THE BLOG
02/25/2016 09:28 am ET Updated Feb 25, 2017

Separated Brethren

The most telling result of last Saturday's Republican presidential primary in South Carolina was how white, evangelical Christian voters divided among the top three vote-getters (Trump, Rubio and Cruz). Instead of voting like a bloc, as the Cruz forces had hoped (and the Trump and Rubio campaigns' had feared), white evangelicals split, giving substantial chunks of their support to all three of those candidates. It has become a familiar pattern over the last few decades in the Republican presidential primaries, because there are different kinds of white, evangelical Christians. Though often depicted in the media as a monolithic group, there is a remarkable amount of diversity in their ranks.

The most conservative and militant evangelicals tended to support Cruz, who seemed at the start of the contest to be the candidate most likely to win broad Christian conservative backing. Cruz, whose father is a pastor, knows how to strike a "church militant" chord with those kinds of voters. For Cruz and his backers, Christianity is a fighting faith, whose adherents need to win back government support for policies that support religion in general and the values of morally traditional people. In terms of foreign policy, that same martial impulse is expressed in terms of support for fighting Islamic extremism more intensely and successfully.

Not every evangelical finds that kind of message the most appealing, however, which explains why Trump and Rubio finished ahead of Cruz in South Carolina. Trump's popularity with a substantial proportion of Christian conservatives appears, on its face, the most perplexing. Why would white, evangelical Christians be attracted to the candidacy of a thrice-married native New Yorker, a nominal Presbyterian whose clumsy efforts to sound familiar with scripture only reinforce a sense that he has never read it? While it's hard to be certain here, one suspects that Trump's appeal to such voters stems from his firm patriarchal persona, and his nostalgic, "back-to-the-future" agenda. Trump is a man's man who means business, and someone whose enormous wealth gives him a kind of independence from special-interest groups that his rivals do not have.

Trump's speeches also, in a way, hearken back to the 1950s and early '60s America in which he grew up, which is an era that older Christian conservatives miss. Trump's stand on immigration fits with that worldview, too, because the fraction of the American population that was foreign-born reached an all-time low then of about 5%. In Trump's youth, that trend was felt even in New York City, which historically had been home to the largest number of the newly arrived. What was going on there and in other northern cities during the 1950s and '60s was the assimilation of whites of varying ethnicities (whose parents or grandparents had emigrated to the USA earlier) into one great big and fairly homogeneous group. Never did Americans have more in common than they did then, and that is a world Donald Trump would very much like to revive. His stance on trade fits with that "back-to-the-fifties" vision as well, because sheltering Americans from low-wage foreign competition would, he argues, allow wages for American workers to rise back to the levels seen then, without undermining American industry. That those higher wages were paid during the 1950s mostly to American men is a key part of that vision - for if wages for working men were to rise substantially, the patriarchal vision of marriage and family that conservative Christians tend to favor would also become more realizable. Trump's call for more force and less diplomacy in dealing with foreign foes also strikes a resonant fifties' chord with those kinds of voters. Whatever one thinks of those goals, there's no question that many white, evangelical voters favor them, which explains why Trump can attract a significant fraction of their support.

And then there is Marco Rubio, who tends, it seems, to do best with younger, suburban white evangelicals, the fraction of that constituency that seems the most "modern." His is a sunnier view of where America is today and will be tomorrow. Rubio's wholesome boyishness appeals to suburban squares who are bothered by a popular culture that is at odds with their values, but who are not as alienated as either Cruz's or Trump's supporters tend to be. For that reason, Rubio has emerged as the GOP establishment's last, best hope this year, the one person who could conceivably block the more disruptive Cruz and Trump candidacies now that the field had been winnowed to three serious contenders. Rubio would have enough appeal to white evangelicals to win their votes against Hillary Clinton, the GOP establishment tends to think now, without going so far in that direction as to alienate those less intensely religious voters who are usually inclined to vote Republican.

The basic problem with that view is that Rubio has yet to win a primary or caucus. In a three-man race, Trump remains the favorite, even though his slice of white evangelical voters seems unlikely ever to top one-third. The reason for that is that Trump's agenda also appeals to voters who are less religious but still patriarchal as well as economically populist and nationalist. By the middle of March, we should know for sure just how much conservative Christians have shaped the GOP presidential nomination. For now, the pattern that is emerging is one we have seen before: an influential constituency but one so divided as to be far from the decisive one.

David Stebenne is a professor of history and law at Ohio State University.