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Trump & Religious Conservatives

Is this the face of a leader Christian conservatives can get behind? (360b / Shutterstock.com)

So, here we are in the cold light of day, after both parties’ conventions, and from my point of view as a religious conservative, I see nothing good.

The things most important to me this year — religious liberty, and the protection of life — are things Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are firmly, even militantly, against. Aside from their platform positions and HRC’s convention speech, take a look at these findings in the recent WikiLeaks document dump. Excerpt:

Leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee show efforts to arrange a meeting with a key NGO working to end religious liberty protections.

The emails were among thousands that surfaced on the website WikiLeaks July 22. The leak included emails to and from several DNC lead staffers during the period from January 2015 to May 25, 2016.

Two May 16 emails from DNC lead staffers, titled “Who do you want at the religious exemption research meeting?”, discuss a presentation from the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBT advocacy group which has challenged religious freedom protections as harmful.

The emails follow up on an April 11 email from Mike Gehrke, vice president of the Benenson Strategy Group consulting firm, to DNC communications director Luis Miranda and Mark Paustenbach, the DNC’s deputy communications director and national press secretary.

Gehrke said his colleague Amy Levin has been working with the Movement Advancement Project “over the past couple years” to develop “messaging and creative executions around religious exemptions laws” such as Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.

Religious Freedom Restoration Acts and other provisions have provided key protections for Catholics and other religious organizations against laws that would otherwise require them to violate their religious and moral beliefs.

This is not exactly news to people who have been following the religious liberty issue closely. Democrats see it as a code phrase for anti-gay bigotry, which they are determined to stamp out, no matter what. The Democratic Party is the enemy of religious conservatives. I wish it weren’t the case, but there’s no getting around it. Religious conservatives now find ourselves in the same relationship to the GOP as gays were to the Democrats in the Clinton era: they’re not really our friends, but they’re not our enemies either, so we’ll take what we can.

But … Trump? I am not going to recite again the litany of reasons why he is unacceptable to religious conservatives like me. You’ve heard it all before. Let it suffice to say that I don’t feel that I can vote for either one, but my mind is open to change. If I vote, I would vote for a lesser evil to stop a greater evil, and whichever way I decided on election day, I would be so disgusted with my vote that I would never tell a soul how I voted. That’s how strongly I feel about this.

Political scientist Carson Holloway has a good short piece at First Things talking about the death of Reaganism, and asking about the future of religious conservatives in politics. As you know if you’ve been following this blog, I’m in the final stages of finishing my book on the Benedict Option. A friend and reader of this blog who was kind enough to read the most recent draft of the book and offer critical commentary told me yesterday that he thinks the politics chapter is the best one. What I propose in it is nothing like anything on the table today, but I think it’s realistic. I’m not going to lay it out here, because hey, I want to save something for the book, and besides, it has very little to do with politics as statecraft — and therefore, is not relevant to the decision facing religious conservatives this fall.

Carson’s piece does, however. He says that there is no question that religious conservatism is a greatly diminished force in American public life, and that if religious conservatives want to have any hope at all of their (our) views being respected, and our interests being protected, in law and policy, we have to enter into some kind of coalition. Excerpts:

In judging whether to enter into such a political coalition, politically responsible and politically astute religious conservatives must ask themselves three questions. First, are the other issues and interests that go into the coalition themselves conducive to the common good? Second, are those other issues and interests friendly, or at least not hostile, to the core principles that religious conservatives cherish? Third, is the coalition politically viable—that is, can it wield enough political influence to win elections and shape public policy?

Holloway says — and I completely agree with him, that “an alliance with the left is out of the question, since the American left regards religious conservatism as a form of bigotry.”

Do not dismiss the seriousness of that point. If you want to know how traditional Christians are going to be treated in law and policy under Democratic rule, consider that they believe we are no different from racists. All of society is moving this way, of course, but Republicans more slowly than Democrats. More:

Accordingly, religious conservatives must ask themselves whether they can fruitfully and conscientiously enter into a political coalition such as Donald Trump is trying to build. That means asking the three questions identified above. Is there anything in the new populist nationalism that is intrinsically hostile to religious conservatism? Are its issues—its concerns about immigration, trade, and foreign policy—consistent with the common good? And does it plausibly point the way to the creation of a governing coalition in which religious conservatives might play a helpful role?

