Opinion

How the Religious Right Chose the Most Unusual Candidate in 2016

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Posted: Oct 03, 2017 12:49 PM
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How the Religious Right Chose the Most Unusual Candidate in 2016

He was the most unusual party nominee in American history. He had never held public office. He made his wealth and his reputation in cutthroat real estate deals and as an owner of gambling casinos. He specialized in breaking the rules. His campaign was one of the least orthodox, least disciplined, and least focused in US political history–and still he won his party’s nomination handily.

The immorality of his prior life alone set him apart as an American presidential candidate. He had been married three times and publicly boasted of his marital infidelities. He had often been a guest of adult talk shows where he found it necessary to describe his favorite variations on traditional marital practices. Voters could watch it all on YouTube. During his campaign, he swore, he mocked the handicapped, he insulted nearly every ethnicity in the United States, and he was eager to expose the sins of his political rivals.

None of it did him harm. He seemed coated in invisible Teflon. Even a decade-old recording of him describing sexual conquests real and intended did him no lasting damage. He could not mangle a fact or lob an insult so as to hurt himself in the polls. He was bullet-proof. He was untouchable. He became the forty-fifth president of the United States.

Yet none of this was as surprising as the support from religious Americans that Donald Trump commanded. At his side stood some of the most visible faith leaders in the nation. Famous preachers declared him God’s man. Eminent theologians said he was chosen. Others said he was a Lincoln, perhaps not an orthodox believer but guided nevertheless by the better angels of his nature and the hand of a history-ruling God. A few even said he was a Churchill – crass, blasphemous, gifted, and ordained.

Trump gave back in kind. He spoke of the religion of the left as a religion alien to the good of the nation. He showed he had been doing his homework. He promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment that prevented clergy from supporting political causes and candidates. Few of his rivals even knew what it was. The much-maligned religious right knew, though, and realized in amazement that Donald Trump–of all people–had made himself a champion of their cause.

It was all part of a counterassault in a decades-old war between religious left and religious right. After the grand unity and patriotic fervor of World War II, the nation began to fray, pulled apart largely by competing religious visions. 

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Between the Supreme Court’s 1947 Everson case and its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the United States experienced a sexual revolution, an influential counterculture movement, an influx of non-Judeo/Christian religions, a questioning of the Vietnam War that led in turn to a questioning of national purpose, and a growing distrust of governing officials inspired by the agonizing Watergate scandals. It seemed to millions of Americans that both God and country were under siege.

By the late 1970s, these same Americans believed a counter-insurgency was required. It was time to restore what had been lost…. They would return America to God. They would see the forces of secularism held in check. They would renew the purposes of the founding fathers. The movement did much to shape the nation.

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It was Barack Obama who took up the fallen standard of the religious left. In his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in Boston, he declared, “We worship an awesome God in the Blue States.” It was a trumpet call of faith, an opening salvo in a battle to retake the moral high ground in American politics. It helped carry Obama into the White House in 2008 and gave the nation a presidency devoted to the ideals of the faith-based political left.

Traditional, conservative Americans were forced to watch over the next eight years while the Obama administration attempted a religious redefinition of the American experience. The president repeatedly insisted the nation was no longer Christian. He worked to redefine marriage, redefine acceptable sexual ethics, redefine the nation’s understanding of when human life begins, redefine the basis of public morality–indeed, redefine American history itself. His administration thought nothing of suing traditional Christians for following the dictates of their faith or making them suffer for attempting to honor ancient moral boundaries. Each of these incursions upon religious liberty was championed by a confident president ever quoting the Bible in support of his views.

By the dawn of the 2016 presidential race, religious conservatives were traumatized by the Obama years and fearful a second Clinton presidency would mean more of the same. They would back anyone who could win. They would take a nonbeliever. They would accept a candidate of doubtful morality. They were even willing to risk racial and gender offense on the part of their candidate. They could not endure more years of bombardment from a religious left intent upon remaking the nation.

So they stood with Donald Trump, and in so doing they took responsibility for the Trump presidency before the nation and the world. They “own” him now. They are wed to him, whatever he does. They will be made to answer for the mores, the methods, and the machinations of the Trump administration. They will never be allowed to forget that they are in part responsible for placing the name Trump alongside names such as Washington and Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan.

Excerpted from Choosing Donald Trump by Stephen Mansfield. ©2017. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. www.bakerpublishinggroup.com