Why religious conservatives didn’t shame Trump in 2016, and probably won’t in 2017 either

Hint: It’s probably all about power.

CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci
CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci

When Donald Trump lays his hand on two Bibles to be sworn in as President of the United States on Friday, many religious Americans will still be grappling with a question that has dogged political analysts since November: why did so many white evangelical Christian leaders and voters support a non-evangelical, proudly uncouth, and theologically untrained businessman who was caught on camera talking about sexual assault?

More to the point: Why didn’t the group that claims to support “family values” shame a man who flouted his own indifference to them?

The straightforward question is plaguing religious Americans on both sides of the political—and theological—aisle, and firm answers are few and far between. But experts who research these groups are just now beginning to offer glimpses into what the Religious Right was—and wasn’t—in 2016, and how Trump’s election will likely alter their role in American politics for years to come.

Religious shame as a political weapon

It’s fair to say that shaming Donald Trump isn’t exactly a promising strategy for his progressive detractors. As many political analysts opined from the earliest days of his famously scandal-ridden campaign, all signs indicate that the New York City businessman is virtually immune to shame in any personal sense. His public brand is built on the assumption that he is seemingly incapable of feeling remorse for actions that would mortify the average American—such as, say, bragging about sexual assault—much less a man vying for the most powerful elected position on the planet.

Still others wonder whether shame is even an efficacious component of the modern American psyche, citing late author David Foster Wallace’s ominous 2004 warning that outrage-focused media like reality television—Trump’s favored medium—will eventually result in a widespread “shame hobble.” The modern political arena, they argue, has become an immoral, free-for-all shouting match where men like Trump are king, just like the rancorous media millions of Americans consume every day.

The modern political arena, they argue, has become an immoral, free-for-all shouting match where men like Trump are king, just like the rancorous media millions of Americans consume every day.

But if there is one part of American society where people still expect shame to hold sway, it’s among the religious—especially those who claim conservative Christianity, including so-called “values voters” who make up a substantial percentage of the Republican Party base. Leaders of the Religious Right have long weaponized faith-based shame as a tool for political pressure, such as when Ralph Reed blasted Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“Character matters, and the American people are hungry for that message,’’ Reed, who currently heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told the New York Times in 1998. “We care about the conduct of our leaders, and we will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character.’’

Other historical examples of this abound, such as the group’s opposition to abortion—a position members of the “Moral Majority” have long insisted is rooted in values.

True, the power of the Religious Right is waning, but leaders such as Reed are still around, and had ample chances to browbeat the twice-divorced Trump in 2016 for his numerous personal and public missteps. And even if Trump himself is shameless, his evangelical supporters aren’t, so it stands to reason that religious conservatives should have been able to encourage their flocks to look for an ideal candidate elsewhere. Right?

Wrong. And theories as to why are both surprisingly complicated and frustratingly simple.

The Religious Right lost its relevance, but gained a broader purpose

If white evangelical support for Trump surprised liberal observers, it practically dumbfounded more than a few religious conservatives.

Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, repeatedly begged his fellow right-wing churchgoers to abandon Trump in the early days of the Republican primary, calling the businessman “a terrible representative of Evangelicals.” His pleas—along with fellow conservative dissenters Erick Erickson, Eric Teetsel, and Alan Noble—grew increasingly anguished as the campaign wore on and Trump became the nominee, with the baptist leader eventually asking fellow churchgoers to join him in supporting neither candidate on Election Day.

His efforts were futile. More than 80 percent of white evangelicals still backed “The Donald,” and Moore earned little other than the ire of Trump for trouble.

Moore’s failing would make it easy to conclude that white evangelicals and some Catholics simply weren’t impacted by tales of Trump’s lewd comments or moral quagmires. But that’s not the whole story. Several white evangelical Trump supporters expressed ambivalence about their vote, and according to Harvey Cox, theologian and scholar of American religion at Harvard University, it’s not that conservative religious voters weren’t ashamed of Trump, per se. Instead, he argued, it’s that their political ambitions, which have already progressed past issues of race and schooling, have now grown beyond narrow concerns about sexuality and personal morality.

As the electoral breadbasket of the Republican Party, he said, conservative religious voters have slowly come to identify with a broader slate of political goals that encompass everything from economics to foreign policy to concerns over “voter fraud.”

