given little to charity. There's also the matter of competence: if Cruz knew for years he would almost certainly run for president, why not give more to charity to make himself look better? Trump may be the rich guy on the block, but he has street smarts.

His Iowa "Christian values" ad wasn't the first time that Trump used the Bible as a prop. More than four months ago he went to the Value Voters Summit, hosted last September in Washington by the Family Research Council. He brought the Bible on stage, but his reception was mixed. Last year Michael Farris, the enormously respected founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, and a long-time political activist among evangelical Christians, opined on his Facebook page: "I will never support Donald Trump. Republicans would never again be able to say that we value moral charter or family values if we support Donald Trump."

All that was then, this was now. What has changed among some top evangelicals?

There already was a disconnect between many of the long-time leaders of Christian political activism like Farris along with their colleagues at the Value Voters Summit last fall, and many self-described evangelical voters. Even by the end of last summer, Trump was making inroads among "voters of faith," and for reasons having little to do with these values voters. The Trump supporters among them were for The Donald for the same reason as others -- that he is strong, and a blunt, tough-talking, politically incorrect, self-funding patriot willing to take on The Establishment (not defined, even nebulously). Like George Orwell's "Room 101," The Establishment is, for each voter, the worst thing in the world.

Shortly after Trump announced last year, I heard from some long-time social conservatives who had been in the political trenches. In the past they pursued the "blemish" approach: when they were presented a conservative candidate for any office, they would find an ideological "blemish." Often a few "bad votes" in the Senate or the House were enough for disqualification. I was shocked that they were for Trump; even a Phyllis Schlafly protégé, who was deeply pro-life and, for as long as I can remember, was a litmus-tester on the issue, was now a diehard Trump fan. Could Phyllis Schlafly be far behind? She was not. With Trump, all the ideological hoops through which other candidates had to pass were gone. And for any of his past positions contrary to social conservatism, there was some variant of cognitive dissonance.

In the weeks leading up to the Iowa primary, what was once called the "Christian right" had opened its doors to Trump. It began within Iowa itself last year when some former supporters of Huckabee and Santorum, feeling the two former Iowa caucus winners were old news, moved not to Cruz or Carson, but to Trump. Chuck Laudner, Santorum's chairman in 2012, became Trump's state director.

And leading up to the Iowa caucus, Trump traveled to Liberty University in Lynchburg Virginia. At Liberty Trump had the right message: "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." But he famously flubbed his "Two Corinthians" to laughs from the audience, instead of "Second Corinthians." Comedian Steven Colbert joked, "The Mexicans are coming here into our country to steal our book of Jobs." Cruz would later joke, "Two Corinthians walk into a bar..." Trump blamed the credible Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, who wrote "2 Corinthians 3:17" in his suggested text for Trump. Perkins took responsibility as to "how it's written." But Perkins, who days later endorsed Cruz, then added: "It shows that he's not familiar with the Bible." Now that Cruz has won, Perkins speaks of the return of "values voters"; but if Trump had participated in the fateful Iowa debate, he might have received his fair share of the undecided, late decision makers and won the election and "run the table."

Interviews with students after Trump spoke at Liberty University were revealing. Some said as Christians they would not judge Trump. (Why judge any candidates, then?) Others said the present, not the past, is important. (When does the present start?) If Trump had sinned, he should be forgiven. (Can you forgive, but not endorse?) Many students and Iowa evangelical voters objected to Trump's use of the word "hell" twice; a Trump supporter termed Trump's language an "eccentricity that he probably regrets." (If language is a disqualifier, I've heard many evangelical favorites use the F-word profusely, in private.) Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty University president, brushed all this aside because Trump is "a breath of fresh air."

Trump's detractors criticize him as impolite and rude, uncivil and boorish insensitive and insulting. But these flaws are not immoral. Yet not humbled by his second place finish in Iowa, Trump -- in New Hampshire -- continued to push the envelope. On February 4 Trump said, not in private, but from a podium at a large campaign rally that included children, about New Hampshire businesses that he claimed had relocated in Mexico: "You can tell them to go f--k themselves."

Prior to that outburst, some evangelical voters seemed unconcerned about Trump's demeanor and his lack of humility; indeed, his hubris is seen as leadership. Meanwhile Trump, sensing evangelical discomfort with his own demeanor, turned the tables -- as he often does -- this time in the final days in Iowa as he attacked his main adversary Ted Cruz as "a very nasty guy... he's got an edge. Nobody in Congress likes him." Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst indirectly sided with Trump by rhetorically asking where Cruz's endorsements were from the U.S. Senate.

