When the history books reflect on Donald Trump’s presidency, the religious right’s unflinching support of him will surely get a lot of ink. Trump promised the religious right everything it wanted and then some—particularly conservative federal judges and Supreme Court justices who would roll back abortion and marriage equality.
It is obvious why the religious right supported Trump. One thing that has nagged at me for the better part of six years, though, is how they could justify doing so. How could rolling back abortion and marriage equality be so important that some of the same people who pilloried Bill Clinton over character issues were willing to make a Faustian deal with a guy who plastered a news anchor’s personal cell number on social media, mocked the disabled, condoned violence at his rallies and against the media, and reveled in degrading women?
Looking back at how the religious right has done business since it started rearing its ugly head in the late 1970s and early ‘80s seems to reveal at least part of the answer.
All too often, it seems that the nation’s self-declared moral guardians have been willing to forsake Jesus’ warning in Matthew 25 about caring for “the least of these.” They have been willing to throw the vulnerable under the bus for the sake of not only making America great again, but making America Christian again—or more accurately, making America Christianist again.
A stark example of this mentality comes from James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. Long before he rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s as one of the most vocal generals in the religious right army, Dobson was a prolific author. But at least two of his books say a lot about who he really is.
In 1983, he penned a book called Love Must Be Tough, in which he offered advice to individuals and couples in troubled marriages. One of those individuals was “Laura,” a mother of two in a horribly abusive marriage for the last 12 years. According to Dobson’s book, Laura’s husband was two-faced, or at least he was in 1983. While most people knew him as a prominent lawyer and church leader, he frequently went into fits of rage and beat Laura to a bloody pulp before blaming her for the abuse.
A trained psychologist like Dobson would know that there is only one acceptable response to Laura’s question: Tell her to get out, and get out now. For that matter, it shouldn’t take any training to know that marriage died long ago. But incredibly, Dobson told Laura that “divorce is not the answer to this problem.” Rather, he encouraged Laura to “change her husband’s behavior” by taking his most outrageous demands, wadding them up, and throwing them back at him.
Dobson did suggest that Laura move out until her husband “gives her reason to believe he is willing to change.” Only then, he noted, should the process of reconciliation begin. But one shouldn’t need a psychology degree to know that when abuse has gone on for this long, there’s no reconciling, especially when kids are in the situation.
In 2015, R.L. Stollar of Homeschoolers Anonymous, a community of people who share their experiences in the evangelical homeschooling world, discovered that the sage advice from Dobson remained unchanged in the 2007 edition of Love Must Be Tough. The book has gone through four editions, with the advice to Laura remaining the same in all of them; the most recent was in 2010.
Telling Laura to stay in an abusive marriage isn’t the worst thing that has come from Dobson’s pen. That came in 1978 from one of his many books on child-rearing, The Strong-Willed Child. Dobson starts that book by recalling how he took a belt to his 12-pound dachshund, Sigmund Freud, after “Siggie” refused to go to bed. This vile account has remained unchanged through five editions—most recently in 2017. As disturbing as this is on its own, it’s even worse when considering the mountain of evidence that cruelty to animals inevitably leads to cruelty to people.
Dobson still went on to become one of the most powerful voices in the religious right, with the ear of three presidents—including Trump. Watch him give his thoughts about Trump on CBN News.
But how was Dobson even allowed to get to that point? The only plausible conclusion one can draw is that the publishers, pastors, and Christian radio stations who supported Dobson and Focus on the Family were willing to overlook these outrageous statements due to his conservative views on child-rearing, reproductive roles and rights, and the family. A little violence against a senior dog didn’t matter so much when Dobson’s publisher and his audience liked the rest of the book.
This conclusion doesn’t sound so outlandish in light of the religious right still being in thrall to Trump, even in the face of his many depravities. Trump infamously declared in January 2016 that he wouldn’t lose any supporters even if he turned Fifth Avenue into a bloodbath. But in 2020, The New York Times’ religion reporter, Elizabeth Dias, revealed that Trump said something else in that speech.
“I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it,” Mr. Trump said.
Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”
If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.
“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
Trump gave that speech in a corner of northwestern Iowa that’s one of the most fundified regions of the country. This was the former bailiwick of one of the most odious members ever elected to the House, Steve King. According to Dias, this speech encapsulated why people in this region, and evangelicals as a whole, flocked to Trump. They knew full well he was a gangster, a boor, a bully. But at least he was “the bully who was on their side,” someone who would “restore them to power.”
Seen in this light, the religious right’s continued support for Trump despite his voluminous outrages, as well as its willingness to peddle a false narrative about him, makes more sense. For instance, after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, it seemed like religious right leaders were falling all over themselves to say that his profane words didn’t matter nearly as much as Trump’s promise to appoint line-drawing conservatives to the courts who would roll back abortion and marriage equality. Indeed, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council openly admitted he and other so-called moral guardians were giving Trump a “mulligan” for his past depravities. To service the massive debt he owed them for their support in 2016, Trump just had to give evangelicals what they wanted on policy. During Trump’s first impeachment, pro-Trump pastors actually claimed that those evil liberal Democrats were actually impeaching their values, under the influence of demons.
This nonsense hasn’t let up since Trump left office, even though it has been demonstrated beyond any doubt that Trump was not just lying about the 2020 election being stolen from him, but also incited a deadly insurrection in hopes of stealing another term. For the better part of a year, a number of so-called “prophets” have insisted to everyone who would listen that Trump is the legitimate president, and that God himself will right the terrible wrong done to him. One of them, Johnny Enlow, even declared with a straight face that those who don’t bow and pray to the orange god that he and his fellow moral guardians helped make do so at risk of their salvation.
Sadly, this approach is working among the religious right’s followers. In late September, a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that a whopping 61% of white evangelicals believed that Trump had a second term stolen from him. An equally staggering 68% of white evangelicals considered Trump a “true patriot.”
In what world is it possible for people holding themselves out as moral guardians to go all-in for a man whom they know is a thug and a reprobate? And in what world is it possible for a significant segment of a major party’s base to be in thrall with such a man even after it has been amply demonstrated that he is guilty of moral and political corruption at best, and treasonous acts at worst? In the world of the religious right.
With this knowledge in hand, a number of other low moments in the religious right’s worship of Trump suddenly make more sense. The one that sticks out the most came during the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Almost from the moment Trump picked Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, the religious right went all-in on the effort to get Kavanaugh that black robe. It’s no surprise: Kavanaugh was Reason 1-B for the religious right prostrating itself before Trump. (Neil Gorsuch was Reason 1-A, and Amy Coney Barrett was Reason 1-C.)
But just how determined the nation’s so-called moral guardians were to get another potential vote against Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges was revealed when Steve Strang, publisher of Charisma magazine, claimed that Christine Blasey Ford’s claims that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her were no big deal.
For some time, Strang has used his platform as the publisher of the largest Pentecostal/charismatic-oriented magazine in the world to carry water for the religious right, including the effort to bully the country into worshiping Trump. Strang has written two paeans to Trump, God and Donald Trump and Trump Aftershock, arguing that Trump’s upset victory was a miracle, and that he wasn’t just making America great again, but Christian again—which we’ve of course heard before.
Strang hit absolute bottom in late September, when he told Charisma’s Facebook followers that Kavanaugh should have been confirmed—even if Ford’s allegations of assault were in fact true. As he put it, even if one believed Ford, Kavanaugh was merely engaging in “the kind of nickel and dime stuff that high school kids do.” No, this isn’t snark. Watch him say it.