Religious conservatives have a responsibility to think through these questions without their minds being clouded by either nostalgia for Ronald Reagan or disdain for Donald Trump. Reagan should still be admired for his qualities as a statesman, even if Reaganism is no longer a viable political program. And the issues Trump has raised deserve careful consideration, even if one find’s Trump’s private life or his demeanor as a candidate troubling.

I let go of Reaganism a long time ago, because it really does have very little to do with the world we live in now, and the challenges facing us. Religious conservatives who allow their thinking to be conditioned by Reagan nostalgia are doing themselves no favors. He left office nearly 30 years ago! The world has changed. One big reason the GOP finds itself in the terrible mess it does with Trump is that the Republican establishment could not bring itself to think beyond Reaganism, which had degenerated into platitudes.

Let’s set aside Trump’s character for the sake of this thought experiment proposed by Holloway. Mind you, I’m thinking through all this in public. I don’t know the answers. Let’s think through it together.

1. Is there anything in the new populist nationalism that is intrinsically hostile to religious conservatism?

Yes, but mostly no. To the extent that the New Populist Nationalism (NPN) rejects wars to spread democracy abroad, I find that consonant with a traditionalist understanding of religion and how it works. In fact, as we have seen with Obama, and as we will see with Hillary, wherever American governmental influence expands in the Third World, so does liberal ideologies bent on undermining traditional religious and moral belief in those countries. If the NPN will stop the State Department from exporting secular liberalism and the Sexual Revolution abroad, it will actually help religious conservatism, generally speaking.

But I find the white nationalist aspects of NPN to be deeply undermining of Christian conservatism. Christianity is not White People At Prayer. To the extent NPN defines America as Us = White People, Them = Non-White People, then yes, it does undermine traditional Christianity.

2. Are its issues—its concerns about immigration, trade, and foreign policy—consistent with the common good?

I think so. I see no intrinsic problem with NPN’s stances on these issues. NPN might be wrong on any of these issues, but I don’t see that their position one way or the other has to do with religious conservatism. I happen to think more favorably about NPN’s general positions on these issues than many of my religious conservative friends, but that’s for reasons not related to religious conservatism. If I were a political neoconservative, that would complicate matters. But I’m not.

3. And does it plausibly point the way to the creation of a governing coalition in which religious conservatives might play a helpful role?

I wish I thought it did, but I’m very skeptical. If there were more to the movement than Trump, this would be a more live question. Trump is not one of us, and doesn’t understand us. That is clear. But unlike Hillary, he is not actively hostile to us. Even before Trump, the GOP was fast moving away from us. If Marco Rubio were the nominee right now, or even Ted Cruz, the days in which religious conservatives played a helpful role in the right-of-center coalition are numbered, and in fact may have come to an end already. This is because Big Business funds the GOP, and Big Business is opposed to religious conservatism and religious liberty. Period. The end. The Indiana RFRA collapse and all that followed is all you need to know. And, as I’ve told you before, meeting with key Christian conservatives on Capitol Hill last fall, I learned that the GOP has no legislative plans to protect religious liberty. Things may have changed since then, but I’m telling you, we aren’t going to get anything we want out of the Republicans going forward. The best we can hope for is that the inevitable will be delayed.

The core problem is that we are the Out Group now. I mean, we always were, but we really are now. And if you know the slightest thing about the emerging demographic picture in America, you know that religious conservatism is over as a meaningful political force. The only reason for Republicans to support us is because it’s the right thing to do. Even at the state level, GOP legislators are getting hammered hard on the religious liberty issue by lobbyists for industry. That’s where it hurts.