The Trump attacks on Cruz in Iowa were no match for Cruz's army of volunteers (Cruz says 12,000) deployed in Iowa. Consider that the record number of Republicans that turned out to vote in the entire state of Iowa is less than the number of Republicans in some congressional districts. So, the Cruz deployment had a profound impact. He also showed a campaign that works, thus eclipsing, at least until New Hampshire, that mythology that everything that Trump touches turns to political gold.

Many evangelicals who supported Trump have voiced the sentiment from these words in Falwell's introduction of Trump: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars's." Jesus further said, "...and unto God the things that are God's." In the United States the phrase is commonly used to explain that our nation is not a theocracy because people of deeply held religious views -- including evangelical Christians --do not use government to impose their religious doctrine.

The problem with all this is consistency. For years, even decades, many evangelical Christians have wanted to render "the things that are God's" to Caesar. There is a continuing debate on what parts of the Judeo-Christian consensus are simply "religious" and what obvious parts (thou shall not murder, thou shall not steal) are widely shared regardless of faith, or lack of faith.

But for at least the last generation, social values conservatives have judged potential candidates for office by a high standard. I've heard prominent conservatives in the past say that a particular candidate is "not really pro-life," or doesn't have "a perfect pro-life voting record in Congress." Candidates for office would complete questionnaires that required all the right answers. For certain pro-life leaders, an abortion exception for rape or incest was an unacceptable position for a candidate courting their support; for a far smaller group, even saving the life of the mother is not an exception that should be written into the law.

Given the not-insignificant evangelical support for the Trump candidacy, if Trump becomes the nominee, then any future litmus test on social issues, certainly at the presidential level, could be out the window, along with the standard of when you changed your position. Right-wing talk radio hosts have in the past-skewered assorted "sell-out" Republicans for their timidity, that is, their refusal, for example, to "push for a government shutdown unless taxpayer money to Planned Parenthood stops." Yet Trump's initial inclination was to fund Planned Parenthood. You can't have a double standard (one for Trump, one for everyone else) on litmus test after litmus test without calling into question your own credibility, if not integrity.

Trump's supporters point to Ronald Reagan's signing (as governor) liberalized abortion into California law. But Reagan's pro-life change evolved over a decade. And as president, his record in office was pro-life. The Reagan analogy on abortion is akin to Trump saying that Reagan used to be a Democrat. In fact, Reagan became a Republican long before he ran for public office, and three decades before he became president.

Trump spoke at Liberty of the religious persecution of Christians. The Liberty students here understand the view of Islamists that Christianity succeeded Judaism, and that it is time for the extinction of both, because Islam came last. On this campus Trump could push hard on what attracts him to so many conservatives, his political incorrectness. Trump's rebellion thus reminded many of Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell who celebrated political incorrectness. And Trump scored with his derivative promise to bring back "Merry Christmas."

Sen. Ted Cruz had opened his campaign at Liberty University last March 23. Thus he indicated his respect and affection for Liberty and his emphasis on social conservatives as integral to his electoral coalition. Cruz has a formidable record of support for issues dear to the heart of social conservatives. But in a personal endorsement of Trump, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. called Trump "a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father, and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again." (Usually you hear the words "a wonderful husband and father.") Falwell added the next day that Trump "lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the Great Commandment."

About Trump, Falwell has said: "He cannot be bought, he's not a puppet on a string like many other candidates." As a self-funder Trump makes the most of this appeal. But what is Falwell saying about those candidates who went through the hoops in past years, and then he and his social conservative colleagues endorsed and funded them -- that they bought these candidates, or that these candidates had these convictions?

The Falwell name remains formidable to religious old-timers, and not just in Iowa. Falwell, Jr.'s endorsement was personal and not as president of the tax-exempt Liberty University. But the distinction could be lost among many of the university's 14,000 residential and 100,000-plus online students, and the hundreds of thousands of the university's donors and fans, and the religious conservatives who watched the television coverage. Falwell's endorsement likely will be leveraged by Trump to reach evangelicals in other states.

