Countless articles have been written on Donald Trump’s relationship with the Religious Right, often by those who argue that his rise reveals the movement’s increasing irrelevance. After all, how could social conservatives ever get behind a thrice-married failed casino mogul who is more comfortable at the Playboy Mansion than at church? He has bragged that he has never asked God for forgiveness, insisted that Jesus Christ had a massive ego (in an interview with Playboy) and, in an episode that carries obvious symbolism, threw cash on the communion plate in an Iowa church.
It’s almost as if the Religious Right cares more about gaining political power than defending Christian teachings.
Trump is slated to make an appearance today at the Values Voter Summit, the annual Washington, D.C., convention organized by the Family Research Council that’s the marquis event on the Religious Right’s calendar. Trump’s appearance at the summit isn’t discordant; as his campaign has progressed, it has become clear why the movement has rallied behind him and why he has relied on its support.
Trump once told a crowd at a Christian university not to forgive their enemies but to “get even.” The leaders of today’s Religious Right have been preaching that message for years, treating politics as a no-holds-barred battle against opponents who they regard not just as people with different points of view, but as spiritual enemies.
For instance, Tony Perkins, the president of Family Research Council (FRC), has described supporters of LGBT rights as pawns of Satan.
Just as Trump championed the birther movement, arguing that President Obama is neither an American nor a Christian, Perkins has suggested that Obama is not a true Christian (and is most likely a Muslim) and raised questions about his birthplace. Obama supporters, according to Perkins, must repent for voting for him. One past Values Voter Summit speaker even told the crowd that Obama would shut down all of the country’s churches before leaving office.
Trump’s demagogic, hateful rhetoric has nothing on the Religious Right, whose leaders have been belittling and denigrating LGBT people, religious minorities and Christians who don’t agree with their right-wing political ideology for years.
It wasn’t surprising that most Religious Right leaders who talk a big game on religious liberty either stayed silent or were openly supportive when Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the country. A spokesman for the American Family Association, a cosponsor of the Values Voter Summit, had called for a Muslim ban long before Trump ever did.
While many evangelicals, along with Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, have worked tirelessly to reform the country’s immigration system, conservative Religious Right groups like the FRC and the AFA have denounced immigration reform.
Trump and Religious Right groups have also joined together in portraying American Christians as a marginalized group under constant persecution thanks to the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits houses of worship and other nonprofits from explicitly endorsing candidates if they want to maintain their tax-exempt status, and injustices like the “War on Christmas,” with Trump even claiming that he was personally a victim of anti-Christian persecution because he was subject to a routine IRS audit.
The Religious Right, with its constant talk of the country’s imminent undoing by evil anti-American actors, promotion of conspiracy theories and patently hateful rhetoric, paved the way for Trump’s success in the GOP primaries. Now, Trump needs the movement to help put him over the top in November, and will be more than happy to further its agenda if he makes it into the White House.
At the Values Voter Summit, Trump will surely pander to the Religious Right. But he should also thank them.