Eighty percent of white evangelical voters voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
For many of these self-described “value voters,” Trump was a walking contradiction of nearly everything they claim to believe in — a vulgar, thrice-married real estate tycoon whose brand is built on money, women, and debauchery.
Still, they voted for him. The question is why?
Author Stephen Mansfield tries to answer this question in his new book, Choosing Donald Trump. Mansfield is a conservative Christian who did not support Trump, but he does his best to understand the wager his fellow Christians made when they threw their lot in with Trump.
He argues that religious conservatives knew Trump was flawed but took a chance on him anyway. Tired of establishment Republicans and weary of the Obama years, they were willing to roll the dice on a guy they thought could deliver on a few crucial issues, namely handing over the Supreme Court to pro-life justices.
I sat down with Mansfield to talk about this and about the state of the religious right more generally. He says that Christian conservatives now “own” Trump, and will pay a huge price if he proves to be a moral and political disaster.
“They supported him so fully that they own him in the eyes of the American people. And they’ve taken a great risk,” he told me.
But Mansfield also says he isn’t willing to call religious leaders like Franklin Graham hypocrites for cozying up to Trump. “Some of them I think were just sincere believers,” he said. “Some of them sincerely believe that Donald Trump was ordained by God and actually going to put the right people on the Supreme Court and fight for religious liberty.”
Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, appears below.
Why did so many Christian conservatives flock to Trump?
That’s a great question. I think you have to understand how many religious conservatives perceived Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. They felt like they had been traumatized by Barack Obama and his administration. He was stridently pro-abortion; most religious conservatives aren’t. His wife and he were strident advocates for the pro-LGBT agenda; most religious conservatives aren’t.
It’s not just that they supported certain movements that religious conservatives didn’t; it’s also that these conservatives felt like they were being bombarded. I know you’ll object to this, but from their perspective, what happened to the Green family in the Hobby Lobby case was mystifying and upsetting. In churches across the country, there was outrage and anger, and that impacted how these people viewed the Obama administration — and, by extension, Hillary Clinton.
Wherever you and I might be on those issues, all of this was either traumatizing or terrifying to religious conservatives. Then comes Donald Trump. By the time it got past the primaries, what they wanted was somebody who could just win. And he was as angry as they were. They channeled his anger. They thought they had someone who was with them on the main issues, who was tough and could win, and who was as angry as they were. All of that worked into the witches’ brew that swept him into office.
One question I have is why should any of these people have believed that Trump was with them? Or that he could be trusted? The man’s entire life is stuffed with lies and distortions and debaucheries.
Well, now you put your finger on the real heart of my book. The case I’m making is that he ended up with a highly visible sales team full of religious leaders who supported him. All of the other GOP candidates were more authentic, more articulate, and had deeper evangelical roots than Trump. But Trump wisely started meeting with clergy to hear their concerns. He wisely became a champion of opposition to the Johnson Amendment. He came out strongly against abortion. He came out strongly for religious liberty.
That then won over prominent clergymen like Franklin Graham and James Dobson. They became apologists for him and used language like, “Well, he’s like Churchill. Maybe profane but still ordained.” One of the big positions was that he’s Cyrus the Great from the Old Testament, where Cyrus was a vile pagan but still used by God for his purposes. All of this was bandied about. All of this was spoken from pulpits. All of this was said on religious media and secular media like Fox News, etc.
So the answer to your question is the religious conservatives were convinced by their leaders.
In that case, let’s talk about these leaders. Why did they prostrate themselves before Trump? Were they just opportunists looking to elbow their way closer to power?
I think some of them did just sell out for power. There’s no question. When a few of them were asked recently, “Why would you support Trump so full-throatedly?” they basically said, “Because we know we have access with this president we’ve never had before in our lifetimes.” It was transactional in that sense.
Some of them I think were just sincere believers. I don’t necessarily want to accuse them of being hypocrites or liars in every case. Some of them sincerely believe that Donald Trump was ordained by God and actually going to put the right people on the Supreme Court and fight for religious liberty.
They were also reacting to what they saw in Obama and what they anticipated in Hillary Clinton, and that made them willing to go with somebody they probably never would have considered before. And these religious leaders had to make excuses for behavior they had derided from their own pulpit, but still, they came to the conclusion before the general election that Donald Trump would champion their views.
I look at this behavior from the outside and think: These religious leaders are charlatans. If they were willing to bend the knee for a man like Trump, who personifies everything they claimed to despise, then they’re frauds — all of them. Is that unfair?
