Trump’s success with evangelical voters isn’t surprising. It was inevitable.

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tags: election 2016, Trump



Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College.

The rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries brought with it quite a few surprises for political pundits. The support the real estate mogul and reality TV star has drawn from white evangelical voters seems to have particularly flummoxed the experts. On the face of it, the affinity seems improbable. Why would religious-right voters with an interest in biblical values support a vulgar, twice-divorced, thrice-married billionaire with no understanding of the sacraments, who discerns no need for confession and who says he’s a Presbyterian but claims membership at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, a congregation affiliated with the Reformed Church in America?

Peter Wehner, an evangelical, attributes Trump’s popularity to evangelicals’ sense of powerlessness, while Michael Cromartie of the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center thinks that support for Trump represents a setback from what he characterizes as the more elevated tone of religious-right leaders in recent years. Jeff Sharlet suggests that Trump resembles a prosperity preacher.

These analyses, however, miss a crucial point: The religious right was never about the advancement of biblical values. The modern, politically conservative evangelical movement we know is a movement rooted in the perpetuation of racial segregation, and its affiliation with the hard-right fringes of the conservative movement in the late 1970s produced a mutant form of evangelicalism inconsistent with the best traditions of evangelicalism itself. Since then, evangelicals have embraced increasingly secular positions divorced from any biblical grounding, and supporting Donald Trump represents the logical conclusion of that tragic aberration. ...

Leaders of the religious right have labored long and hard to persuade Americans that their movement began in opposition to the Roe v. Wade abortion decision of 1973. The claim that abortion motivated the emergence of the religious right utterly collapses beneath historical scrutiny. Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, architect of the religious right, emphatically denied that opposition to abortion played any role, a view echoed by Grover Norquist and Ed Dobson, one of Falwell’s acolytes in the Moral Majority. “I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority,” Dobson recalled in 1990, “and I frankly do not remember abortion being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”

The real catalyst for the formation of the religious right was the attempt to defend against Internal Revenue Service attempts to rescind the tax exemption of racially segregated institutions, especially Bob Jones University and Jerry Falwell’s segregated Liberty Christian Academy in the 1970s. Their anger at the federal government for challenging their tax status drove them into the waiting arms of activists like Weyrich, who understood the electoral potential of evangelical voters. “What caused the movement to surface was the federal government’s moves against Christian schools,” Weyrich said. Norquist concurred, blaming “the Carter administration’s attack on Christian schools.” Conservative commentator Richard Viguerie recalled that the IRS actions “kicked a sleeping dog” and “ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”




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