For decades, it’s been widely understood that religious conservatives are a force to be reckoned with in American politics. Millions of evangelical Christian voters — led by dynamic, charismatic leaders of the so-called “Religious Right” — have bent our electoral system to their will, helping propel Republican candidates into the White House on several occasions. Even as their power waned in recent years, political analysts insisted that the era of “values voters” is not yet over, as faith-fueled activists worked to widen their rock-solid networks to include conservative Catholics, Jews, and America’s increasingly influential Mormon population.
But that was before this week — when Donald Trump effectively forced the Religious Right’s entire political apparatus to collapse in on itself.
This assessment may sound hyperbolic, but it is not the bullish musings of left-wing pundits. In fact, it is now the lament of several within the conservative Christian movement itself, many of whom watched in horror this past week as the traditionally ironclad bonds of the right-wing faithful were torn asunder as leaders battled over whether or not to continue supporting Trump’s increasingly chaotic campaign for president.
The dispute centered around a core question challenging right-wing faith leaders, who traditionally hold commanding influence over their flock: Can a committed conservative Christian support a candidate like Donald Trump, who not only struggles with faith questions but also has a record of, at the very least, bragging about sexually assaulting women?
The potential importance of this internal debate — which is equal parts political and theological — cannot be overstated. Although the outcome remains to be seen, its possible repercussions, both for the conservative Christian movement and for American politics writ large, are profound, and could alter elections for years to come.
Here’s how it happened.
The Religious Right spirals into a tailspin
The conservative Christian debate over whether or not to back Donald Trump did not begin in October.
Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, has been a vocal opponent of Trump since at least September 2015, penning op-eds in the Washington Post and the New York Times warning his fellow evangelicals to back away from a candidate he says stands against “everything they believe.” Other right-wing Christians have also stood against Trump for months, and just last week a group of more than 80 evangelicals — representing a more diverse coalition than the largely white, male cadre traditionally portrayed by the media — published a letter condemning Trump, saying “we cannot ignore [his] bigotry.”
This group of evangelical “Never Trumpers” also included Eric Teetsel, former faith adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) during his run for president and Founder of Public Square, a consulting firm specializing in faith and public policy.
“It doesn’t take any special religious insight to see that Donald Trump is unqualified to be president of the United States, but as a Christian I am committed to a number of specific beliefs and principles that stem from the Bible,” Teetsel told ThinkProgress via email. “This presidential campaign has only reaffirmed what a life in the spotlight has made evident: Donald Trump cares not about others.”
This relatively small movement swelled last Friday, when the Washington Post released a video that showed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women several years ago. Members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board were quick to condemn the remarks, but also began doubling down on their support for GOP nominee — especially Ralph Reed, head of Faith and Freedom Coalition , and Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. Other members of the Religious Right also stuck by The Donald: Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, said his steadfast endorsement of the businessman “was never based upon shared values,” and televangelist Pat Robertson explained away Trump’s comments as little more than the then 59-year-old man “just trying to look macho.”
Many of their fellow evangelicals did not agree.
With hours, a rapidly growing faction of evangelicals began pulling away from the businessman — and chastising Christians who stick by his side. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted that he was “humiliated” by evangelicals who refused to denounce Trump soon after the release of the tapes, and later declaring in the Washington Post that they “are wrong, I believe, to serve as apologists for Donald Trump.” The next day, Colin Hansen, editorial director of the Gospel Coalition, published an even less forgiving rebuke of leaders stood by their man.
“The 2016 presidential election will be remembered as the last spasm of energy from the Religious Right before its overdue death.”
“No one is fooled by your arguments,” he said, addressing Religious Right leaders. “They can see you will apparently excuse anything in a Republican nominee so long as the alternative is a manifestly unqualified Clinton. And they will conclude that they don’t really need to listen to you when it comes to ‘traditional, biblical ethics.’”
“The 2016 presidential election will be remembered as the last spasm of energy from the Religious Right before its overdue death,” he added.
It only got worse from there.
On Monday morning, Andy Crouch, editorial director of Christianity Today, posted a passionate rejection of Trump and his religious defenders, decrying their tactics as “strategy [that] becomes its own form of idolatry.” On Tuesday, the editors of World Magazine — a Christian magazine widely seen as even more conservative than Christianity Today — were more polite when they called on evangelicals to join them in asking Trump to step down, but still positioned themselves against The Donald’s spiritual endorsers. On Wednesday, the list of those criticizing the Religious Right grew to include prominent evangelist Beth Moore and professors at Wheaton College, an evangelical school. By Thursday, Ben Howe was penning a scathing blog post for the conservative outlet Red State calling on Falwell to step down as president of Liberty University, describing his continued support for Trump a “disgrace.” Erick Ericsson, longtime conservative radio host and author, said he agreed, and a group of Liberty students released a statement distancing themselves from Falwell and Trump.
“While our president Jerry Falwell Jr. tours the country championing the log in his eye [Trump], we want the world to know how many students oppose him,” the statement read. “We don’t want to champion Donald Trump; we want only to be champions for Christ.”
And by Friday morning, conservatives Christians began using the hashtag #EvangelicalsAgainstTrump to vent their frustrations — spiritual and otherwise — with Trump and those who support him.
