TO THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT, it can be awfully hard for someone to be a “true Christian.”
Consider President Barack Obama. He’s a longtime member of the United Church of Christ and has been known to quote scripture in speeches—yet he still gets labeled a secret Muslim or a fake Christian.
Then there’s Jimmy Carter, a man who knows the Bible so well that he teaches Sunday school. Despite this, he gets attacked by the minions of the Christian right wing.
But, apparently, it’s not a problem for billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump to have a checkered personal life marked by sexual escapades and indifference to religion. He can do these things and still be lauded as a champion by far-right evangelicals.
Trump, a Presbyterian, is not known for his piety. Even the pastor of Trump’s church says the man rarely darkens the door there. Yet, as of late Trump has taken to portraying himself as a deeply religious man who loves to read the Bible. It is, he now claims, his favorite book.
But there’s a problem: the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination doesn’t seem to know what’s in the book that he claims to love so much. Trump was recently asked by a reporter with Bloomberg News to talk in a little more detail about his religious life. John Heilemann asked Trump to name his favorite Bible verse. This really shouldn’t have been a problem for someone who claims to enjoy reading the Bible, but Trump was at sea. In fact, it was downright painful to listen to Trump’s response.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to get into it because to me that’s very personal,” he stammered. “You know, when I talk about the Bible it’s very personal.”
Heilemann then lobbed Trump a softball, asking the tycoon which he prefers more, the Old Testament or the New Testament. Again Trump faltered, putting forth this gem: “Uh, probably… equal. I think it’s just an incredible…the whole Bible is an incredible…I joke…very much so, they always hold up The Art of the Deal, I say it’s my second-favorite book of all time. But, uh, I just think the Bible is just something very special.”
Later, Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network that his favorite Bible verse is a passage from the Book of Proverbs that warns about never bending to envy. One drawback: there’s no passage anywhere in the Bible that contains that phrase. (Trump later claimed he meant Proverbs 24:1, which reads, “Do not envy the wicked, do not desire their company; for their hearts plot violence, and their lips talk about making trouble.”)
I’m not in the habit of judging the depth of others’ religious commitment. We get far too much of that from the religious right. But in Trump’s case, I think it’s safe to assume that this is a man who’s not very familiar with the Bible. That actually puts him solidly in the mainstream of American life. Americans have a habit of lauding the Bible, but a lot of them aren’t very familiar with what’s in it.
So let’s try a thought experiment: let’s imagine for a moment that it wasn’t Trump who said these things about the Bible and displayed such ignorance of that book. Let’s pretend it was Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), or Vice President Joe Biden.
How do you think the leaders of the religious right would have responded? Would they have just shrugged it off, as they did with Trump? Not only did these groups ignore Trump’s comments, one of them, the Family Research Council (FRC), invited him to speak at its “Values Voter Summit” in September, where he received a warm welcome (although he could only muster fifth place in the group’s straw poll).
Recent polls have shown surprising levels of evangelical support for Trump, although I should note that the numbers are in dispute. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been making a big play for this audience as well, and other polls show him as the more popular figure. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is also a favorite with this crowd.
But Trump, who has spent the past several months making brazen statements on issues like immigration, military policy, and “American exceptionalism,” has continued to dominate in the polls among Republicans overall. He couldn’t be doing that without a decent amount of support from right-wing evangelicals.
What does this say about the religious right?
The obvious thing it says is that these people are hypocrites. They will scream bloody murder if a politician who leans left, or is even perceived to be that way, fails to meet their religious test for public office. When a conservative Republican does it, they yawn.
But it says something else as well—that, at the end of the day, this is a movement that will happily elevate the “right” part over the “religious” if it suits their needs.
In recent years I’ve been struck by how little religious talk there is at the religious right meetings I attend. Sure, they rail against legal abortion and marriage equality, but at the last few Values Voter Summits, the issue that really worked people up was the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). At times, I felt as if I were attending a Heritage Foundation briefing—and in a sense, I was. For the past several years, Heritage has been a co-sponsor of the Summit.
To some, this might look like an effort to merge bootstrap capitalism with right-wing evangelicalism. There’s a long tradition of that in this country. But recent efforts are different. They’re more of a smothering than a merger. The attempt to convert every right-wing Fox News talking point into a religious issue stretches to the point of collapse. It is simply too much to assert, as some have done, that Jesus doesn’t like the estate tax. It’s easier to leave Jesus out of the discussion altogether.
The thin veneer of religiosity that people like FRC President Tony Perkins apply to these issues is peeling off, and the shocking thing is that his troops don’t seem to care. People often ask me how it’s possible for groups like the FRC, the American Family Association, and others to spread so much hate when they claim to be doing the work of Jesus. The answer is that these days, Jesus is being pushed out the picture in favor of the true god of today’s religious right—Ronald Reagan. (At the Values Voter Summit, I am often amused by the fact that Reagan’s name is invoked far more often than Christ’s.)
Trump, who is thrice married and used to publicly boast about his sex life, can join Reagan because he tells the religious right activists what they want to hear. Sincerity doesn’t seem to matter.
It should to the rest of us. The fact that Trump and people like him can be elevated despite their obvious pandering on religion and lack of real knowledge about the theological concerns “values voters” claim to treasure, speaks volumes about the integrity of the members of that movement.
Chiefly, it says they don’t have any.