When the history books are written about the Donald Trump era, a lot of people on the right are in for a lot of well-deserved scorn. The religious right, in all likelihood, will come under particular scrutiny. These self-appointed moral guardians tried to get the nation to bow to Trump, knowing full well that he was manifestly unfit and unqualified. These so-called leaders were willing to support 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, reveled in degrading women, blew blatantly racist dog whistles, mishandled the worst peacetime crisis in our nation’s history, and on, and on, and on.
Oh no, the religious right told their followers when they dared to flinch at the idea of supporting Trump. None of that matters. What mattered, they insisted, was that Trump opposed abortion and wanted to end Roe v. Wade; that he supported the definition of marriage as one man and one woman, and would appoint line-drawing conservatives to our courts.
For people who cut their political teeth during the Bill Clinton years, as I did, seeing the religious right go all-in for Trump was particularly bewildering. Despite Christian conservatives slamming Clinton over his character issues during the 1990s, they were willing to look the other way for Trump, even though they knew full well that he was a reprobate and a thug, so long that he checked the right boxes on social issues.
Not long after the Access Hollywood tape came to light, former Christian Coalition chairman Ralph Reed told NPR’s Scott Simon that hearing Trump boasting about forcing himself on women wasn’t nearly as important to “conservative people of faith” as a president who would oppose abortion, strengthen the economy, and scrap a nuclear deal with Iran that he and his compatriots considered “an existential threat to Israel.” Along similar lines, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins told BuzzFeed that the religious right’s support for Trump wasn’t based on “shared values,” but “shared concerns” about the country going off the rails. Franklin Graham claimed—with a straight face—that as bad as Trump’s comments were, the Supreme Court mattered more.
It is not possible to overstate what Reed, Perkins, Graham, and other purported moral guardians were doing at this moment. They effectively told their followers, and the nation at large, that they would look past behavior that no decent person would ever tolerate—all for the sake of a few policy wins and the prospect of putting a distinctly conservative stamp on the federal judiciary.
I was reminded of this just days before Election Day 2020, when one of my more conservative friends laid into me for citing Trump’s degrading comments to women. She told me that trashing women was nothing compared to “murdering babies.”
Worse, the religious right is not just willing to condone Trump’s outrages, but willing to bully those who exposed them. During Trump’s first impeachment, a number of pro-Trump pastors went as far as to frame the impeachment effort as an attack on their values. That was pretty mild stuff, compared to what we heard from other prominent pro-Trump pastors. Perry Stone called Trump’s foes in Congress “demonic,” and threatened to ask God to smite them if they didn’t leave Trump alone. Hank and Brenda Kunneman tried to spiritually “shush” the evil forces that were supposedly driving the impeachment effort.
Several prominent members of the religious right signed onto Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election, long after it was clear he had lost to Joe Biden. Some of the worst offenders were the Kenneth Copeland clan. Just 24 hours after the major networks declared Biden president-elect, Copeland’s daughter, Terri Pearsons, led her flock in praising God for giving Trump “legal strategies” to expose the (nonexistent) fraud that supposedly denied him victory. She even called for a new election, if necessary.
A day later, Pearsons and her husband, George, led Copeland ministry staffers in an effort to cover Trump’s efforts in prayer. Terri told the audience that she’d organized the meeting after the Trump campaign asked for prayer as it sought to throw out ballots in Pennsylvania, supposedly cast after Election Day.
At that same meeting, George Pearsons issued a “heavenly cease-and-desist order” against the supposed scheme to deny Trump another term. Two weeks later, George told his flock that he’d had a vision of Jesus walking up and down a roomful of tables where ballots were being counted in Philadelphia and flipping them over. The symbolism was obvious: George was likening this scene to Jesus’ flipping over of tables in the Temple after he saw it had been turned into a marketplace.
Here’s Terri Pearson in early December, perpetuating election fraud in six states.
Even hearing Trump attempting to bully Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger into trying to “find” enough votes to overturn Biden’s lead there wasn’t enough. Less than 24 hours after The Washington Post’s story about the shakedown went live, Al Perrotta, managing editor of The Stream, a Christian conservative web magazine, demanded that Biden agree to Sen. Ted Cruz’s call for a 10-day audit of the election results, despite the hard proof that Trump was the one trying to steal the election.
One would have thought that the Jan. 6 riots would have knocked some of the scales off the eyes of these pro-Trump “men and women of God.” Far from it. Mark Taylor, the “firefighter prophet” who claims God told him in 2011 that Trump would be president, promised that God was going to perform a miracle that would allow Trump to stay in office—even as Trump was recording a video acknowledging that he was going to leave the White House. Considering that Taylor rose to fame by retconning his original claim that Trump would unseat Barack Obama, it’s just more evidence that his vision was just a little clouded.
But even that pales in comparison to Graham claiming that the 10 Republicans who supported impeaching Trump had forgotten “all he has done for our country.” Even worse, Graham claimed they had been induced into doing so for “30 pieces of silver,” suggesting that the Republicans who voted to impeach betrayed Trump in the same manner that Judas betrayed Jesus.
Seeing the religious right sweep Trump’s depravities under the rug—and use Scripture to praise him—has been especially sickening to me, as I’ve been down this road before. Back in college, I saw firsthand what is possible when a right-wing Christian group is willing to embrace some of the most outrageous tactics—all in the name of supposedly doing God’s work.
It’s no secret to my regular readers that I had a very up close and personal experience in the belly of the (religious right) beast. During my freshman year at the University of North Carolina, I joined WayMaker, which I thought was a campus fellowship group. It was actually a hyper-charismatic outfit whose parent church, King’s Park International Church (KPIC) in Durham, subscribed to some of the mind-bending stuff that, then as now, is standard fare on TBN and other Christian TV networks.
