Leaders of the Christian right find themselves at a most uncomfortable moment: Do they stick by their man, the GOP nominee, who claimed a right to sexually assault women, boasted of a failed attempt to commit adultery, and generally revealed himself to be a pig in the endlessly looped video recording of Donald Trump and Billy Bush bantering on a hot microphone in 2005?
Truly, they have cast their pearls before swine.
And nonetheless, the ones who count are standing fast. The big names—James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, Marjorie Dannenfelser, Penny Nance, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell Jr.—remain at Trump’s side.
Much is being made of the defection or long-term opposition of other right-wing Christian figures, but these are not the operatives who mobilize voters. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has long stood against Trump on religious grounds, explaining himself yesterday in a Washington Post commentary. Media were also abuzz yesterday with news of an anti-Trump editorial in Christianity Today, one of the more staid publications in right-wing media. CT Executive Editor Andy Crouch writes:
Most Christians who support Trump have done so with reluctant strategic calculation, largely based on the president’s power to appoint members of the Supreme Court. Important issues are indeed at stake, including the right of Christians and adherents of other religions to uphold their vision of sexual integrity and marriage even if they are in the cultural minority.
But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support.
But really, who cares? With his breast-beating, Crouch assumes the religious right is a religious movement. It never was. It is a political movement, grown from the roots of resistance to racial desegregation, designed to preserve white Christian patriarchy. Trump’s misogyny, racism, and religious prejudice, however impolitely stated, are simply expressions of the movement’s animating essence.
When the founders of the religious right, none of them evangelical Christians, sought a face for their voter-organizing movement, they turned to Jerry Falwell, who had built the Lynchburg Christian Academy in order to give white students a school that he believed could legitimately bar blacks from entering on religious grounds. But the religious-right movement really took off with opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, led by the late Phyllis Schlafly.
Since then, the religious right has been the organizing force not only against abortion, but against many forms of contraception. When Majorie Dannenfelser, president of the ironically named Susan B. Anthony List as well as Trump’s pro-life advisory council, claims that various forms of contraception cause abortions, she is lying in an obvious attempt to constrain women’s lives and behavior. She supported a 2012 bill in the Virginia state legislature that would have required women seeking abortion to submit to a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound, involving a probe stuck up her you-know-what. That’s all of a piece with Trump’s claim to a right to “grab” women “by the pussy.”
If anything defines the 2016 election, it’s the misogyny, stupid. And that’s why jeremiads such as Russell Moore’s, which decries the hypocrisy of Christian-right leaders who stand by Trump, will fall on deaf ears in the pews. The Christian right has always been a white patriarchy identity movement, and Trump is the obvious warrior to take on a feminist candidate poised to become the first woman president of the United States. He may not win, but he will stoke the opposition to her presidency.
On Monday, reports Peter Montgomery of Right Wing Watch, Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, delivered a speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. After saying he did not “appreciate” Trump’s “offensive” and “inappropriate” comments made to Billy Bush, then of Access Hollywood, in the 2005 videotape, Reed made the case for voting Trump:
We must confront the choice before us and vote for someone who actually has a chance to become president. We dare not and we cannot surrender our vote during such an important election. Retreating to the stained-glass ghetto from whence we came, refusing to muddy our boots with the mire and muck of politics is not an option for followers of Christ.
The Reverend Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, attributed Trump’s sexual-assault boast to “macho” talk. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, penned a commentary explaining that his choice to support Trump wasn’t because he shared the candidate’s values, “it was common concerns over the Supreme Court, abortion, religious liberty, and our nation’s ability to protect itself.” In other words, abortion, abortion, contraception and freedom to discriminate against LGBTs, and the Iran deal. There’s a whole lotta misogyny in that pile.
The tensions in the religious right exposed by Trump have always existed; they do not spell the end of the movement. It’s a movement that periodically falls in on itself, and then always re-emerges in a more virulent form.
Many cite the fact that millennial evangelicals are more accepting of LGBT people than their elders, and are more comfortable with the notion of a multiracial, multi-ethic, religiously diverse society. But they’re every bit as opposed to abortion as those who came before them. And I’d bet my bottom dollar that they’ll organize against women’s rights, all in the grand tradition from which they come.