On election eve in Iowa, Falwell was there campaigning with Trump, praising him for contributing to veterans' causes. At that rally Falwell raised the specter of ISIS and its infiltration of Syrian refugees. But all the Republican candidates want to annihilate or "carpet bomb" ISIS. As for the Syrian refugees, Trump on September 8 said the U.S. should accept some due to the "unbelievable humanitarian problem"; the next day, he reversed himself and later showed political courage when he called for a moratorium on "Muslims until we know what the hell is happening." Cruz also was open to the refugees, but that was in early 2014. Last year Cruz sought to legislatively bar them. For evangelicals, a safe bet on these issues is Cruz, who also has consistently been with them on social issues. One could say the same about Marco Rubio. The final votes in Iowa showed Rubio making a strong finish, almost beating out Trump for second place; evangelicals went for Cruz, but more went for Trump than for Carson. (To hear Trump tell it, a dirty trick by Cruz moved enough votes from Carson to Cruz to deny Trump a first place showing.)

A few days after Trump spoke at Liberty University, he spoke at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is noteworthy that the late Oral Roberts, a Christian charismatic televangelist, was known for what some have termed the "prosperity gospel." If faith will increase wealth, and financial blessing is the will of God, does it follow that God has blessed Trump? Once again, the very blessed Trump seized the moment as he properly reminded students that Christianity is under attack, violently abroad, and in other ways here.

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention tweeted Falwell's praise of Trump and added: "Trading in the gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery." Moore then wrote a column in, of all places, the New York Times, which likely proved to social conservatives supporting Trump that it is Moore, not Falwell, who is the sell-out. Moore wrote that religious conservatives for Trump "repudiate everything they believe."

Moore faulted Trump for building an empire on "gambling, a more vice and economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate.... When Mr. Trump's casinos fail, he can simply file bankruptcy and move on. The lives and families destroyed by the casino industry cannot move on so easily."

The reality is that "gaming" money and Big Tobacco and other vices have been major contributors to the Republican Party and thus indirectly to various Bible Belt candidates, and billionaire Republicans who actively support gay marriage also support "social issues" conservatives. What must Moore think of the Republican Party's biggest benefactor, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson? Many social conservative candidates have accepted money from Adelson. Marco Rubio supports Adelson's strongly favored federal ban on Internet gambling (that might compete with casinos) because "gambling on the Internet can be abused." Billionaire Paul Singer has endorsed Marco Rubio, but Singer is an active supporter of gay marriage. Libertarian Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, said he backs Ted Cruz, not because of "values" but because the Texas senator has a high IQ. Thiel, who grew up as an evangelical, is a homosexual who supports same-sex marriage. The record of the Christian right on gambling is ambiguous at best: recall, for example, that Ralph Reed, who once directed the once influential Christian Coalition, was secretly paid by casino interests to lobby against competing casinos. All of this, and so much more, helps explain why the credibility of some of Trump's religious critics is not pristine.

Moore said that Trump's "personal morality is clear because of his own boasts. His attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord. He tells us in one of his books that he revels in the fact that he gets to sleep with some of the 'top women in the world.'" His argument resonates among some social conservatives, but hardly all. They would rather have a strong licentious leader than a committed Christian who can't get the job done. (On the other side, The View's Joy Behar recently recalled on the air that Sen. Ted Kennedy abandoned a woman who drowned and also that women have accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault; both men, she said, are "dogs" but she would, in effect, vote for a rapist if he were a liberal.)

For years the Christian community, which includes tens of thousands of devout clergy, has also been subverted by high profile ministers like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart who took donations for personal use and pursued extramarital sex, culminating in major public scandals. In dialogue, evangelical voters confess their disillusionment with many prominent Republican politicians who they thought were role models. These elected officials spoke out on morality; they were self-professed social conservatives with 100-percent "voting right" records. But these same men were caught up in scandals involving marital infidelity, homosexuality, and more. Evangelicals are forgiving, but they don't forget. There has been an undercurrent of growing cynicism among evangelicals that has paved the way for them, in a perfect storm, to politically support a known "sinner" (in Trump, what you see is what you get) rather than a "family values" politician who may betray their trust.