I got a hunch that something was way off about them, but couldn’t put my finger on it until my “brothers” and “sisters” tried to guilt trip me into doing a total philosophical 180—from a liberal Democrat to a Christian Coalition Republican. I was told that I had no business being pro-choice, and that I had to junk my liberal leanings without another thought. The realization that I could not and would not reorder my mind on such simplistic terms was, I believe, a big reason why I was able to avoid being sucked in. Even so, it took months before I finally walked away for good.
Looking back almost a quarter-century later, that experience feels eerily reminiscent of how the religious right outright bullied evangelicals into supporting him. A mere month after Trump’s upset win, Jim Bakker warned that any county that voted for Hillary needed to brace for the wrath of God. Later, not long after Trump took office, he claimed that anyone who opposed Trump was probably possessed by a demon. Along similar lines, when Pat Robertson joined the religious-right chorus warning against opposing Trump in the early stages of 2017, he explained that doing so was tantamount to opposing God’s plan for this country. Rick Joyner let it be known that the devil himself was behind the opposition to Trump, and warned anyone who dared oppose Trump is at risk for being “smacked” by God himself.
According to 2020 exit polls, 76% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. This marks a significant drop from the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016. How could it still be even that high, even in the face of Trump’s endless outrages? Well, for the better part of five years, the religious right subjected its devotees to a steady diet of warnings against opposing Trump. If you opposed Trump, at best, you opposed God, and at worst, you needed a demon cast out of you. These rabidly pro-Trump pastors and evangelists preach to a choir that mostly lives in a bubble. Their children are homeschooled or attend Christian schools. The entire family consumes a news diet of Fox News, Newsmax, One America News, and Christian talk radio. In other words, they’re hearing this pro-Trump drumbeat day in, day out, and with little to counter it.
Combine that with some four decades of being told—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—that merely voting for a Democrat puts one’s salvation at risk. Suddenly, it makes sense why so many white evangelicals were still willing to vote for Trump, even though it was amply demonstrated that he was a gangster and a thug. Considering the environment in which most of Trump’s most diehard evangelical supporters live, it’s natural for anyone who had even mild reservations about Trump to keep their heads down—especially if they lived in one of the few areas where Trump’s approval ratings were still in the stratosphere.
In hindsight, it also explains why it took so long for me to walk out on WayMaker, even when I knew in my gut that they were feeding me baloney. When you spend six months being told that your doubts might be demonic in nature, it’s natural for even the most resilient person to wonder, “What if they’re right?”
That’s why I can’t begrudge most of my more conservative Christian friends for still backing Trump. The real scorn should go to what passes for leadership on the religious right, who are still all in for Trump, despite knowing exactly who he is. Like Tony Perkins, who told Politico that he and his religious right compatriots were giving Trump a “mulligan” for his sins, such as having an affair with Stormy Daniels. And like Shane Idleman, who claimed that Trump’s 280-character tirades didn’t matter as much as the fact he was “fighting for biblical values” in a climate where Trump’s foes were coming after “you, me and our Christian values.”
Uh-huh. So the 26 women (at least) who claim Trump sexually assaulted them didn’t matter to Perkins because Trump, and not Hillary, was making conservative appointments to the courts? And when Trump praised “both sides” in Charlottesville, it didn’t matter because he opposes abortion? As noted above, the list goes on, and on, and on. As a Christian, I consider supporting Trump to be grossly hypocritical—even before noting that many religious right luminaries hammered Bill Clinton for far less while being willing to bow and pray to a neon—or rather, orange—god they helped make.
It takes me back to my sophomore year at Carolina, when I discovered by accident that KPIC, the parent church of the group I’d left, had once been part of Maranatha Campus Ministries, one of the more notorious “campus cults” of the 1970s and 1980s. Maranatha had come under well-deserved heat in those days for abusive and controlling practices; it was denounced as a Christianized version of the Moonies or Hare Krishnas.
I’d stumbled across a list of “friends and former members” of Maranatha while trying to get in touch with others who’d been burned by KPIC’s campus ministries at my campus and others in North Carolina. KPIC’s address and website were listed there, along with the name of its longtime pastor, Ron Lewis. I was dumbfounded. It was now obvious to me that Lewis was hiding his Maranatha past to avoid getting the hairy eyeball from school officials who still remembered the abuses that had won Maranatha infamy a decade earlier. Further research confirmed that I’d narrowly escaped a watered-down version of Maranatha.
But when I told my former “brothers” and “sisters” about this, their collective response was, in so many words, “So what?” They had no problem with Lewis’ deceit because people were being saved through his church and ministry. The fact that Lewis was blatantly lying about his past with a denounced, dangerous ministry didn’t matter. I think they might have overlooked nearly anything once they were part of an effort to “bring the good news of Jesus to UNC!”
I’ve found myself thinking back a lot to that time ever since I realized how many religious right pastors and evangelists pushed their followers to vote for Trump simply because he made the right clucking noises about key social issues. Forcing people to give birth was so important, they could look past over 30,500 false or misleading statements Trump made in four years and believe he deserved another term. More conservative judges were so important that devout evangelicals were told to look past Trump’s choice to knowingly “play down” the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and vote for his reelection. I realize now that I saw a prelude to this cherry-picking mentality when my former friends in WayMaker were more than willing to stay loyal to a pastor who they knew had lied to them about some serious stuff.
The religious right’s support for Trump has exposed the movement, once and for all, as utterly morally bankrupt. I saw the beginnings of that moral bankruptcy during my college days, and it is this moral bankruptcy that has contributed to the poisoning of our political discourse. If we are to prevent a next time for this, we must call it out when we see it … and we must do so loudly.