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Did the Religious Right Sell Its Soul or Reclaim Its Purpose?

The following commentary is one in a series from KCET and Link TV writers and contributors reflecting on how the incoming president will shape, change, and redefine the future of California.

Like many constituencies, communities of faith are caught in a quandary when it comes to assessing their prospects during the presidency of Donald Trump. While it’s easy to see the potential issues facing Muslims, conservative Christians will also be challenged to reconcile their support for the new administration with their professed religious beliefs.

Even though this group makes up one of the most politically active and staunchly Republican voting blocs, Donald Trump is by no means an obvious poster child. In fact, although he won this group overwhelmingly in the 2016 election, neither his personal history nor his status as an elite Northeastern businessman fit the common mantras and themes advocated by the religious right. 

Since the glory days of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed, the political savant who mobilized the group into a force in the end of the 1980s, the movement has advocated a set of “standards” that defines its membership and public advocacy. In terms of its support of political candidates, there was an accepted set of check-offs to which anyone seeking their endorsement needed to adhere. This included stances against abortion and gay marriage, for increasing the defense budget, in favor of school prayer, and on a host of other core issues that defined what it meant to be called a Christian conservative.

For years, teary-eyed televangelists lamented America’s perceived decline and implored the country to “turn back to God.” It was the answer to any social, economic, or diplomatic dilemma.  9/11—“Turn back to God.” Mass shootings—“Turn back to God.” Low school performance—“Turn back to God.”  Even the movement’s opposition to the now-outgoing president could be couched in these terms as they painted Barack Hussein Obama as a false prophet with ulterior, anti-Christian (read: Muslim) allegiances. In essence, rejecting Obama was embracing “the true God.”

Some Americans, especially those on the blue coasts, never gave the religious right the benefit of the doubt. They always viewed the movement as a sacred veil to hide its secular intentions. To them, “religious right” is just code for Southern, closed-minded, vindictive, and racist. While other critics are not as harsh, many still view the movement and its tactics as naïve and/or misplaced. One point of commonality among supporters, detractors, and agnostics is that the movement had a fairly consistent set of standards when it came to supporting political candidates. 

Bill Frist Participates In Conservative Broadcast
Bill Frist participates in conservative broadcast on judicial issues | Photo: Getty Images / Mike Simons / Stringer

This all changed in 2016 as Donald Trump defeated every one of the movement’s champions during the Republican primaries. As he hurled stone after stone at the giants of the establishment, once-principled stalwarts within the movement came to bend the knee for Trump. The most crushing of these capitulations was when Ted Cruz, the last opposition to Trump’s total destruction of the temple of conservative Christianity, ended his campaign and picked up a phone to call the faithful to Trump’s side.

In the wake of this destruction and Trump’s new mandate to recreate the party and the nation in his own image, Christian conservatives have to ask themselves two questions: “Is this really what we wanted?” and “How can we support a leader whose personal history, public demeanor, and disdain for ‘the least of these’ runs counter to our publicly professed set of doctrines and values?’” (Questions like these have haunted Catholic Democrats for generations).

For individuals and constituencies outside of the movement, the way in which the religious right deals with these questions during the Trump presidency will be a bellwether to judge its true intent.  Was the hateful, racist, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-female, anti-immigrant fervor of the Trump campaign simply an acute expression of middle class angst or was it a core pillar of the religious right from the beginning? In short, which is more important to the movement, embracing the historic love-filled teachings of Jesus Christ or rekindling the spirit of America’s hate-laced past?  As Trump prepares to take office, the religious right will have to decide where it stands.

 

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