What's Happening to 'Values Voters' This Year?

APPLETON, WI - MARCH 30:  Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign rally at the Radi
APPLETON, WI - MARCH 30: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign rally at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel on March 30, 2016 in Appleton, Wisconsin. Wisconsin voters go to the polls for the state's primary on April 5. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A couple of months ago Russell Moore made the claim that Donald Trump was leading with the Jimmy Swaggart wing of evangelical Christians -- he did not mean it as a compliment. I imagine he and other leaders of the religious right have watched with consternation as Trump has continued his march towards the Republican presidential nomination. I shared their sense of disbelief as I watched those in my own community cheer on Mr. Trump as he spoke to the annual AIPAC policy conference.

This is no ordinary election season. We knew that already, and that truism clearly extends to those so-called faith voters. However, there is something deeper going on here. When Evangelical voters can go from doubting the faith of a devout Mormon candidate one year to accepting the piety of someone who butchers the bible and insults the constitution the next, we have to ask what changed.

One possible answer is that the "faith voters" never really existed. Or if they did exist the driving force behind their voting has evolved. Generally speaking, I try to stay away from telling other people what is authentic religion and what is not. But having watched the political arms of the religious right operate for many decades, it's clear that much of their work was less about religion than it was about power.

In spite of the excesses of these political elites, the pastors and institutional leaders of evangelical churches and organizations strike me as genuinely devoted to a better society and a richer spiritual life for themselves and the people around them.

That Jimmy Swaggert wing of evangelicalism did not come from nowhere; the religious right allowed it to foment, and it helped create an environment ripe for Donald Trump to step in front of and lead. A wise man once said "There go my people; I must find out where they are going so I can lead them." That is Donald Trump's campaign in a nutshell.

The message broadcast for decades by the religious right in pursuit of their vision of a Christian society resonates with too many people who believe in excluding those who don't share their values. That exclusionary message has now been usurped by Donald Trump who offers his followers an even sharper message of "making America great again," and implicitly telegraphing that by "great" he means only the right's vision of great.

The religious right's fundamental mistake has been to suggest that religious liberty, equality, access to government and quality education for those who have not historically enjoyed those rights means taking away the privileged status to which they feel entitled.

When conservative evangelicals sound the call to defend the "Christian roots" and the "traditional values" of America, they may indeed mean that in the most inclusive way imaginable. But they have not been able to deliver meaningfully on the promise. Congress has become increasingly dysfunctional as the power of ultra-conservative legislators has increased. Budgets are drained, schools are bankrupt, available health care has been denied and water is poisoned.

The faith-based response to these problems should be love and compassion. The proper role for faith in any society is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Instead, all those folks who are flocking to hear promises from a millionaire whose personal life violates every principle of piety are doing so because he promises to take them back to the times they want to remember -- the times when they could count on a job, when minorities knew their place, when women were valued for their looks and their deference to men, when they got what they wanted before some people got what they needed.

The Christian community -- right and left -- is better than that, but its message was hijacked as some of its leaders hitched their wagon to politicians who promised to take them to some version of a Promised Land. Ultimately they failed. And in their wake, "values voters" have gone on to the guy who is willing to cut away the niceties and reward them for rewarding him with a vote.

We need to work together to heal this wonderful nation regardless of our voter's values. I imagine we will continue to disagree on the particulars, but we need to work together to get back to a place where disagreements are debated and discussed in a respectful way. If you want to lead your people, stop trying to figure out where they are going and start giving them a worthwhile destination.

If that's not the real message of faith, if that's not the real message of our Constitution, then I don't know what is.