If Donald Trump does well in tonight’s primary and caucus states, it put to rest the fevered dreams for a brokered convention and make him the all-but-certain GOP presidential nominee. And if that happens, it will signal a huge split among the evangelical right voters who are a core of the Republican base.
On the surface, Trump is the weakest possible vessel for the religious right. He’s been married three times, invested (disastrously) in casinos, and demonstrates the slimmest possible understanding of basic Christian doctrine. Yet time and again in the primaries, evangelical voters have turned out in significant numbers for him. It’s not like they don’t have other choices. Ted Cruz is a custom-built candidate for conservative Christians, leading his rallies in prayer and frequently turning to his preacher father for help on the stump.
Yet Trump has consistently cut into Cruz’s support among evangelicals.
Much as the Republican establishment has lost control of its base, the evangelical leadership is finding its flock ignores its exhortations against Trump, which is driving them crazy.
“For some evangelicals, Christianity is no longer shaping their politics,” says Peter Wehner, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “With Mr. Trump in view, their faith lies subordinate.” Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist complained in the pages of the Washington Post that voting for Trump was “deeply inconsistent with an application of the Christian faith.”
As it turns out, two things have been happening. Self-identified evangelicals are now less of a voting bloc than everyone seems to believe. A significant number have become cultural Christians, much like many non-Church going Catholics still think of themselves as Catholic. They don’t attend Church all that often, they aren’t as tied to the teachings of their pastors and they follow their own counsel.
At the same time, the religious right leadership has overplayed its hand. It’s been holding a metaphorical gun (or Bible) at the head of the Republican party for the longest time, threatening destruction if the party doesn’t follow its demands. But now it turns out, it can’t deliver on its threat of retribution at the ballot box. In short, it can’t deliver the votes.
What that means for the future isn’t clear. The mass of evangelicals are still really conservative. It’s not as if evangelicals have been flocking to Bernie Sanders instead of Ted Cruz. Instead, they chose the closest thing in American politics to Kim Jong-Un.
Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise. For years, religious right leaders like Franklin Graham have been singing the praises of another strongman, Vladimir Putin. Now we have a candidate who admires Putin and seems happy to emulate him. Of course, the Bible predicted that: as you sow, so shall you reap.