How Christian Conservatives Learned to Love Donald Trump

Hispanic woman reading Bible
Hispanic woman reading Bible

In the early months of the primary season, Donald Trump's personal reputation and his awkward attempts to bond with Christian conservatives persuaded political pundits that he'd be unlikely to attract the support of "values voters." The pundits were wrong. Many explanations have been suggested for Trump's unlikely popularity among Christian conservatives, including the draw of authoritarianism and a "cultural shift" in which evangelicalism has become a political rather than a "religious brand."

I suspect that the phenomenon of Christian conservatives coming out for Trump is determined simultaneously by multiple factors--these and others. What I'd like to suggest, however, is that in addition to asking why Christian conservatives love Trump we should ask how they learn to love him. That is, what forms of political socialization are believers encountering that prime them to regard Trump and his candidacy favorably?

We don't have to dive deeply into Christian conservative media to see pro-Trump messaging in the ordinary communications of movement moral entrepreneurs and followers. One example is the Presidential Prayer Team, a project that encourages Christians to pray for the President and other public officials and also delivers Christian conservative political rhetoric to subscribers. Recently, the PPT has delivered to the inboxes of its millions of subscribers "devotional news" and commentary that asks of the upcoming election, "Is It a Sin to Sit It Out? If Christians Don't Vote Theere [sic] Will be Consequences." The essay reminds readers of the dangers of a Clinton presidency, encourages them to vote, and bluntly warns them to reject the option of a third party candidate. Another piece delivered to subscribers addresses the "Never Trump" conservative campaign and warns Christian conservatives against splitting the Republican Party by opposing Trump.

"Member comments" in response to "The Anything but Trump Ticket" become visible in a pop-up window and include:

I believe Donald is the one God is backing because he is child-like and unpretentious. It is obvious he loves his country. He is not perfect, but he is genuine, a man with no guile and a true leader.

More interesting is this comment:

I am hearing from people of prophecy that God has raised up Donald Trump for such a time as this.

For such a time as this: the phrase, from Esther 4:14, was frequently used by Christian conservatives in the 2000s to suggest that George W. Bush was heaven sent to deal with the nation's dilemmas and direct it back to God.

In addition to what moral entrepreneurs say in public discourse, political agendas are also shaped by what they don't say. For example, as Trump campaigns for President, in its daily political alerts the Family Research Council continues to focus subscribers' attention on challenges to Obamacare, transgender politics, and the Obama administration's antagonism to religious liberty. Conspicuously absent are warnings about the perils of a Trump presidency or even non-partisan exhortations to Christians to pray without ceasing for the outcome of the 2016 election. After Trump referred to "2 Corinthians" in a January speech at Liberty University, FRC president Tony Perkins acknowledged that Trump is "not familiar with the Bible." However, reservations about the likely Republican nominee are not showing up in the FRC's political updates to believers, and that silence is significant.

One important path to understanding Christian conservatism is paying attention to the mechanisms inside the Christian Right movement through which elites formulate and followers negotiate the movement's political goals, ideas, and arguments. Just as citizens don't weigh evidence in order to rationally arrive at political views, adherents of social and political movements don't just join a movement because it reflects their already crystallized beliefs. Political beliefs are also a product of social movements, which continually instruct and socialize followers. Sometimes this socialization operates far out of sight of outsiders. But it's there if we know where to look.