Why Is the Religious Right So In Thrall to Vulgar Libertine Donald Trump? | News

Why Is the Religious Right So In Thrall to Vulgar Libertine Donald Trump?

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This post is excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.

As someone who grew up in a fundamentalist, conservative church—it clearly didn’t stick—there’s been something particularly fascinating to me about the Trump era: the willingness of so-called religious right leaders to embrace a racist, vulgar, avaricious, thrice-married libertine and ignore his sundry faults so long as he was politically useful to them. These are the same people—looking at you, Franklin Graham [CNN]—who often castigated Barack Obama, a dignified family man no matter what you thought of his politics, as a pawn of the devil. And yet, when news broke that President Trump had paid a porn star to keep quiet about their affair—which he had soon after his wife gave birth to their son—the silence from these self-proclaimed moralists was deafening.
  • In an interview with Politico, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins explains why: “Perkins knows about Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who claimed, in a 2011 interview, that in 2006 she had sex with Trump four months after his wife Melania gave birth to their son Barron. He knows of the reports that she was paid off to keep the affair quiet in the waning weeks of the 2016 election. He knows about the cursing, the lewdness and the litany of questionable behavior over the past year of Trump’s life or the 70 that came before it. ‘We kind of gave him—All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,” Perkins [said]. … Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, ‘were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.’”
  • “During the primaries, evangelicals turned out in numbers that surprised everyone, and more than 80 percent stayed with Trump in the general election against Hillary Clinton, even after the Access Hollywood tape and everything else during the campaign. But their support is starting to waver: According to a Pew poll out in December, Trump’s support has dropped sharply among white evangelical Protestants, from 78 percent in February to 61 percent in December, as his approval rating among the overall electorate has settled in the mid-30s. Perkins … has been a frequent visitor to the Oval Office. He’s prayed with Trump. He says he’s seen the president grow, including in his sense of faith. What might look like hypocrisy, Perkins says, is actually attention to detail.”
  • Or it might just be hypocrisy in service of political goals. These are the terms of the religious right’s fealty: “Perkins cheers the White House’s restrictive posture towards abortion rights and its ‘religious freedom’ executive orders (which critics allege are part of a thinly veiled attempt to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ Americans).”
  • “Perkins isn’t the only one pushing this rationalization. ‘Our country’s got a sin problem,’ the Rev. Franklin Graham told MSNBC host Alex Witt in an interview this past Saturday. Graham, the son of Rev. Billy Graham and current president of his Evangelistic Association, said he saw no reason to believe the allegations about Trump and Stormy Daniels, nor the reports that the president called certain countries ‘shitholes,’ despite the fact Trump reportedly bragged about saying it in private phone calls. Graham deflected questions about whether he was holding Trump to a different personal standard than he might for a politician he disagreed with more. ‘We certainly don’t hold him up as the pastor of this country, and he’s not,’ Graham told the network. ‘But I appreciate the fact that the president does have a concern for Christian values, he does have a concern to protect Christians—whether it’s here at home or around the world—and I appreciate the fact that he protects religious liberty and freedom.’”

WHAT IT MEANS: It’s not just about abortion or gay rights, though those issues have been an animating force of the religious right for the last several decades. (Yesterday marked Roe v. Wade’s forty-fifth anniversary. [ABC]) It’s really that the religious right has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the white conservative movement, which has pronounced authoritarian instincts that seek to preserve the social order. (Want to get way into the weeds? Check out the literature review in my typo-ridden master’s thesis.)
  • As Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler (a UNC alum) explain in their seminal 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics: “Those who score high in authoritarianism tend to have a different cognitive style than those who score low. The former tend to view the world in more concrete, black and white terms. This is probably because they have a greater than average need for order. In contrast, those who score low in authoritarianism have more comfort with ambiguous shades of gray, which allow for more nuanced judgments.” This preference for order leads to not just anti-gay and anti-black policy preferences, but also “military conflict over diplomacy and protecting security over preserving civil liberties. … The underlying orientation that structures all these things—race, morals, and hawkishness—is authoritarianism.” They also note that people who score high in authoritarianism tend to score high in religiosity, too.
  • From this vantage point, the religious right’s embrace of Trump makes more sense. Beyond abortion and gay rights, it’s also about the tax cuts (which benefit wealthy whites), Trump’s nonsense about “Merry Christmas” (which plays to a sense that Christian’s privileged status is under attack), Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel (which plays to apocalypticism), Trump’s belligerence in foreign affairs (which plays to their hawkishness), and even Trump playing footsie with white nationalists. They want to preserve the social order, which is white, heterosexual, and patriarchal, amid changing cultural mores. Trump is a nakedly authoritarian president. He speaks to them. In fact, he’s more like them than they would like to admit. (He just swears more and has more sex with porn stars.)
  • That’s not to say every evangelical is an authoritarian, just that evangelicals are more likely to be authoritarian, and that helps explain their slavishness toward a vulgar, amoral, irreligious president.

Related: A week after the Stormy Daniels news broke, the White House has announced that Melania Trump will not be accompanying the president to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. [CNN]

Related: The watchdog group Common Cause filed complaints with the Federal Elections Commission Monday arguing that Trump’s lawyer’s payment of $130,000 in hush money violated campaign finance laws. [Politico]


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