John Newsinger brings his analysis of the Christian right in the US up to the present day, with a look at why they have backed Donald Trump’s administration to the hilt and will likely continue to do so.
In August 2017 white supremacists and neo-Nazis paraded in Charlottesville, killing one protester, Heather Heyer, and seriously injuring a number of others in the process. When Trump refused to condemn them, his various business advisory boards collapsed as the CEOs of leading companies resigned in protest.
There were no resignations from his spiritual advisory board. The leaders of the Christian right, Trump’s evangelical courtiers, stuck by the man they played such an important part in installing in the White House.
How can we explain devout Christians throwing their support behind a serial liar and sexual predator, a bullying misogynist and racist, a crooked businessman and con artist without a Christian bone in his body? As one of his long-time associates, Amarosa Manigault Newman, herself an ordained minister, put it, the Bible “might as well be a paper brick to him”.
First, there is the influence of the Christian right within the Republican Party. This influence has been growing since the 1980s so that today, in alliance with the Tea Party with which it overlaps, it is the dominant voice. Any Republican candidate has to appease the Christian right.
Moreover, the Christian right believes that it was used by both Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. They promised to prosecute the Christian right’s culture war against feminism, secular humanism, gay liberation, environmentalism and abortion rights, but in the end prioritised the concerns of corporate America. Trump convinced them that he would deliver.
He promised to place the federal judiciary in their hands, appointing justices acceptable to them, right up to the Supreme Court. And as a guarantee, his vice-presidential running mate was Mike Pence, a leading Christian right politician. He also promised an ultra-Zionist Middle Eastern policy, including the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a central concern of the Christian right.
They justified their support in theological terms by arguing either that he was recently born again or, given the complete lack of any evidence for that, that God was working through a pagan to save Christian America!
As far as Trump himself was concerned the Prosperity Gospel preached by the Christian right was more than acceptable, proclaiming as it did that the rich were rich because they were blessed by God. The way for the less well off Christians to access God’s financial blessings was to send money to their pastors.
Just how tawdry this doctrine is was shown by one prominent televangelist, Oral Roberts, a man who had, on numerous occasions, raised the dead! He sold his followers plastic bags full of holy water, instructing them to baptise their wallets if they wanted to prosper. In 1987 the wholly shameless Roberts had extracted $8 million from his audience, telling them that if they did not donate that amount, God was going to kill him. Unfortunately, the total was reached. The attraction of this scam doctrine for a con man like Trump is obvious.
The Christian right’s continued support for Trump is very much the work of Pence. He is regarded as their man to succeed Trump and, although he appears a colourless, ineffectual and inoffensive individual, he is in effect running the government while Trump grandstands and plays to the gallery. He has been described as the “shadow president”.
Pence is a former radio and TV show host, a member of the House of Representatives for some 12 years and then Governor of Indiana. His hostility to science has seen him rejecting any link between smoking and cancer (something perhaps not unrelated to his brother’s chain of Tobacco Road stores) and denying global warming (something perhaps not unrelated to his close ties with those arch-polluters, the multibillionaire Koch brothers).
Trump has no interest in the actual process of government and left the appointment of officials and office holders largely to Pence, who filled the administration with his people. And there are more born again Christians in Trump’s cabinet than ever before in US history. They are all wholeheartedly committed to unrestrained predatory capitalism as ordained by God and to victory in their culture war against secular humanism and its works.
Pence is every bit as dangerous as Trump; indeed some would say he is more dangerous because he actually believes what he says. Only recently his wife Karen went back to work teaching in a Christian school that bans LGBT+ students.
The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was an important factor in ensuring continued Christian right support for Trump. It was central to their End Times eschatology. The close relationship between the Christian right and the Zionist right goes back to the days of Menachem Begin. He made clear that they were crucial, indeed essential allies. As he put it, there were after all ten evangelical Christians for every Jew in the US and, of course, most American Jews were liberal in their politics.
Begin cultivated ties with the likes of Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority leader, with the Israeli government even donating a Lear jet to his ministry. In return, the Christian right has supported an ultra-Zionism, helping finance illegal settlements and championing the Zionist cause. Indeed, sometimes, they have even criticised the Zionist right for being too conciliatory to the Palestinians. Pat Robertson, for example, described Ariel Sharon’s 2006 stroke as God’s punishment for the Israeli evacuation of Gaza.
The likelihood is that Christian right support for Trump, no matter what he says or does, will continue as long as he adheres to his side of their deal and as long as they believe Pence will be his successor.