Is the Religious Right Done?

This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference opened with a prayer. (Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)
This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference opened with a prayer. (Credit: Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

For more than three decades, conservative white evangelicals have been a dominant force within the Republican Party, shaping presidential primary contests and turning out to vote for the eventual nominee. This year, though, the relationship is coming undone, as the party — with the votes of a not insignificant number of conservative white evangelicals — is poised to nominate Donald J. Trump.

For a constituency that has made conservative religious values, sexual purity and Bible-driven policy the cornerstone of its politics, Mr. Trump — the twice-divorced, foul-mouthed businessman who praised Planned Parenthood’s health services and nonchalantly gave Caitlyn Jenner permission to use the women’s room in Trump Tower — seems an odd choice.

The religious right faces a reckoning, not just because members of its ranks supported, enabled or acquiesced to Mr. Trump. His success means religious and political leaders must figure out how a religious movement entangled itself in partisan politics and ended up being marginalized by the party it embraced.

The evangelical-Republican alliance, while certainly formidable and enduring, has suffered from growing tensions. Chief among them are inflexible ideological litmus tests on certain issues, such as abortion and gay rights, while internal disagreements over political issues like immigration, as well as core theological concerns, were shrugged off.

For more than 30 years, religious conservatives have been a loyal and, crucially, a predictable voting bloc for the Republicans. This resulted in a lasting deal for Republican candidates: Pledge fealty to the “Christian nation,” promise to ban abortion and (at one time) same-sex marriage, and evangelicals will form an essential and reliable segment of your voting base.

Evangelicals have forgiven past favored candidates for their sins. Ronald Reagan deviated from the movement’s standards on divorce, but he was adept at using religious language, such as “shining city upon the hill.” George W. Bush had an imperfect past, but was redeemed, in evangelical eyes, through religious salvation. In 2004, as 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush, they made up 36 percent of the Bush vote.

Enter Mr. Trump, the candidate who prides himself on unpredictability. His lack of familiarity with the Bible has been a frequent target of ridicule. He publicly declared himself to be against abortion in 2011, when he first toyed with a run for president. While Mitt Romney’s change of heart on abortion — which he dutifully and repeatedly addressed — gave him the flip-flopper label, Mr. Trump has so far repelled any similar branding.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Sarah Posner

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