Since the 1980s, the bulwark of the Republican Party has been its reliable support from conservative evangelical and born-again Christians, as well as conservative white Catholics. These groups compose the core of what is called the Christian Right, and it is unimaginable that the GOP can win the presidency without strong support from these voters.
During this same period, the GOP has nominated for president candidates who either had a very strong affinity with the Christian Right and its agenda (Mitt Romney, George W. Bush) or were authentic conservatives who pledged support for the movement’s positions on social issues (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain). Never in this time has the movement seriously been confronted with the dilemma of whether to support the Republican nominee, sit out the election or vote for the Democrat or a third-party candidate.
Election data show that all of these previous GOP nominees commanded huge majorities of votes from the Christian Right. In the era of Donald Trump, the solid support of its constituencies for the GOP nominee now seems in doubt.
Some prominent leaders of the Christian Right have publicly stated their opposition to Mr. Trump, even while knowing that this strengthens Hillary Clinton. Still, opinion polls show that he is holding strong Christian Right support. That is good for Mr. Trump, but is it good for the Christian Right?
No. Compromising the principles that supposedly have driven the movement for more than three decades in order to help elect someone whose pledges of support for social conservative policies are transparently insincere is a credibility killer for the Christian Right. Never before has the movement’s backing for a GOP presidential nominee generated so much criticism for hypocrisy, laying bare the reality that the Christian Right is in it for the power, not the principles.
When listening to Mr. Trump speak about the Bible, his faith and his affection for “the evangelicals,” is there any religious conservative out there who hears a man of authenticity? Do any believe that, in his heart of hearts, Mr. Trump is animated by his Christian faith and love of scripture? Answering yes to either of these questions wouldn’t meet the laugh test.
Yet some movement leaders have strained to do so, to the demise of their own reputations. And for what purpose? The opportunity for a seat at the table in an administration led by a man whose character and conduct offend nearly everything religious conservatives say that they stand for?
I have long argued that the Christian Right is an enduring feature of American politics that will be around for a very long time. But evidence of major changes in public opinion and electoral politics suggests that a significant weakening of the movement is now coinciding with the rise of Mr. Trump.
Most evident are vast changes in social attitudes on gay rights. Just four years ago, there were still ballot initiatives in some states to restrict marriage to a man and a woman. Last year, the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage aligned with a massive, virtually overnight shift in public attitudes. There’s no turning back, ever.
The once-dominant Christian Coalition is essentially bankrupt, Focus on the Family is now focusing on family ministry, not politics, and the Rev. Pat Robertson, once the biggest voice of the movement, has defended China’s former one-child policy, called for legalization of marijuana and excused Gen. David Petraeus’ adultery. Once-leading figures such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell have passed away, and James Dobson is off the air. The movement lacks a powerful organizational structure and has no leading spokesperson.
If Mr. Trump loses, the Christian Right will continue to fade. If Mr. Trump wins, he’s not likely to push its social agenda.
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence says electing Mr. Trump would result in the Supreme Court overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. That would be the ultimate disaster for the Christian Right. Moving the abortion issue to the states would elevate its status as an electoral issue, crushing Republicans across the country as the vast majority of states would quickly act to legalize the procedure.
In the era of Donald Trump, it appears as if the Christian Right is sacrificing its principles even though it cannot win — even by winning.
Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of numerous studies on the intersection of religion and politics.