News & Politics

Why the Religious Right's Love for the Donald Makes Total Sense

The religious right was formed to protect segregation, so it's no surprise they're drawn to Donald Trump.

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Donald Trump’s triumphant performance in the Nevada caucus, “a testament to his broad appeal among Republican primary voters” as Salon’s Sean Illing writes,  is causing another round of media handwringing about how the giant orange circus clown can possibly be doing so well. Of special interest is why Trump, who has been married three times and likes to brag about how many sex partners he’s had, is doing so well with evangelical voters, who vote for him at about the same rate as other Republicans.

One theory is that they are generically “angry,”  like all other Republicans, and that makes them willing to overlook his many flaws.

Or perhaps it’s because they are forgiving, as Ralph Reed told Lauren Fox of Talking Points Memo. “Evangelicals have a long history of accepting converts to the pro-life and pro family cause at their word,” Reed argued.

But really, this evangelical fervor for Trump isn’t all that surprising when you consider the history of the religious right in this country, a history which suggests these voters are less motivated by faith than they are motivated by conservative ideology. “Jesus” is just the word they apply to their beliefs to make otherwise repulsive reactionary politics seem moral and righteous. Evangelical voting behavior makes way more sense if you assume the politic views come first and the Bible is just the rationalization for them.

Trump’s campaign motto is “Make America Great Again!”, which ties into his campaign theme of a country that’s lost its way and needs to be returned to some halcyon days of yore. What that means is pleasantly vague enough for pundits to project all sorts of narratives onto it, but I would venture that the simplest interpretation is probably the one resonating with the voters: This used to be the sort of country that would never elect a black man (or a woman) to the White House, and Trump is going to get us back to those days again.

His pitch is convincing because he’s successfully painted the rest of the GOP as people are too cowed by the forces of “political correctness” to say what really needs to be said, which is evident to voters in the other candidates’ relative unwillingness (with an eye towards the general election) to race-bait as blatantly as Trump does.

That this racially provocative narrative appeals to evangelicals shouldn’t be surprising, because this particular narrative has always been the motivating, indeed formative narrative of the religious right. It’s forgotten all too often, but the religious right as we know it formed in the South as a direct reaction to the civil rights movement, and its purpose was to use “Jesus” as a cover story to resist desegregation. In 2014, historian Randall Balmer published a Politico article on this quickly fading but critically important history, where he laid out how much of the infrastructure of the religious right was established by racists who were trying to preserve segregation.

As Balmer explains, after Brown v Board of Education, huge swaths of the South reinstated segregation by creating an elaborate private school system, which were deemed “segregation academies.” Jerry Falwell got his start as a religious right leader founding and defending such schools.

But in 1971, the federal government ruled that private non-profit schools could not maintain a tax-exempt status if they banned black students, and the organized efforts to resist this, by using religion as a justification to resist race-mixing, turned into what we now understand as the modern religious right.

To be clear, the religious right was swift in turning away from overt racism to overt sexism as its defining feature, first by fighting the Equal Rights Amendment that would ban sex discrimination and then waging the war on legal abortion, sex ed, and contraception access. But the disappearance of overt claims that Jesus disapproves of race-mixing shouldn’t be mistaken for a total abandonment of white resentment as an organizing force for the Christian right.

Ronald Reagan gets a lot of credit, for understandable reasons, for helping shape the religious right into a definable and powerful Republican voting bloc. He did this in part by feeding them the anti-feminist rhetoric they wanted to hear, but he also did it by pumping out an endless stream of race-baiting that fed directly into the political style of the religious right, which leans heavily on urban legends and rejects empirical evidence.

Reagan loved to thrill his racist audiences by telling tales of a “welfare queen” who bought a Cadillac off welfare or the “strapping young buck” buying T-bones with food stamps. He argued that the Voting Rights Act was “humiliating to the South” and opposed the Civil Rights Act. He kicked off his 1980 campaign in a town where civil rights workers had famously been murdered, and his speech focused on his support for those resisting desegregation. And he won the religious right’s vote, despite being a former movie star and the first (and so far only) divorced President.

Sounds an awful lot like the current front-runner of the Republican race, a man who enjoys tickling his audience with racially loaded urban legends and bigoted insinuations, and whose past as a decadent tabloid fixture and TV star doesn’t seem to ruffle religious right feathers, so long as he keeps the bigoted rhetoric coming.

And yes, while Trump’s history on reproductive rights suggests he’s not as opposed to them as the other candidates, it’s also true that his misogyny is unquestionable. The sad fact of the matter is that he doesn’t have to be against reproductive rights to prove his disdain for female independence, because contempt for women drips off him.

There’s been a lot of attention paid to the fact that Trump won the Latino vote at the Nevada caucus, but don’t believe the hype. Only 8% of the voters who turned out to the Republican caucus were Hispanic, compared to 19% in the Democratic caucus. Eighty-five percent of Republican voters in Nevada were white, compared to 59% of Democratic voters. If you want to understand Republican voters and why they thrill at Trump’s wink-and-nod race-baiting over the stylings of men named Marco Rubio and Rafael “Ted” Cruz, that might be the simplest answer. Yes, even for the ones who like to talk about how much they love Jesus, who they, after all, invariably portray as a white man.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte.