On Super Tuesday, Donald Trump easily swept the four states with the heaviest majorities of Protestants who consider themselves “evangelicals” – Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia.
So the campaign’s major religious puzzle – likely to be pondered come 2020 and 2024 – continues to be how to explain Trump’s appeal to Bible Belters.
Yes, Trump brags that he’s either a “strong Christian,” “good Christian” or “great Christian.” Many GOP voters don’t buy it. And they don’t care. Pew Research Center polling in January showed only 44 percent of Republicans and Republican “leaners” see Trump as either “very” or “somewhat” religious, while 24 percent said “not too” religious and 23 percent “not at all.”
That’s far below the “very” or “somewhat religious” image of Marco Rubio (at 70 percent) who’d be the party’s first Catholic nominee, Baptist Ted Cruz (76 percent) and Seventh-day Adventist Dr. Ben Carson (80 percent). Anglican John Kasich was not listed.
An anti-Trump evangelical who worked in the Bush 43 White House, Peter Wehner, posed the question in a harsh New York Times piece: “Mr. Trump’s character is antithetical to many of the qualities evangelicals should prize in a political leader.” Their backing for “a moral degenerate” is “inexplicable” and will do “incalculable damage to their witness.” Many such words are being tossed about in religious, journalistic, and political circles.
Observers who hate Christians, or evangelicals, or social conservatives, or political conservatives, or Republicans, have a ready answer: The GOP and especially its religious ranks are chock full of creeps, fools, and racists.
For example, to atheist blogger James Croft: “Trump is not a perversion of American Christianity, but its apotheosis” shown in “nakedly evil” beliefs on social issues. Amanda Marcotte of slate.com says President Ronald Reagan emitted an “endless stream of race-baiting” and so does his fellow divorcee Trump, aided by a “religious right” rife with “overt racism” and “overt sexism.” Liberal evangelical Jim Wallis agrees that Trump taps into “deeply rooted racial attitudes.” Trump himself reinforced that narrative with this week's strange stumble over the Ku Klux Klan.
Among friendly observers, Yale Professor David Gelernter (in The Weekly Standard) sees a huge rebellion against “thought-police liberalism” that treats Christians as “a bygone force, reactionary, naïve and irrelevant.” Writing in The Washington Post, R.R. Reno (of First Things) says religious conservatives feel “pushed aside” by the “Republican Party grandees” and “big-money people.” Peggy Noonan (Wall Street Journal) thinks“protected” elitists have exercised power oblivious to their policies’ dire impact on “unprotected” masses.
The Religion Guy was especially intrigued by bean-counting on the South Carolina returns by J.D. Vance for National Review. The South is high in professed religiosity, he says, but evangelicalism is actually divided between folks who think of themselves as evangelicals culturally and those who actually follow and practice the faith. See this tmatt post here at GetReligion for more info on that syndrome.
Trump scored best in counties with relatively low church attendance while Cruz led in areas full of regular churchgoers. Similarly, the Barna Group defines "evangelical" by nine theological criteria and finds Cruz their GOP favorite at 38 percent, followed by Carson at 35 percent.
Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist, proposes a broader scenario. Until now evangelicals supposed “the country was more conservative than not, more Christian than not.” Believing that's no longer true they turn in desperation to Trump, “an unchurched secularist” they hope “will protect them, regardless of his personal ethics.”
Summary: “Congratulations to the American Left: You asked to win the culture wars – and evangelicals are giving you Donald J. Trump.”
Please pause to consider these facts, often neglected in the current swirl of punditry:
(1) Evangelical Protestants (think African-Americans) are often the largest religious bloc among Democrats (per Pew Research), with 20 percent across the 11 Super Tuesday states, though outnumbered by the 25 percent of Democrats with no religious identity.
(2) “Religious right” analyses that slam evangelicals rarely mention the right’s significant Catholic constituency.
(3) If we exclude heavily Democratic Hispanics, the self-identified "Sunday Mass" Catholics will very likely decide who becomes the next president.