"The late Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr. would be rolling over in his grave," said Florida Family Research Council president John Sternberger, "if he knew the son who bore his name had endorsed the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for president of the United States." This is absolute hyperbole, an over-the-top attack on Trump, but it does capture the schism among Christian right leaders over Trump. Among evangelical rank and file, though, Trump at this juncture has a plurality, or close to it.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of the mega First Baptist Church in Dallas had been introducing Trump as "the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so early." Jeffress, host of the Pathway to Victory television and radio programs, has crusaded against homosexuality and "counterfeit" gay marriages. In fairness, "New York values" Trump has in the past opposed same-sex marriage. But Trump's delayed reaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage last year was muted: "The Supreme Court ruled." In contrast, Ted Cruz immediately had exclaimed, "Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation's history." Yet before Cruz could say, to quote the late Rodney Dangerfield, "I get no respect," Trump told Chris Wallace the night before the Iowa Caucus that he would appoint Supreme Court justices to reverse the marriage decision. This bold statement was to counter Iowa Congressman Steve King's last minute appeal for Ted Cruz as a "constitutional conservative who would make the right appointments." But last Sunday, while campaigning in New Hampshire, Trump was quizzed by George Stephanopoulos and seemed to equivocate on his dramatic pledge by saying he would appoint qualified justices and "let's see how it goes."

Prior to Mitt Romney's nomination four years ago, Pastor Jeffress -- a Rick Perry supporter -- had called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a "cult." This description squares with the thinking of many evangelicals. Jeffress said that Romney's Mormonism contradicts the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, on the eve of the 2012 general election, suddenly born-again Romney supporter Jeffress said about Obama: "The course he is choosing to lead our nation is paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist." The architect of Obama's election, David Axelrod, has said Trump is the Anti-Obama; that is, then, Trump is the Anti-Anti-Christ.

Supporting Romney in the general election campaign four years ago, Jeffress had criticized him for not campaigning on the nation's "moral and spiritual deterioration." The closest Trump comes to this now is, "Make America great again," unless you consider trade imbalance a moral issue.

Pastor Jeffress is a hardcore Christian fundamentalist. He has called Islam an "evil, evil religion" and established a "naughty and nice list" to identify whether businesses celebrate Christmas. You could argue that he connects with Trump's call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration and his promise to bring back "Merry Christmas." But Cruz, Rubio, and other candidates are hardly heretical on these matters and are solid on all the issues dear to Jeffress. The only explanation for why Jeffress supports Trump is he believes Trump is a leader, but surely not the moral force that he once sought.

Falwell, Jr. has been a valuable endorser of Trump among social conservatives. The Liberty University appearance was propitiously timed for the Iowa primary. Coming days after Sarah Palin's painful-to-watch endorsement, the Falwell accolade was enormously credible in Iowa. By caucus day, Palin would be quoting Falwell as wanting for president the best CEO, while she was hitting Cruz for inconsistencies. Evangelical leaders in the past have been looking in the presidency for more than the "best CEO."

"My father was criticized in the early 1980s for supporting Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president," Falwell, Jr. said in defending his endorsement of the twice-divorced Trump. He continued: "Because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried and Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher." This is, of course, a straw man, because Reagan had been divorced once, 31 years earlier, and was not known to stray from Nancy.

"My father proudly replied that Jesus pointed out we are all sinners," Falwell said, and then made this case: "Dad explained that when he walked in the voting booth, he was not electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor or even a president who shared his theological beliefs. He was electing the president of the United States and the talents, abilities and experience required to lead a nation might not line up with those needed to run a church."

But Jerry Falwell, Sr. founded the Moral Majority in 1979 because of moral decay. He wasn't looking for CEO qualities. The organization's main issues were promoting prayer in schools, support for traditional marriage and family life, and strong opposition to homosexuality and abortion. Through years of surveys and focus groups, I have across the myth of single-issue voters. Many Republicans, and some Democrats and independents, who claimed pro-choice was their defining issue voted for pro-life Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. And, more importantly, many pro-life voters who said they would never vote for a pro-choice candidate did so, for other reasons.

For years the so-called Christian Right, through the Moral Majority and similar organizations, evaluated candidates mainly on social issues. The Christian Coalition had its "scorecard" on incumbents that included other issues, such as the Second Amendment and tax hikes, as a tradeoff to the pro-gun and anti-tax conservatives. These criteria could, in theory, exclude a pro-life, traditional marriage Democrat (a vanishing breed); Democrats charged the Christian Coalition was a virtual adjunct of the Republican Party. But there was something else here. Though I might agree with the Christian Coalition position on the Second Amendment and on tax hikes, are these "Christian" issues? Did Falwell, Sr., as his son now suggests, believe in rendering to "Caesar the things that are Caesar's"?

