The closed-door meeting in Texas in December at which dozens of Religious Right leaders agreed to rally around Ted Cruz for president was in some ways a big payoff for years of work by Republican political operative David Lane. Lane believes America was founded by and for Christians and has a national mission to advance the Christian faith. He sees politics as spiritual warfare against the evil forces of secularism and “pagan” homosexuality. Lane has been building an “army” of conservative evangelical pastors to run for office and turn their churches into get-out-the-vote operations for Republican candidates.
Lane’s allies and funders played an essential role in putting together that secret endorsement meeting for Ted Cruz, which came after months of indications that Cruz, who has never met a Religious Right figure too extreme to embrace, was winning the “Christian-nation primary.” Shortly after that meeting, Cruz and his Religious Right fans gathered at a ranch owned by Farris Wilks, a fracking billionaire who, with his brother, gave $15 million to a pro-Cruz super PAC. The Wilks brothers are big funders of Lane’s efforts and other far-right political causes. A separate, but affiliated, Cruz super PAC is being run by another Christian-nation activist, right-wing “historian” David Barton.
Lane believes that conservative evangelicals split their votes in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries and were stuck with nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney, vowing that this year would be different. Conservative evangelicals would be inspired into action by politically engaged pastors and would choose a presidential nominee who shared Lane’s Christian-nation vision. They would elect an evangelical president who would help lead the nation to spiritual and political renewal.
But 2016’s campaign is different in ways Lane could not have anticipated. In South Carolina, the divinely anointed Cruz campaign took third place, with Donald Trump sweeping the most heavily evangelical parts of the state and beating Cruz handily among evangelical voters. Many of the state’s Republican leaders threw their support not to Cruz, but to Marco Rubio; chief among them was Gov. Nikki Haley, who had hosted one of Lane’s political prayer rallies last summer. Trump won by an even bigger margin in the Nevada caucuses.
Shortly before the South Carolina primary, Cruz was in Spartanburg to meet privately with “hundreds of pastors and their wives” at a meeting sponsored by David Lane’s American Renewal Project. Cruz’s appearance was supplemented by a softball interview with Lane’s “good friend” David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network. In that interview, Cruz made a version of his standard pitch for a presidential run based on turnout of evangelical Christians. Cruz told Brody,
"If we allow our leaders to be selected from non-believers we shouldn't be surprised when our leaders don't share our values. So what I'm working to do more than anything else is energize and empower the grassroots and do everything we can for Christians to stand up and vote biblical values.”
After the election, Brody acknowledged that Trump had beaten Cruz among the state’s evangelical voters. Brody’s explanation?
Evangelicals are upset with the Republican Party too. They’ve felt like cheap political pawns for years, constantly being used by the GOP to get out and vote and then having nothing to show for it. With Trump, many of those evangelicals feel like they’ve found the politically incorrect mouthpiece to channel their inner frustration. Is he the most righteous man to carry the torch? No. Is he the most transparent and authentic one? Clearly, they believe so.
Journalist Sarah Posner has written about the ways that Trump divides the Christian Right. Trump has been endorsed by Jerry Falwell, Jr. even though the candidate is “unabashedly ignorant of the biblical imperatives that form the foundation of evangelical culture and politics.” Trump’s support indicates that many evangelicals do not, in fact, share the culture-war priorities of the movement’s leaders, Posner suggests, adding that Trump is the candidate who most resembles a prosperity-gospel televangelist who portrays wealth as a sign of God’s favor. Says Posner, “Trump’s supporters -- both evangelical and not -- apparently are willing to believe that worshiping self-serving hype will somehow produce a miracle for them.”
Along similar lines, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said in January that Ted Cruz was leading in the Jerry Falwell wing of the evangelical movement, Marco Rubio in the Billy Graham wing, and Trump in the Jimmy Swaggart wing.
In a recent article for In These Times, Theo Anderson also took a look at the “great puzzle” of evangelical Christians flocking to Trump, “the Republican candidate most out of step with evangelicals on social issues and the most tin-eared regarding religion.” Anderson concludes that Trump’s success reflects many evangelicals’ desire for an “anti-establishment” candidate as well as what he calls Trump’s performance of a prophetic style of politics practiced by conservative radio preachers who encourage their listeners to stand against the corruptions of the world: “Trump’s speeches and social media output are a stream of falsehoods that speak to the certainty - the ‘higher truth’ - that white Christians, and the nation they love, are being betrayed and targeted.”
Trump, for his part, has embraced the Religious Right’s claims that Christians in America are under “assault,” particularly from department stores and coffee chains that don’t show due reverence to Christmas, and that Muslims pose an existential threat to the country.
Trump’s success among evangelicals is maddening to some of Cruz’s backers. Glenn Beck, who believes God has called Cruz to save America from the abyss, had urged his viewers to fast on Cruz’s behalf before the Nevada caucuses. Beck says he fears that Trump is the embodiment of “The Bubba Effect,” in which a group of people are pushed over the edge into violence by an overbearing government. Beck says that only the election of Ted Cruz can save America from violent revolution, warning that the country will not be able to recover if it elects a socialist, authoritarian, or member of the status quo.
Speaking of authoritarians, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams wrote recently that the single most significant predictor of a voter’s support for Trump is their level of authoritarian inclinations, which suggests that support for Trump’s blustery strongman routine is detached to some degree from a voter’s ideological or theological leanings. That’s one reason Trump’s campaign frightens some conservatives who see Trump’s insistence that he’d be a fix-it strongman (to some commentators, a would-be Mussolini), as undermining conservatives’ political and intellectual campaign against a strong federal government.
Of course, Trump hasn’t rejected the Religious Right policy agenda. In fact he has fully embraced much of it, pledging to defund Planned Parenthood as long as the organization performs abortions. He has supported Senate Republicans’ vow not to consider any Obama Supreme Court nominee and vowed to nominate Supreme Court justices “as close to Scalia as you could find.” He has called the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling “shocking” and suggested Religious Right activists should trust him to put judges on the Court who would “unpass” that ruling and Roe v. Wade. Those kind of pledges may help Trump win conservative evangelical votes, or at least make evangelicals feel more comfortable voting for him in spite of a political and personal record that contravenes the values they say they hold dear.
The campaign for the GOP nomination isn’t over, but Religious Right leaders must be wondering how it is that their Chosen One has faltered and seems to be losing ground to the charlatan Trump. In fact, National Review reported on Wednesday that Religious Right leaders who rallied around Cruz are talking amongst themselves about abandoning him for Rubio if Cruz doesn’t do well on “Super Tuesday” next week.
If Trump is the nominee, many religious conservatives will vote for him because he is the Republican candidate. But it could be a bitter pill, one that some may not be able to swallow. In National Review’s seemingly ineffectual issue devoted to making a case against Trump as the Republican nominee, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission wrote:
Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy that Neil Postman warned us about years ago, in which sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of “winning” for the masses. Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant. For them to view it any other way now would be for them to lose their soul.
But Trump continues to reach out to the conservative evangelical leaders. He headed to Pat Robertson’s Regent University on Wednesday, where Robertson told him, “you inspire us all,” and invited him to come back to Regent after the election as President Trump. And while Trump isn’t the candidate around whom many Religious Right leaders decided to coalesce, Christian-nation activist David Lane may harbor some hopes for a Trump candidacy. Last summer Lane said of Trump, “America is starving for moral, principled leadership. I hope that Donald Trump brings that.”