If there is one group of Republicans you would expect to be hostile to Donald Trump, it would have to be evangelical Christians.
Trump is “the most immoral and ungodly man to ever run for President of the United States,” John Stemberger, president of Florida Family Action, said in a statement this week. “Trump is a thrice married owner of casinos with strip clubs and would give us the first ‘First Lady’ who has proudly posed in the nude while supporting gay marriage and funding Planned Parenthood with taxpayer money.”
Stemberger appears to be a lonely voice in the evangelical choir. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll last week, Trump is leading the Republican pack among self-described evangelical Christians with 42 percent, ahead of Ted Cruz’s 25 percent.
And this week, Trump was warmly welcomed at Liberty University, which bills itself as the world biggest Christian college. “We’re going to protect Christianity,” Trump said to applause. But mostly he gave his standard stump speech, to applause. He didn’t need to do much pandering for this crowd.
Trump has apparently flourished among evangelicals despite his “New York values,” as Ted Cruz put it. That failed attack garnered Cruz insults from New York’s tabloids and charges of anti-Semitism, but it hasn’t hurt Trump. Nor has his life story, resume or decidedly unchristian egomania. Trump doesn’t even have much of a resume as a conservative or a Republican.
None of that seems to matter. The same New York Times/ CBS News poll found that 59 percent of Republican primary voters think this flamboyant celebrity billionaire from New York City shares their values. Interestingly, the poll also shows values are not what voters of either party are worried about this year; “religious values” are the top issue for only 1 percent, the same as “moral values.”
In 2016, so-called “values voters” are anger voters. All voters are anger voters this year, it seems. Trump’s nativism, his aggression toward immigrants and Muslims, his protectionism and macho militarism have been most appealing to angry Republicans and conservatives – so far. According to the Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll, only 32 percent of Republicans in June were even open to backing Trump eventually, but 65 percent are now. Trump is becoming normal quickly.
Conservative writer and scholar Walter Russell Mead wrote this week that Trump is riding a wave of Jacksonian populism.
“It is Jacksonians who most resent illegal immigration, don’t want to subsidize the urban poor, support aggressive policing and long prison sentences for violent offenders and who are the slowest to ‘evolve’ on issues like gay marriage and transgender rights,” he wrote in The American Interest.
“Historically, Jacksonian America has been the enemy of many of what President Obama, rightly, sees as some of America’s most important advances, Mead added. “Jacksonian sentiment embraces a concept of the United States as a folk community and, over time, that folk community was generally construed as whites only. Lynch law and Jim Crow were manifestations of Jacksonian communalism, and there are few examples of race, religious or ethnic prejudice in which Jacksonian America hasn’t indulged.”
Perhaps this describes the limits of Trump’s appeal. Perhaps Trump (and Cruz) have peaked and won’t be able to attract more independents, moderates, disillusioned Democrats and even more conservatives no matter how angry (and white) they are.
But the ease with which Trump has converted so many evangelicals suggests otherwise.