Here’s an unsettling reality about the era of Trumpism the U.S. has entered: The most enthusiastic celebrations of Donald Trump’s upset victory in the U.S. presidential campaign are coming from Christian conservatives and from hard-core white nationalists.
Religious Right leaders have been so busy celebrating Trump’s divinely assisted victory that they apparently haven’t found time to notice or denounce the wave of violence and intimidation against people of color, religious minorities and LGBT people from Trump supporters who feel emboldened by his defeat of “political correctness.”
Religious Right leaders can hardly be surprised by the violence and harassment being carried out in Trump’s name given his behavior on the campaign trail, such as telling his followers to beat the crap out of protesters or dismissing violence done in his name by chalking it up to the perpetrators’ passionate love of country.
For conservative Christian leaders, it seemed, the lure of political power trumped all the extremely evident ways in which Trump defied what had traditionally been Religious Right demands for moral character in politicians: his contempt for a free press, his promotion of racial and ethnic bigotry and anti-Muslim religious discrimination, his vile misogyny. Trump’s character didn’t matter, some said openly, as long as he came through on his promise to deliver the Supreme Court that would roll back marriage equality and legal access to abortion. Some even said his flawed character was part of God’s plan, that God needed a strongman who would be a “wrecking ball” against political correctness and would “bulldoze” the political elites.
Religious Right leaders not only supported Trump as the lesser of two evils, they declared him divinely anointed and the answer to prophecy. They dismissed evidence of his character flaws—even his bragging about serial sexual assault—saying that Trump has found Jesus in recent years so his “past” shouldn’t be held against him.
Trump’s conservative religious supporters seem unbothered by the announcement that Stephen Bannon will become chief strategist in the Trump White House. Bannon proudly turned Breitbart News into a platform for the Alt-Right’s racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and Islamophobia. Then, after taking the reins of Trump’s campaign in the final months of the presidential race, he led a brutally divisive campaign that promoted classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in its closing weeks.
None of that seems to present a problem for the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, who went out of his way to praise Bannon’s appointment, as did a number of white nationalist leaders. True, Bannon’s appointment drew condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League, but hey, did you see his “Christian war film” that was screened during the Republican National Convention?
The Religious Right and the openly bigoted Alt-Right were the Trump campaign’s most ardent supporters. The neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer endorsed Trump within two weeks of his Mexican-rapist-denouncing campaign launch. White nationalist leaders ran robo-calls in key states to drum up support for Trump and former KKK leader David Duke encouraged his supporters to volunteer for the campaign as a way to meet like-minded people.
It took a bit longer for most white evangelical leaders, many of whom had backed Ted Cruz in the GOP primary, to get on the Trump Train, but once they did they were all in. Conservative Christian political operatives like Ralph Reed ran massive get-out-the-vote operations, which helped deliver 81 percent of the white evangelical vote to the pathologically dishonest, self-glorifying Trump, who declared he had never done anything that might have required him to ask for God’s forgiveness.
When hundreds, in some reports a thousand, conservative Christian leaders gathered to meet Trump in person in June, his appeal the Religious Right was simple: Back me and I will make you more powerful by letting you put your religious beliefs about family, sex and gender into the law, and by removing legal obstacles to turning your churches even more nakedly into arms of my political movement.
Before the election, evangelical writer Eric Sapp characterized Trump’s offer to Christians as the same one the devil made to Jesus Christ. In the Bible story, Satan offers to give Jesus power to rule over the earth if only Jesus will bow to the devil. “American Christians should not take a deal Jesus rejected,” wrote Sapp.
But Trump, who clearly hasn’t studied the Bible as often as he’s waved it around at political rallies, may have based his energetic wooing of the Religious Right on a different Faustian bargain, a more contemporary one.
Trump has often expressed his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin, another strongman who is out to renew his country’s greatness and has little concern for anything, like a free press, that might stand in his way. Putin built a strategic alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has bolstered both his nationalist power-building and worked with him to promote a larger “right-wing international” centered around the idea of Russia as the savior for traditional Christian civilization against a decadent and secular west—“Gayropa.”
In this effort, the U.S. Religious Right are Putin’s energetic cheerleaders, conveniently ignoring that he has signed into law harsh restrictions on the religious freedom of evangelicals and other non-Orthodox faiths, a move that comes on top of harsh authoritarian moves to restrict dissent and attack independent media and civil society organizations.
Of course, support for Trump’s rise to power in the U.S. was not unanimous among religious leaders and activists. There have been some outspoken dissenting voices from evangelicalism and Catholicism about the support for Trump among their leaders. Christian historian John Fea of Messiah College said “I am particularly saddened that 81 percent of white American evangelicals got into bed with a monster” on Election Day. Fea said he was discouraged about the state of evangelical political witness, but still had hope for its future.
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby and known for leading the Nuns on the Bus, expressed similar sentiments, saying “The bigotry and hate that has been spewed during this campaign season has been dangerous for the people of our nation,” especially for “people of color, women, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and more who are often excluded.” Said Campbell, “A politics of divisiveness won the day but cannot rule our hearts. My faith tells me that now, more than ever, we need to mend the gaps and bridge the divides among us.”