As someone endlessly fascinated by the intersection of politics and religion, I’ve been watching the recent dynamics in the Republican Party with great interest, as I explained at New York:
Donald Trump may be generally amoral, but there is one value he holds fiercely: loyalty. So it’s not surprising that he’s angry at conservative Evangelical leaders who have, for the most part, refrained from immediately endorsing his 2024 comeback bid.
This week, Trump complained bitterly about this betrayal, using the loudest megaphone he could find: a podcast interview with David Brody. The veteran Christian Broadcasting Network journalist is the co-author of The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography, the classic Christian Right apologia for its alliance with the mogul. Reflecting his highly transactional view of his relationship with religious leaders, Trump expressed amazement that they weren’t falling over themselves to re-endorse him after he delivered the goods on abortion policy via his Supreme Court appointments.
So does Trump have a point? Are the conservative Christians who went to such amazing lengths to sanctify his conduct and motives in the past now behaving like a bunch of ingrates?
Not really. Trump seems unable to understand how much religious leaders compromised their principles to support him in the first place. The most telling argument used to exculpate Trump among conservative Evangelicals is the comparison to the biblical King Cyrus, the Persian pagan warlord who unwittingly did God’s will by ending the Babylonian captivity of the Jews and enabling the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. According to conservative Christian doctrine, Cyrus may have played a key role in the salvation story of the human race, but he, and for that matter the Jews, were destined to an eternity of pain and hopelessness because they lived and died without faith in Jesus Christ. So for all the flattery they offered Trump, they held him at arm’s length like any other infidel destined for a fiery hell and longed for a real Christian warrior to come to their rescue.
Now that Trump can’t do a thing for them, Christian right leaders are understandably weighing their options and treating Trump as yesterday’s news. Iowa’s veteran cultural warrior and Republican ward-heeler Bob Vander Plaats advised Trump even before his 2024 announcement to pack it in and “walk off the stage with class.” Treating the Evangelical love affair with Trump in the past tense has become pretty common; big-time Texas pastor Robert Jeffress continues to say Trump “was a great president,” but he won’t support his effort to become the “great president” of the future.
Like a lot of Republicans, many conservative Evangelical leaders have lost their fear of Trump after the perceived damage he did to the GOP cause in the 2022 midterms. Now they’re looking for a champion who actually believes what they believe, or at least who is less distracted by narcissistic grievances. In the former category, most obviously, is Mike Pence, who was for years a Christian right warhorse before Trump lifted him to the vice-presidency. Pence has happily gone right back to the Bible-thumping he compromised for four years by worshiping Trump alongside God Almighty (his post-vice-presidential book is appropriately titled So Help Me God). It must have thrilled him recently to have the opportunity to defend anti-abortion activists from Trump’s criticism that they were too inflexible post-Dobbs.
But Trump is facing a far greater threat than the veep who betrayed him by following the Constitution on January 6: Ron DeSantis, who is very clearly trying to convince politically active conservative Evangelicals that he is (unlike the heathenish Trump) a true believer prepared, in a more disciplined way, to wage and win the holy war so many of them crave. If there was any doubt about DeSantis’s strategy for outflanking Trump and Pence, it was dissipated by the tack he took in a now-famous September 2022 speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan, the school that has emerged as the West Point for the shock troops of Christian conservatism, as the Miami Herald’s Ana Ceballos explained:
“While visiting a private Christian college in southern Michigan that wields influence in national politics, Gov. Ron DeSantis rephrased a biblical passage to deliver a message to conservatives.
“’Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes. You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida we walk the line here,’ DeSantis told the audience at Hillsdale College in February. ‘And I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.’”
“The Republican governor, a strategic politician who is up for reelection in November, is increasingly using biblical references in speeches that cater to those who see policy fights through a morality lens and flirting with those who embrace nationalist ideas that see the true identity of the nation as Christian.”
Not coincidentally, DeSantis is now trying to remake a public university in Florida, Sarasota’s New College, in the image of Hillsdale through appointments to its board. (“It is our hope that New College of Florida will become Florida’s classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the south,” Florida’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz, said in a statement.) This is far beyond anything Trump (or even Pence) ever attempted to do in the way of reconquering the public sector for a private religious worldview. And as Baptist journalist Rodney Kennedy observed this week, DeSantis’s crusade to stamp out wokeness in every Florida institution, public or private, is hymnlike music to the ears of conservative Christian militants everywhere:
“DeSantis is an ambitious politician, but he fights like an Evangelical culture war preacher. This is not really political; it’s religious.
“Doing his best impression of a fiery Evangelical preacher, DeSantis thunders, ‘This wokeness, it’s a religion of the left, and it’s infecting a lot of institutions: Big Corporate America, Big Tech, the bureaucracy, of course academia. It is wokeness, a form of cultural Marxism.’”
DeSantis is also beginning to outflank Trump as an Evangelical favorite in their common stomping grounds, where the Florida governor is especially strong in the very politically active ranks of Hispanic Evangelicals and Pentecostals. And there DeSantis has a talking point that Trump cannot quite match: his staunch opposition to COVID-19 precautions that conservative religious leaders viewed as a government-sponsored conspiracy to close the doors of houses of worship. In the above-mentioned Brody interview, the journalist all but begged Trump to join in attacks on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, but the ex-president, his chest still puffed out by the idea that his vaccine-development program “saved a hundred million lives worldwide,” as he put it, couldn’t follow where DeSantis has led.
None of this means that Trump doesn’t retain a sizable fan base in conservative Evangelical circles (one of his most prominent backers in that community, Florida prosperity-gospel preacher Paula White, is still onboard the Trump Train). And after all, it was the people in the pews who dragged their leaders, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the Trump camp in 2016, not the other way around. It could happen again, particularly if the ex-president regains a magic touch in making his very crudeness and hatefulness an asset to believers who don’t much want to follow Christ’s injunction to love their enemies.