Conservatives: A link to Trump brings risk for faith communities

| Rhina Guidos | May 17, 2018 | 0 Comments

Some believe the conservative social agenda has found no better friend, if unlikely ally, than President Donald Trump.

And few sing his praises louder than the Rev. Johnnie Moore, a Southern Baptist minister and conservative evangelical adviser to the president who explained Trump’s unlikely appeal to those of his religious and political persuasion.

For a while, right-leaning evangelicals like Rev. Moore felt left out, even among a Republican party that, he and others believed, had moved too close to the political left. So when candidate Trump came along, “it was like an outsider candidate with an outsider community and we just started talking shop,” explained Rev. Moore May 14.

He made the comments during a panel discussion at Georgetown University, where he and other conservatives talked about the role of “Faith and Faithful in the Republican Party,” part of a series of lectures exploring the intersection of faith and politics.

However, like much of politics these days, the conversation focused on Trump and on certain faith communities and their connection to the president.

“This is a community that in a particular environment, in a series of circumstances, created an unlikely alliance” with Trump, said Rev. Moore. “There was a lot of pessimism about how that alliance would play itself out. We have found that there is this strange politician that has kept his promises to our community, which is an unusual characteristic for a politician.”

But it’s an alliance that poses risks to the evangelical and conservative movements that have come to be associated with Trump, said fellow religious conservatives on the panel, who offered another explanation of how the unlikely alliance came to be.

“I think you had people that felt besieged in a broader cultural context. They turned to someone they regarded as a strong leader, as essentially a bully fighting bullies,” said Michael Gerson, a leading conservative voice, who also is a columnist with The Washington Post.

“You also saw arguments that were explicitly utilitarian in character … arguing, ‘I am going to get a certain amount of benefits for the support of a certain candidate I view as very deeply flawed,'” he said. “I think they were willing to make that trade in a way that was unexpected to me.”

Though some conservatives such as Rev. Moore say they have found a champion in the president, others, such as Gerson, worry about what being associated with Trump will mean in the future.

“I think we (white evangelicals) are seen by the broader culture … as the most loyal elements of that coalition and we will in many ways share in his fate,” he said.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a Catholic conservative and senior editor for the National Review, long considered the country’s flagship conservative journal, said during the panel that it’s remarkable how Trump has been able to push the conservative social policy agenda, and yet “no one believes that he cares about it.”

That has led, he said, to a “transactional attitude” that certain conservative and religious people support, based solely on what Trump does for them and, in turn, they support him, even if they know that he doesn’t necessarily share their values.

With the closeness and attention he has granted many of them, he maintains a steady, if overall low, approval rating, he said.

“A good day in this administration is 42 percent approval. When you are thinking about base politics in that way, it’s a very different view. You have a lot of strategic options that would not have been open to an administration that was playing by some of the old rules,” Ponnuru said. “Those are some of the things that I think are contributing to the situation in which religious conservatism — I say this as someone who’s sympathetic to a lot of religious conservatism politics — has less and less purchase power with the public in general.”

When certain faith communities become associated with a particular brand of politics or politician, it can be tricky and problematic for the entire group, even if they think otherwise.

Panelist Julie Zauzmer, a religion reporter for The Washington Post, said increasingly people are labeled politically depending on the faith group they belong to and in some cases, some evangelicals who do not support Trump also don’t want to be called evangelical because it has become synonymous with supporting him.

“What’s been interesting is not just how religious people vote and how politicians respond to concerns of people of faith, but how politics is changing faith communities themselves, and how religious identity has become so wrapped up in political identity in a way that is really accelerating under the Trump administration,” she said.

Catholic parishes, she said, are “among the few places where you can really find vastly different political opinions in one congregation. That’s become excessively rare.”

But even among evangelicals, Trump did not and does not continue to have full support.

“Even if 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for President Trump, 20 percent of white evangelicals (who did not vote for him) is an enormous number of people,” Zauzmer said.

The risk, said Gerson, is supporting a flawed person for the sake of an agenda and becoming associated with the person’s flaws.

“If the pro-life cause becomes identified with misogyny, that underlines the long-term ability to persuade the public to support these causes,” Gerson said. “The whole idea of family values is undermined when there is tolerance for cruelty and anger. I think you just have to say, if you are going to total up all the gains and losses of this type of engagement, there are huge risks that evangelicals, and Christians more broadly, are taking right now.

“Their movement will be seen as identical to something that is very different in values and goals from their approach.”

Though the president doesn’t have an overriding ideology, he has a certain approach to politics, he said, “which is blaming the other for the problems of our country and that’s true of migrants, it’s true of Muslims and it’s true of refugees.”

Rev. Moore said Trump’s appeal was in his authenticity and because he says exactly what he’s thinking.

“I just think that’s false,” responded Ponnuru. “He doesn’t speak his mind, he lies all the time. … He speaks authentically if we define authentic as not being restrained by norms of decency, manners. Let’s be accurate about the actual phenomenon going on here. The fact of the matter is, it is a minority of Americans who will say that they think of the president as a good role model for children, that they think of him as honest, that they think of his as decent, that they think of him as sharing their values.”

Many have rationalized Trump’s behavior and minimized his flaws, Ponnuru said, and “it’s coming across in a way that is very bad for the future of the social life of Catholics and evangelicals” and widening an already large generation gap.

“What is the long-term trajectory that this puts us on as conservatives?” Ponnuru asked. “That’s an open question. There is reason for worry.”

Gerson said religious leaders, such as evangelicals, are not just another interest group, but are leaders supporting the reputation of the Christian Gospel. He said he feared the decisions some are making have alienated the young, minorities and are “doing some serious long-term damage” to the causes they embrace.

The panel was sponsored by Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the Institute of Politics and Public Service.

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