“It’s been nearly a half century in the making, but the religious right may be heading for it’s reckoning, and oddly enough they’ll have Donald J. Trump to thank for it,” said Prof. Kevin Kruse, history, Princeton University.
Kruse, an award-winning historian and the author of One Nation Under God, placed the presidential election in the context of the United States’ “tangled history of religion and politics” at a lecture Thursday.
Kruse began by describing the increasing importance of religion in both parties. He cited the 2004 Democratic National Convention in which Barack Obama “gave a speech that was draped with religious rhetoric, talking about ‘needing to be my brother’s keeper.’” He also discussed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who he said has adopted the words of John Wesley — the founder of Methodism — as her motto.
“Do all the good you can,” Kruse said, quoting Wesley. “By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
On the Republican side, Kruse discussed what he views as “the embrace of a much bolder agenda from the religious right,” as best illustrated by the elevation of conservative Indiana governor Mike Pence to the party’s vice presidential nominee. According to Kruse, Pence “identifies as a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”
“In sharp contrast to Tim Kaine, who worked hard to separate his personal feelings on matters like abortion and the death penalty from his professional duties as governor, Mike Pence has shown no such qualms,” he said.
According to Kruse, Pence led the charge against Planned Parenthood, severely restricted abortion rights in Indiana, signed a law mandating formal funerals for all fetuses — even in cases of miscarriage — and advocated “a law sanctioning discrimination against LGBT individuals on the basis of religious liberty,” which was seen as “so reactionary” that even prominent businesses like Nascar came out against it.
After establishing the increasing influx of religion into politics, Kruse addressed what he called “the giant, huge elephant in the room: Donald Trump.”
Trump never seemed compatible with socially conservative Christians, according to Kruse.
“He is a twice divorced serial adulterer who ran casinos and appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine, and frequently engaged as a guest, engaging in lewd talk with shock jocks like Howard Stern,” he said.
In addition, Kruse said Trump had historically been a Democrat “in support of reproductive rights, and who had long ago made his peace with LGBT equality.”
Trump also seems to have a shallow understanding of Christianity, revealing his ignorance of the Bible in several interviews, according to Kruse. He recalled an interview in which Trump was “asked to describe any instance in which he had asked God for forgiveness, a central practice of the Christian faith,” to which Trump replied that “he had never done that in his entire life.”
In an interview with Mark Halperin, who Kruse described as “the journalist who has pitched Donald Trump more softballs than a little league coach,” Trump was asked to name his favorite piece of scripture or to cite a single verse he liked, but he refused to name one.
Nevertheless, socially conservative Christians have been a significant factor in Donald Trump’s success, according to Kruse.
The reaction to Trump has been uneven across the religious right, which Kruse defined as a coalition of Mormons, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.
Mormons have overwhelmingly rejected Trump, including influential Mormon leaders and politicians, according to Kruse. He reasoned that this was due to the incompatibility of Trump’s character with Mormon family values, and his proposal for a ban on all Muslim immigration.
“This struck a particular nerve with Mormons, who still remember the ways in which their faith was singled out for religious persecution in the 19th century,” he said. “Suddenly Utah, traditionally the reddest of the red states is now a battleground state.”
According to Kruse, conservative Catholics have also rejected Trump in smaller but still significant numbers — part of a larger liberal trend in the Catholic church.
Catholics have been “inspired by Pope Francis to broaden their focus from narrow issues like abortion and homosexuality, and instead engage more broadly on issues of poverty, racial justice and the environment … The church has been pivoting away from the Culture War for years now,” Kruse said.
Of the three denominations that comprise the religious right, Evangelical Protestants — specifically white Evangelicals — are the only group that continues to support Trump in large numbers, according to Kruse. He proposed that the reason for Trump’s Evangelical support lies in “the different ways in which religious leaders shepherded their flocks.”
Many powerful Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, have vouched for Trump’s religious conviction, according to Kruse. They lent Trump their support and urged their followers to do the same. “This has been the difference maker I think,” Kruse said.
Kruse ended with a discussion of the growing division among Evangelical Protestants over the election. After a recording of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women surfaced this past month, many prominent Evangelical leaders who stood with Trump have rescinded their support.
“I previously called Donald Trump a good candidate with flaws. Now I regret I did not more strongly condemn his moral character. I cannot commend Trump’s moral character, and I strongly urge him now to withdraw from the election,” Kruse said, quoting Wayne Grudem — an Evangelical theologian.
According to Kruse, Beth Moore, a popular Evangelical author, called herself “one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.”
Finally Kruse quoted Jen Hatmaker — a prominent Evangelical lecturer. “This is disgusting. We will not forget. Nor will we forget the Christian leaders that betrayed their sisters in Christ for power.”
Based on the current trends in this election cycle, Kruse concluded that “tremendous change is upon us.”
“The old cross-denominational coalition of the religious right, one that had been in place since the 1970s has been deeply fragmented,” he said.
“Make America Born Again: Religion and Politics in the 2016 Campaign” was the annual LaFeber-Silbey Endowment in History lecture.