For more than three decades, Republicans running for president pandered to evangelical Christians, first in Iowa, then in other states, specially the South. We all remember John McCain's 2008 campaign in South Carolina, where his surrogates ran Mitt Romney into the ground on account of Romney's "cult" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). Whatever one might say about Romney, he was closer in his personal life to the traditional marital and family values of evangelical Christians than McCain. But it didn't seem to matter to evangelical voters.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor in the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis, one alternative was conservative Tom McClintock, a social conservative and a Baptist. Schwarzenegger was raised in a Catholic family but he strayed far, and it was common knowledge that his marriage vows were fiction. Yet influential leaders of the so-called Christian right in California backed Schwarzenegger early. Although Davis would have been recalled anyway, many social conservatives expediently backed his most likely successor rather than the Republican closest to their social views.

A generation ago there was talk of "born again Christians" -- once silent, then active in electoral politics. "Christian conservatives" were a political force, first through Robert Grant's Christian Voice. Liberal media spoke pejoratively of the "religious right," a movement Grant himself derided as a "sham controlled by three Catholics and a Jew," causing the four men -- Catholics Paul Weyrich, Terry Dolan, and Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips ("the Jew") all friends of mine -- to repudiate Grant, exit his organization, and lay the foundation for Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. Only Richard Viguerie, a dynamic 82, is still around, and he supports Cruz, as would have Weyrich. I'm not sure about Dolan, who might have gone Rubio, except that Dolan's brother Tony, formerly Ronald Reagan's chief speechwriter, works for Cruz. And populist Phillips might have been in the Trump camp.

The mainstream media called the social conservatives of the Moral Majority(1980s) and the Christian Coalition(1990s)the "Christian right." Some saw Pat Buchanan's reactionary candidacy in 1992 and his "cultural wars" as social conservatism. Others rejected Buchanan as bigoted. Unlike Trump, Buchanan was a polemicist with no claim to business success. Now more than two decades later, Trump talks about what many call "values voters" as, simply, "the evangelicals," yet their attraction to Trump has little to do with values.

"The real reason so many evangelical voters like Mr. Trump is not that he is the holiest man in the race," wrote Trump supporter Charles Hurt recently in the Washington Times. "It is not that they think he would deliver the best church sermon." Hurt argues evangelical voters are "more sophisticated" and "believe more fervently than anything in separation of church and state." Hurt's convenient explanation: evangelicals "see in Mr. Trump a fierce independent, a willingness to speak the truth. They see a man who places conviction above convenience." This obfuscation ignores Trump's many changes in position, although we can assume his latest iteration is where he is, maybe even conclusively. He is said to keep his word on a deal; the question is, when is the deal made?

We are not talking about even a plurality in Iowa for Trump, but a higher percentage than expected last year, although Trump suggests he would have won a plurality if Cruz had not taken votes from Carson. What would happen in a general election to Trump? In 1976 the then "born-again Christian vote" defected to Jimmy Carter, essentially a leftist Christian. And in 2012 some evangelicals uncomfortable with a Mormon stayed home. But when push came to shove we saw that Pastor Robert Jeffress strongly backed Mitt Romney to battle the "Antichrist." Evangelicals may not know Trump's commitment to an agenda of social issues, but they do know that if the Democratic Party candidate is elected in November, she (or he) will stand against them and owe them nothing.

While Hurt invokes the Caesar analogy to conclude that evangelicals are coming of age, a more likely explanation is that some prominent evangelical leaders are discarding the litmus tests they have applied for years, if not for a generation. And they do so at their peril. It will be very hard in the future to close this barnyard door, if it remains open, and judge Republican primary candidates by their stand on social issues. Could there be a schism between some evangelical leaders and their evangelical voters?

Journalist Mauve Reston interviewed evangelical voters in Iowa a week before the caucuses. The reactions about Trump are instructive beyond Iowa, for the remaining primaries. "I think people can change." "I like that Ted Cruz is an evangelical Christian, but Trump makes good points." "My Christianity and conservative values tell me Cruz is the logical choice," but she (and many evangelicals elsewhere) remain interested in Trump as outsider. "We want to see a winner." One evangelical voter was bothered that Trump had never asked God for forgiveness, but this was not a deal breaker.

We know from many interviews that Iowa evangelical voters who supported Trump mentioned, "Trump is strong." Trump's boycott of the final Fox debate may have reinforced the national perception that Trump takes no prisoners and played to his appeal to evangelicals, but perhaps it alienated some Iowa voters.

Many evangelical voters supported Trump because the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They see that most secular elements are focusing their hatred on Donald Trump. Even conservative National Review is suspect, because it's in New York.