I think it is fair in this sense: I think that many of them who have essentially traded the moral high ground for access have stepped down from their lofty pulpit, their lofty positions, and have therefore opened themselves up to criticism. They’re supposed to be representatives of God, of Christian morality. To the extent that they merely become power brokers, they deserve the beating they get.
I think that’s the great risk. In the book, I say that these religious conservatives now own Donald Trump. They take an ownership of him. They supported him so fully that they own him in the eyes of the American people. And they’ve taken a great risk. The millennials are distancing themselves from these crowds because they’re horrified. Non-Christian religions are horrified by Trump. The watching world is horrified. The more traditional church crowd, not so much the right-leaning church crowd, is horrified. So they have risked a great deal, and they’ve bet on a horse that’s rather unstable.
If Trump turns out to be a moral and political disaster, is the religious right in this country permanently damaged?
I don’t think there’s any question about that. I think they have bet the farm on Donald Trump. They’ve taken a tremendous risk, and if Donald Trump betrays their vision, which he’s already done in some matters, then their banner may be driven from the field of cultural debate for a generation or more. They will simply not be heard, because they are standing with him no matter what he does. They’re too far in now to back away from him and distance themselves.
Even for a skeptic like me, it was shocking to see all these people who for so many years preached the importance of moral character completely abandon everything for the sake of raw political calculation.
I absolutely agree with you. Their big knock on Obama, apart from his policies, was that they weren’t sure he was a moral man. Or they weren’t sure he was a Christian. Well, now they’re voting for Trump and saying, “Well, we’re voting for president and not for Sunday school teacher.” That wasn’t the case they were making with Barack Obama, but it is the case they’re making with Trump. They’re scrambling to appear consistent here.
I spoke to a lot of these people while writing this book, and many of them are friends of mine. What they say is that they’re willing to put up with Trump so long as he does certain powerful things like put the right people on the Supreme Court. It will only take another appointment to the Supreme Court by the Trump administration to affect the direction of the Court for years and years, and they know that.
They’ll just tell you straight up, “We’re willing to put up with the cussing and the chaos of the White House and the bombast and some of the idiocy if he just appoints the right people to the Court and does a couple of other things.”
Again, from the outside, I look at this and conclude that religion was never as paramount as these people claimed it was. I think it was always a prop, used to justify deeper values and biases.
Well, I take a little bit more moderate stance than that. I think that sincerely religious people can be deceived. I think they can be idiots, and I think they can be wrongheaded. What we’re talking about right now is the great threat to the religious right, which is that people look at them and say, “Well, you guys are frauds.” Because I’m a Christian, I’m able to say that Christian people can be idiots. They can be racist and still be sincere about their religion. They can be deceived in an election and still be sincere about their religion.
It’s not fair to say that their religion is entirely false, but I certainly can understand that charge. I just don’t think it’s the case in most situations here. Franklin Graham is not a fraud as a Christian. James Dobson is not a fraud as a Christian. They can have moments of idiocy. They can be people who are deceived by a strong personality or get caught up in their fears and terror of Obama and Hillary.
See, I think you’re wrong there. I think you’re making excuses for these religious leaders. I think you’re not giving them credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing. I don’t think we should give them the benefit of doubt and assume they’ve been duped. In fact, I think it’s imperative that we do the opposite and call them on their hucksterism.
Well, you might be right. But look, there were plenty of Christian leaders who were outspoken against Trump — they were just beaten by the right. But they did take a stand on behalf of their principles, and they deserve credit for that.
But I think you’re right. It’s hard to know exactly what was going through the minds of some of these people, but what I know for sure is that those religious leaders who supported Donald Trump had to swallow a great deal that they had criticized before. Now, were they just in a transactional power-broking mode? Were they deceived? Were they idiots? I don’t know, but I do think they were dead wrong.
What do you think becomes of the fractured relationship between the Christian evangelical community and the Republican Party? This was always a tenuous alliance, and it appears to have finally blown apart. What happens now?
I think we’re going to have a wave of independents. I know many like that. I think many of them are tired of the conservative church being the Republican Party at prayer. They see merits on the other side. Again, they’re not gonna go full-on Democrat, because some of these central moral issues like abortion and LGBT and what have you are just not going to let them become Democrats.
But I also think they recognize that there are pro-life Democrats, that Democrats may be closer to the teachings of Jesus when it comes to the poor. So perhaps they’ll want to be in the middle and be able to choose and not just reflexively pull a switch for Republicans.
I think those days are over.