Trump-hating progressives are having a field day ridiculing evangelical Protestants for their flagrantly hypocritical, effusive embrace of a president who paid a porn star $130,000 of hush money to keep her quiet about the affair they conducted behind the back of his third wife.
The liberal urge to laugh at evangelicals’ blatant hypocrisy is understandable. But it should be resisted — or at least tempered by an effort at grasping just why it is that conservative evangelicals have thrown in their lot with a man who makes a mockery of Christian piety and traditional moral decency with every bitter, angry, needy, vulgar, dishonest public statement.
Why have evangelicals embraced President Trump? Because of their abject weakness and fear.
As I noted three months before the 2016 election, evangelicals overcame their early opposition to Trump because they knew that as president his opponent would appoint judges and executive branch department heads who would continue the Obama administration’s efforts at using anti-discrimination law to force them to abandon or publicly conceal their religiously based moral convictions — and because they were assured by the Trump campaign that the Republican candidate would offer protection from this nascent persecution in return for political loyalty.
That was the deal — and it’s one that has so far paid off handsomely for these religious voters.
Like the residents of an urban neighborhood who gladly pay a local mob boss a share of their earnings in return for safety and security, evangelicals have made a transactional calculation. In return for obsequious, gushing, unconditional support, Trump will serve as their protector, surpassing all prior Republican presidents in his willingness to advance a religious right agenda for which he personally feels nothing but indifference.
The character of this arrangement shows just how much the situation for evangelicals has changed since the administration of their previous presidential champion, George W. Bush.
Bush spoke frequently and convincingly about his faith, and he backed it up by advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and working to get anti-same-sex-marriage referendums on the ballots of numerous states in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. Trump, by contrast, expressed explicit support for LGBTQ rights in his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican convention.
Meanwhile, in the intervening eight years, a Democratic president and just about every member of his party shifted from opposing gay marriage to supporting it while denouncing the remaining holdouts as bigots. Then, in the blink of an eye, progressives immediately began waging the next battle in the anti-discrimination wars: a defense of the rights of the transgendered, including an insistence that all public discussion and debate of the issue begin by affirming the absolute malleability of gender, a position radically incompatible with historic Christianity’s teachings on sexual morality.
This is the context in which the evangelical embrace of Trump needs to be understood.
No informed evangelical today seriously hopes for a reversal of same-sex marriage. (Even in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision affirming a right to same-sex marriage were overturned, public opinion would by this point strongly support legalizing the institution through democratic means.) What they do hope for is protection from persecution for their religiously based views of sexual morality. That can be done most effectively by the appointment of judges who are friendly to religious freedom and the reining in of the power of executive branch bureaucracies to apply anti-discrimination law to every corner of American life. The Trump administration has been doing a lot of both. And evangelicals are understandably elated about it.
Those who loathe and fear the religious right should keep all of this in mind when they mock evangelicals for their cynical political maneuvering. The willingness of evangelicals to embrace Trump is a function not of their strength but of their weakness. It may not look that way from the outside, with an increasingly Trumpified Republican Party exercising so much control in Washington and in state houses around the country. Yet evangelicals are right to recognize that people like them have by now long since decisively lost the culture and the political support of the bulk of the American electorate.
The moral majority has shrunk to become a moral minority surrounded by a sea of secularism. For all the talk of the president serving as God’s instrument in the 2016 election, most evangelicals understand very well that he’s an emissary from the wider secular world. But that makes his willingness to serve as their strong man and protector all the more remarkable — and all the more an occasion for gratitude and loyalty.
Evangelicals have retreated to transactional politics in a last-ditch, desperate act of self-defense. Let’s not scare ourselves into thinking it represents anything more ominous than that.