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Trump’s evangelical support was preordained before Pence

Donald Trump, left, and his vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, answer questions Sunday from Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes.”
Donald Trump, left, and his vice presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, answer questions Sunday from Leslie Stahl on “60 Minutes.” CBS

Will Gov. Mike Pence help Donald Trump win over Christian conservatives?

White evangelical voters who are put off by Trump’s misogyny, racism or astonishing business ethics won’t be swayed by the addition to the ticket of a conservative Midwesterner fleeing his own political problems.

And the millions of Christian conservatives who aren’t put off? Trump has already won their devotion: He had them at “Hell, no.”

As the Pew Research Center reported last week, white evangelicals are “even more strongly supportive of Trump than they were of Mitt Romney at a similar point in the 2012 campaign.” More than three quarters – 78 percent – of white evangelical voters say they would vote for Trump, and about one-third back his campaign “strongly.”

As a model of Christian virtue, Trump is less than ideal. But most Christian conservatives aren’t looking for a virtuous lamb. They want a street fighter – the more aggressive the better.

Echoing a quintessentially Trumpian refrain, pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas complained that the “evangelical elite” who have resisted Trump are out of touch with the “average person in the pew.” In confronting a dangerous world, Jeffress said, “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”

Where many white evangelicals are, at least in their own minds, is on the losing end of a seismic event: the transformation of the U.S. from a nation that, from its founding until the end of the 20th century, was utterly dominated by white Christians, into a racial and religious polyglot that in 2008 elected Barack Obama president.

In remarks at the Brookings Institution, Robert Jones, the author of “The End of White Christian America,” described the 2016 election as a “referendum” on that end. The termination date on white Christian pre-eminence, fittingly, was smack in the middle of the Obama administration. The nation went from 54 percent white Christian in 2008 to 45 percent today.

Conservative politics in the Obama era has been dominated by that fact and shaped by the anxieties and insecurities flowing from it. Birtherism, nativism, congressional obstruction, the tea party and other manifestations of panic have culminated in the blunt racial assertion that is the Trump campaign.

Evangelical support for Trump was all but preordained. It was certainly predicted, however obliquely, in one of the more interesting research projects of the past few years – a series of focus groups conducted in 2013 by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.

The six groups convened by Greenberg were divided into moderate Republicans, white evangelicals and tea party members.

The moderate Republicans understood contemporary America in terms consistent with the portrait portrayed in, for example, mainstream news media. They didn’t like Obama, but found him a readily comprehensible political figure: Christian, liberal, Democrat.

Tea partyers and conservative evangelicals, on the other hand, deemed the president a mysterious alien intent on destroying all they hold dear. Evangelical participants variously described Obama as a “tyrant” who wanted to undermine Christianity and usher in communism.

Of course, forces ranging from Fox News to Republican congressional leaders to Trump himself deliberately encouraged such flights of fantasy. But the focus groups, along with multiple surveys indicating that Christian conservatives can’t seem to get a handle on the president, or the America that produced him, do put evangelical support for Trump in context.

Trump has promised to resuscitate the white Protestant dominance of the 1950s, thus magically sweeping aside the decades of messy, difficult and unwanted change that have cost Christian conservatives status and power.

With or without a social conservative on the ticket, Trump is the only one making such an attractive offer.

Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.