“One thing that becomes clear [over time] is the evolution of the Religious Right away from social issues — homosexuality, sex edition, etc. — toward embracing a much larger, more conservative agenda starting under Reagan and since then as well,” he told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “By the time we get to the last couple of years, the traditional issues of which you have shamed people have faded out of the spectrum of emphasis for conservative people.”

“This is probably one of the reasons why they didn’t do much or say much about Donald Trump — who could have easily have been shamed,” he added. “They’ve moved on to other concerns.”

Cox partly attributed this shift to the success of the progressive movement, especially the push for LGBTQ rights. When same-sex marriage became the law of the land and public opinion swung in support equality, he said, the Religious Right suddenly lost one of its most useful political motivators. In order to keep power, it was forced to expand.

“It’s part of the changing demography of America—younger people are not just as fired up about opposing gay marriage,” he said. “The Religious Right lost their moral claim on these issues, so it became a sort of broadening—and a broadening is a king of thinning.”

But the question remains: Even if the Religious Right were concerned about more than same-sex marriage in 2016, why would so many be hesitant to rail against Trump’s ills?

American religious groups have always backed unholy vessels when it benefited them

Until 2016, political analysts often assumed that the Religious Right, while certainly not a paragon of moral perfection, ascribed to certain red-line core beliefs. Given how often they cited scripture while shaming liberal politicians as “immoral,” it followed that they would be willing to hold conservatives to roughly the same theological standards—even if they supported their broader platform.

But this past election destroyed that notion, and Molly Worthen, a scholar of American evangelicalism and author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, has a theory as to why: Conservative evangelicals never truly cared about a candidate’s personal piety to begin with.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, she explained that conservative Protestants have often backed politicians who do not share their beliefs—they just usually make them repent first, a time-honored practice within evangelicalism.

“Ordinarily, conservative Christians try to accommodate immoral behavior through the mechanism of repentance and deliverance,” she said, noting that President George W. Bush was said to have sought forgiveness from evangelical leaders to atone for his alcoholic past.

“One of the things that makes Trump interesting and a bit different is that there has been no sign of anything approaching repentance. I don’t think that word is even in Donald Trump’s vocabulary.”

But while right-wing pastor James Dobson claimed last year that Trump was a “baby Christian” who had secretly converted to evangelicalism—and, by extension, presumably repented of his sins—Trump never voiced any sort of spiritual change.

“One of the things that makes Trump interesting and a bit different is that there has been no sign of anything approaching repentance,” Worthen said. “I don’t think that word is even in Donald Trump’s vocabulary.”

Trump has indeed eschewed religious forgiveness as a mechanism for righting his public and private wrongs, sometimes even dismissing the idea that he has anything to repent for in the first place.

“Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2015.

Yet leaders of the Religious Right—with a few notable exceptions—rallied around Trump, glossing over innumerable reports of his misdeeds by casting them as little more than evidence of humanity’s sinful nature. When a tape was revealed of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals, for instance, David Brody from the Christian Broadcasting Network tweeted, “This just in: Donald Trump is a flawed man! We ALL sin every single day. What if we had a ‘hot mic’ around each one of us all the time?” Ralph Reed made similar comments a week later, noting that evangelicals should still support Trump and not shy away from “muddy[ing] our boots with the mud and mire of politics.”

But it was Tony Perkins, head of conservative Family Research Council, who abandoned any pretense that supporting Trump was about personal morality—it was about power.

“Evangelicals have been highly selective about how and when they decided to be outraged with a candidate’s behavior.”

“My support for Donald Trump in the general election was never based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns,” Perkins told the Washington Post.

Liberals and conservatives alike chided such comments as hypocritical. Worthen, however, said they were par for the course.

“Evangelicals have been highly selective about how and when they decided to be outraged with a candidate’s behavior,” she said. “I’m not sure [disreputable behavior] has ever stopped them from making an alliance with a candidate who they may find useful for any number of reasons.”

Worthen pointed to other historical examples as proof, such as when early baptists backed Thomas Jefferson’s campaign for president. Although Jefferson was deeply skeptical about religion in general (“they would have called him a heretic and blasphemer,” Worthen said) he shared their opposition to an established state church, and earned their vote.

“When virtue-based shame has surfaced, it always seems to me to be a sort of tool,” not a end in and of itself, she said. “I don’t find it surprising at all that so many evangelicals looked past Trump’s horrific behavior.”