So, here’s where I stand regarding the election this fall, as a religious conservative:

  • Neither candidate is good for religious conservatives. It’s only a matter of which one is less bad.
  • The best we can hope for from Trump is that his judicial nominees and administrative appoints might not think we’re nasty bigots who need to be crushed. Trump cannot be counted on to advance our interests, only to keep those that despise us more or less at bay. I say “more or less” because Trump is so mercurial.
  • Hillary is not mercurial. A Hillary presidency would guarantee the rapid advancement of abortion rights, gay rights, and the contraction of the religious liberties we depend on.
  • Neither one would be for the common good, in my judgment, but Trump’s thin skin and lack of principle rattles me to the core as a conservative. There is no sense of stability in that guy. I don’t look forward to waking up every day wondering what the president has said next, and what the fallout could be, both domestically and internationally.
  • Because of her principles, Hillary is more likely to get us into a war. That’s one view. Another is: because of his character and lack of self-discipline, Trump is more likely to get us into a war. Which one is more dangerous? I honestly don’t know.
  • I had a long conversation with a black friend in Baton Rouge this morning, about the race situation in the city. He lives in the neighborhood not far from where Sterling was shot. It’s a violent place, he said. He also said the feeling on the streets is that if that cop who shot Sterling walks, people are ready to fight. It worries him a lot. Me, I’m thinking that with Trump in the White House, a bad situation across the US is going to get worse. Even if Trump is right about this or that particular incident, he is so provocative and incendiary that he’s going to blow it up instead of defuse it, because that’s his way. So while I am certain that Hillary will be worse on the specific issues I care about as a religious conservative, I also believe Trump will be worse for social peace and cohesion. That’s important too. That’s really important. When I look at Donald Trump, I see not one bit of love towards neighbor, or charity towards anybody. The thing is, I don’t see it in Hillary either, but she’s a lot more in control of herself about it, which is not nothing in such a volatile situation as we find ourselves in as a nation.
  • My attitude until now has been that I cannot bring myself to vote for either one. I genuinely believe that we religious conservatives are a spent force in politics as statecraft, and will have to massively rethink our position. I do not believe that we can disengage from the public square. Rather, we have to think creatively, and change the terms of our engagement. If a religious conservative I know votes for Trump, I will regret that, but I won’t necessarily blame them. Same if they vote Hillary. But I leave open the possibility that one of these two candidates will do something so terrible this fall that I feel compelled to vote for the other, either to protect my interests (in which case, vote for Trump) or to protect the common good (in which case, vote for Hillary). The thing is, I don’t see my interests (pro-life, pro-religious liberty) as contradicting the common good, but rather as part of the common good. Trump would have to convince me that he’s a clear and present danger to the national security or basic civil peace of the nation for me to vote against him. To get me to vote for him, Trump would have to prove to me that as bad as he is, it’s better to take a chance on him than to go with the devil we know.
  • As a conservative, I am deeply suspicious of the “Let’s blow it up and see what happens next, because it can’t get any worse than this” line, which I’m hearing from some Trump supporters. Oh yeah? It can always get a lot worse. On the other hand, the neoliberal order can’t keep going like this, and shouldn’t. The idea of four more years of the same stuff, even if it were from a GOP president, is enervating. In many ways this feels like the late 1970s, when people were just fed up with the stagnancy of our politics and our economy. That’s why they took a chance on Reagan. But Trump is no Reagan.
  • Bottom line: there are no good options for religious conservatives this fall, and no bad options either. There are only terrible options. As I said, my inclination is to wash my hands of the whole thing, but I’m going to try to do what Carson Holloway says, and think through this more clearly. What he’s really saying is that religious conservatives have to decide if they can stand to do a deal with Trump. I have good friends whose views I respect on both sides of the issue. My stance now is no, we cannot make that deal. But I am open to persuasion.
  • But hey, religious conservative, understand this: whether you vote for Trump or not, you had better get it straight in your mind that it’s over for us in mainstream politics. It really is. We will still vote (and we should), and we will still take an interest — an active one, I hope — in public affairs. Henceforth, though, we will be voting defensively, for the candidates that are least likely to throw us under the bus. Any Christian leader who tells you we can bring back the old days when our kind had real influence among the Republican Party is trying to pick your pocket for a donation. In April 2015, when Republican Gov. Mike Pence of the red state of Indiana and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson of the red state of Arkansas chose Big Business over the mildest expression of protecting religious liberty, that told you exactly where the GOP was going, and who it was leaving behind.

That’s where my thinking is this morning. What about you?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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