A singular focus on abortion has made evangelicals blind to other forms of oppression. Trump exploited this. #EvangelicalsAgainstTrump
— shawncasselberry (@scasselberry) October 14, 2016
— JoeTheBaptist (@joseph_baptist) October 14, 2016
Because women deserve equality, respect & dignity. We don't imprison political opponents or incite violence. #EvangelicalsAgainstTrump
— Nish Weiseth (@NishWeiseth) October 14, 2016
Evangelical voters leave their leadership behind
Despite misgivings among many right-wing Christian leaders, Trump has famously enjoyed hefty support among self-described evangelical voters who helped him achieve victory in several states during the Republican national primary. Even as Mormons flocked to third-party candidates and Catholics offered Clinton historic levels of support, evangelicals appeared primed to stay in Trump’s corner through thick and thin, willing to choose an uncomfortable, imperfect Republican over any independent candidate, much less a Democrat.
But this week polls indicated that average evangelical voters could be reconsidering their support for Trump for the first time. On Thursday, an Reuters/Ipsos survey found Trump only has a 1-point lead over Clinton among people who identified as evangelicals — a dramatic 11-point drop from where Trump stood with the same group in July. More polling is needed to examine exactly why this is, but a Marquette Law School survey of Wisconsin voters offered a clue: Last Thursday, 64 percent of likely evangelical voters favored Trump, with only 24 percent siding with Clinton. By Sunday — after the tapes dropped — only 47 percent of evangelicals were still sticking with Trump, with 31 percent now voicing support for Clinton.
Among evangelical likely voters in WI:
Thursday: Trump 64%, Clinton 24%
Friday: Trump 55%, Clinton 32%
Sat+Sun: Trump 47%, Clinton 31%
— MULawPoll (@MULawPoll) October 12, 2016
Not all evangelicals are abandoning Trump, of course. Chris Nickels, an evangelical Christian voter in South Carolina who was profiled by FiveThirtyEight in September, told ThinkProgress he will probably still vote for Trump. His reasoning: he agreed with those who say a Trump presidency is still better than the alternative — assuming he appoints conservative justices to the Supreme Court.
Still, Nickels admitted the tapes chipped away at his resolve to vote for Trump over Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate.
“Nothing is comfortable about [this election],” he said. “If I end up voting for [Trump], I won’t be smiling. I was a Marco Rubio guy. I like Pence… If this was a Romney-Rubio ticket, I think they would be up six points everywhere right now.”
“Instead, we’ve got Donald frickin’ Trump,” he added, sighing. “I think he is going to get shellacked.”
Nickels’ vexation aside, the argument about Supreme Court justices, which is frequently voiced by right-wing faith leaders who stick by Trump, is a powerful one among evangelicals. Even Teetsel agreed that a victory for Clinton could be a major blow to those who support the conservative Christian agenda.
“Am I to believe [Trump’s] list of Supreme Court justices means more than the vows he made to his first two wives?”
“They’re not wrong about the costs of a Clinton presidency,” he said. “There will be difficult days ahead for those who care about the lives of unborn children, the free expression of religious beliefs, the plight of children in failing schools, the proper role of the judiciary, and the limitless potential of American free enterprise.”
But for Teetsel, Trump simply hasn’t proven himself to be a morally superior choice.
“It’s not at all clear to me that Trump is any better,” he said. “The Bible teaches that one’s actions are the standard by which they are to be judged… Am I to believe his list of Supreme Court justices means more than the vows he made to his first two wives? The deals he made with countless subcontractors? His obligation to the employees of the businesses he took into bankruptcy? Am I to believe that a billionaire who has never given a dime to a pro-life ministry and nonchalantly failed to answer a question about whether he has ever paid for an abortion will stand for life as president?”
An uncertain future for politically engaged evangelicals?
Despite this week’s shake-up, it’s certainly possible the various factions of the Religious Right could still coalesce after the election. If Trump loses, for instance, the key point of disagreement would be eliminated, and right-wing religious Americans could return campaigning for those things they hold in common—such as defending certain concepts of “religious liberty” and opposition to abortion.
Unless, of course, the fissures Trump exposed are deeper than just his candidacy.
“I don’t think Trump’s candidacy created a fissure as much as it illuminated one that has existed for a long time and is growing wider as younger generations of Christians come into adulthood.”
“Whether Trump wins or loses, change is coming,” Teetsel said. “The future of Christian political engagement will not look like it did in the 80s and 90s… A 21st century approach to faith and politics is yet to be determined, but it’s probably going to mirror the dynamics of decentralization and diversification we see in the broader culture.”
“I don’t think Trump’s candidacy created a fissure as much as it illuminated one that has existed for a long time and is growing wider as younger generations of Christians come into adulthood,” he added.
Indeed, several different demographic factors appear to be shifting the makeup of American evangelicalism in ways that could alter the Religious Right’s political priorities. Hispanic evangelicals are now a growing percentage of the evangelical population, with many successfully pushing the larger coalition to embrace immigration reform as a central political goal. And while Millennial evangelicals share their progenitors’ opposition to abortion, they are far more supportive of LGBT rights: In a 2011 PRRI poll, 44 percent of white evangelical Millennials favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to only 12 percent of “evangelical seniors” and 19 percent of evangelicals overall.
How this evolving menagerie reconfigures itself is unclear, and will require a significant amount of soul-searching on the part of leadership after the 2016 election. In the meantime, Teetsel and others plan to hold fast to their opposition to Trump, regardless of how many of their religious compatriots join them.
“The number of people on one side of an issue is no indicator of whether that side is the right one,” he said. “One of the things I appreciate so much about Moore, Erick Erickson and others is how there is ultimately only one opinion they care about: the Lord’s. I try to live that way, too.”