Sleight of hand has always been a big part of American politics. Donald Trump is pulling one of the greatest illusions in recent history, and his newest target audience is evangelical Christians.
According to recent Pew Research, when compared to the rest of the electorate evangelicals are five times more likely to consider a candidate's faith when they vote.
During the last presidential election this posed a serious conundrum for evangelical Christians. A devout Mormon was running for president, which was a problem for generations of evangelical Christians who had been taught that Mormonism was a cult that lay far outside Orthodox Christianity. It was faith versus politics. Then Mitt Romney made a visit to Franklin and Billy Graham, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association promptly scrubbed their website of any mention of Mormonism as a cult. Franklin Graham penned an article that equated voting for a Mormon to voting for a Catholic or Episcopalian. When it came to religious convictions versus politics, the convictions were conveniently altered.
What's a little heterodoxy among political friends?
As I watch Donald Trump roll toward the primaries firmly in the lead with evangelical leaders lining up to endorse him, I'm starting to sense a pattern, only this time evangelicals have to cozy up to Donald Trump's even more troubling belief system. It's faith versus politics again, and we're about to see if evangelicals hold to their religious convictions as fervently as their political ones.
Jonathan Merritt's recent article in The Atlantic summed up the situation nicely.
"Donald Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him. Yet somehow, the Manhattan billionaire has attracted their support."
"On the matter of asking forgiveness for sins--hardly an obscure Christian doctrine--Trump says he's never done it. "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right," he said recently. "I don't bring God into that picture." Trump declared that his favorite book was the Bible, but when asked to name his favorite Bible verse, The Donald declined. And he spoke flippantly of the cornerstone Christian sacrament of communion, saying he "feels cleansed" when "I drink my little wine ... and have my little cracker.""
"He says that he is a faithful Presbyterian and member of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, but after this announcement, the congregation released a statement saying he is not an active member. And, of course, Trump's three marriages are painfully out of step with Christian restrictions against divorce."
Lately, Trump has been making contrived religious overtures in order to attract the evangelical vote, but if evangelicals fall for this one they are falling on purpose. It seems incongruent that religious voters would support someone so devoid of character as Donald Trump. However, recent polling data has Trump leading all other candidates among evangelical voters. Politico breaks it down this way:
"Among white evangelical Republican voters nationally, Trump earned the support of 37 percent, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father is a pastor and has played a key role in recruiting faith leaders to support his son, is at 20 percent."
Why are evangelicals still drifting toward Trump's campaign? Slate is running an interview with conservative historian Rick Perlstein, who talks about the phenomenon. Perlstein is a Republican insider, and knows as much about the current dynamics and recent changes in Republican politics as anyone. He explained a concept that describes the Trump appeal.
"I've thought about Donald Trump in the context of a sociological concept called herrenvolk democracy. Herrenvolk was a word coined by a sociologist in 1967 that basically means social democracy for the favored race as a way not of expanding liberty to the entire citizenry but drawing a line between the accepted in-group and the hated out-group. There is a tradition of fascist-tending political movements being quite forthright about the favored group."
Social democracy for the favored race. That's the Donald Trump appeal.
CNN recently conducted 150 interviews at Trump rallies in 31 cities. The results paint a picture of supporters who are largely white, angry, scared, and united by intense dislike for President Obama. Much of the outrage clusters around issues of race. Hatred toward Obama stems from the sense that he cares more about blacks than whites, and that he is too friendly toward Muslims (along with the Trump-birthers who still think he's a secret Muslim).
Supporters outside Trump rallies chant, "Hey, hey. Ho, ho. All the Muslims have to go!" Backlash against the Black Lives Matter protests fuel many other Trump supporters. Frustration with underemployment or lack of opportunity has been directed toward hispanic immigrants. There is a sense that, as one supporter claimed, "No one's looking out for the white guy anymore."
I encourage you to take a few moments and watch this CNN report called "The Mind of a Trump Voter." One of the more telling quotes in the video comes from a woman named Patricia Saunders who said, "White Americans founded this country, but we are being pushed aside because of the present administration, and the media--the liberal media." In voicing her reason for disliking President Obama, Saunders said, "I just think he is pro-black, I don't know... I hate to say he's a racist, but I really believe he is."
A recent article at FiveThirtyEight blog talks about the difference between being uninformed and misinformed. Trump supporters are not uninformed. Most believe they have a grasp on the source of their disillusionment with American government. Their beliefs, however, are out of step with reality.
Take immigration. Supporters interviewed by CNN seemed not to know that undocumented immigrants still have to pay taxes, and that they are barred by law from receiving benefits such as welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and social security. At the same time, they seem unaware of the ways in which something like income inequality impacts the middle class. Research shows that the misinformed tend to be the most confident in their views. That's where the Trump bravado pays off. He tells them what they want to hear, even if it's based on a lie. In recent focus groups, Frank Luntz found that when he carefully exposed misinformation given by Trump, his supporters rejected the new information and doubled down on their support of the Donald.
A mountain of research makes it clear that Trump supporters are angry and scared. What they love about Trump is that he seems to be fighting back for them. What they fail to grasp is that he's handing them the wrong enemy--blacks, hispanics, and muslims. Trump's casual relationship with the truth only fuels a mountain of misconception, capitalizing on frustration by handing them scapegoats with black and brown skin. Their beef is not with the poor, the immigrant, the black men and women, or the president. Follow the money. As wealth is slipping through the hands of the middle class, it's not flowing downward, it's flowing to the top 1%. It's flowing to the billionaires... to the Donald.
If evangelicals continue to jump on the Trump bandwagon, they will face a serious Jesus problem.
When Jesus was faced with this sort of in-group out-group herrenvolk move he opposed it. Who could you count out in the ancient world... women, children, lepers, unclean, adulterers, tax collectors, prostitutes? Take any group that people shunned and persecuted in the ancient world and Jesus would befriend them. That's because perfection for Jesus was not the elimination of the negative, but the inclusion and redemption of all things. Anybody you could count out, Jesus will find a way to count them in.