This is why, in a general election, even many anti-Trump Republicans would come around if he were the nominee. They may not be sure about what policies President Donald Trump would embrace, but they know what polices President Hillary Clinton would embrace. So too would I would prefer Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden Elizabeth Warren, or any of the other names mentioned.

Veteran political observer Jeff Greenfield noted that Iowa might have "false importance." But so now does Bernie Sanders' Vermont, which has two U.S. senators but only one member of Congress, it is so small. (Iowa has three.) Still, Greenfield suggested that the media's spin out of Iowa set the tone for New Hampshire. The evangelical voters in Iowa played a key role for Cruz as the winner, Rubio as the come-from-behind guy, and Trump as doing better than he deserves. Imagine if Trump had played down Iowa, how much better his second place would look. And who knew, after Iowa, that Christie would play the part of spoiler in the New Hampshire debate, where Rubio would dissipate his post-Iowa momentum?

Even Trump's second place showing in Iowa would have been impossible without his improbable support among Iowa religious conservatives, however you label them, and they have given him, rather than denied him, a launching pad. The paradox is that perhaps half the Iowa evangelicals had an unfavorable view of Trump. If Trump continues to do adequately with evangelicals in a multi-candidate primary, those evangelical voters will have "skin in the game." Certainly, Falwell and other evangelical "leaders" who have endorsed Trump are now far more deeply invested in him as their choice for Republican nominee. Expect them in other states.

But if the race after South Carolina narrows to just Trump, Cruz, and one other (Kasich, Rubio, or Bush), then Trump could face a tougher overall challenge, and we'll see what happens to evangelicals. Christie and Fiorina already are gone; the former had little evangelical voter following, and Fiorina had claim to "values voters" but, in the end, little support at the polls. If after South Carolina Carson collapses or drops out, those evangelical voters would normally be more supportive of Cruz, but Trump has raised the specter of Cruz using a dirty trick to cheat Carson out of second place in Iowa. It seems like an eternity ago when Trump suggested the world renowned neurosurgeon was just an "OK doctor" and later Trump questioned Carson's Seventh Day Adventist faith. Since then Trump has publicly courted "Ben" who, despite his well-known good nature, may harbor bad feelings toward Cruz. Carson may still be going to sleep each night wondering if the Cruz's campaign's implication that Carson was dropping cost him four votes per precinct in Iowa, cheating him out of second place, and, if so, was this God's will, and what is the meaning?

Political analyst Philip Bump, reviewing in the Washington Post the CNN exit polling of voting in Tuesday's New Hampshire election, pointed out that Trump's across-the-board victory there almost extended to evangelical voters, where remarkably he and Cruz were basically tied. This finding has profound implications for South Carolina. Pundits keep talking about John McCain's 2008 victory there over Mitt Romney, partly as a result of the the state's critical fundamentalist Christian vote, amidst a subterranean attack on Romney's Mormon faith. Next week Cruz needs a home run among South Carolina evangelicals, but it's unlikely he'll run the table with them.

In South Carolina there are overlaps. For example, the state's national security constituency includes many religious conservatives. But many military hardliners (also social conservatives) are drawn to Trump's bravado. Jeb's strategy assumes that George W. Bush in South Carolina will deliver votes for Jeb. I'm not so sure, because many patriots in South Carolina nonetheless fault the Iraq war strategy. "W's" appeal might work against Bernie Sanders in the general election, but in this Republican primary? And Trump is now endorsed by one-time evangelical favorite Mike Huckabee, plus the national evangelicals Trump used in Iowa. Cruz in South Carolina needs to crush Trump among religious conservatives, and that's not clear. Cruz is not going to win this battle on Obamacare.

And after South Carolina, it's unclear who will drop. In South Carolina: if Kasich does awful, perhaps he will leave; Rubio seems determined to stay, and he's given up running for Senate reelection. And Jeb is under the delusion he will be the last man standing, but he seems to be campaigning, not for president, but on a moral crusade against Trump and for civility. More candidates in the race continue to divide the anti-Trump vote.

If Trump is the nominee, if he is elected, there is a final, even bigger if. Would he as president tilt at all toward "the evangelicals" who in Iowa did not consign him to oblivion?

If not, the evangelicals who were seduced -- they will have no one to blame but themselves.

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Originally appeared in The American Spectator
http://spectator.org/articles/65448/evangelical-seduction-interruptus

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