Donald Trump’s Religious Right: A House Divided


October 12, 2016



Michelle Nealy,, 202-735-7123


Donald Trump's Religious Right: A House Divided

Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy has definitively divided a once-seamless fusion of evangelical theology and political conservatism. The release of a 2005 video recording in which Trump is heard boasting about sexual assault and attempted adultery is proving “a bridge too far” for evangelicals, as conservative commentator and #NeverTrump stalwart Erick Erickson put it.


This memo summarizes emerging divisions among evangelical elites, denunciations of Trump by prominent conservative Christian media outlets, and polling that demonstrates Trump’s vulnerability among evangelicals. It also includes bios of experts who can speak on the record.


The fallout of the video’s release has not transformed former conservatives into progressives. But they have for the first time polarized evangelical leaders into two vastly different camps: 1) leaders principally located in political movement conservatism – e.g., Jerry Falwell, Jr., Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, etc., and 2) leaders rooted in churches and institutions that have traditionally maintained a distance from electoral politics.


The full consequences of this quickly growing divide are hard to predict, but present data strongly suggests a generational and, possibly, gender-based revolt within evangelicalism against many of its political institutions.


If evangelical voters continue to defect from Trump, it could effectively end his chances of winning the presidency and alter the landscape of the Republican party for years to come.


Furthermore, polling reveals significant differences between millennial-age white evangelicals and older white evangelicals, pointing to clear signs that a generational shift is under way, and that Trump’s candidacy may be accelerating this trend.     


The fallout from the Trump tapes also includes a public denunciation from Pastor James MacDonald, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council.


The influence of conservative political institutions like Tony Perkins’ Family Research Council and Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition has derived largely from their claim to speak for the political commitments of millions of white evangelical voters. Such institutions may still represent mainstream evangelical political values on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. However, Donald Trump’s candidacy has caused an unprecedented split between these political institutions, which still support him, and evangelical spiritual institutions, which house a significant and substantive base of opposition.


Christianity Today and WORLD take a stand


Following the release of the 2005 tape, two of the most influential evangelical publications in the United States issued irrevocable denunciations of Trump. Taken together, the Christianity Today and WORLD editorials are a bellwether of the divide that Trump has opened between evangelical thought leaders in the political and spiritual spheres.


Christianity Today, the flagship publication of American evangelicalism founded by Billy Graham, has historically maintained a position of studious neutrality on political campaigns. But, as editorial director Andy Crouch wrote following the release of the Trump video tape, “just because we are neutral…does not mean we are indifferent. We are especially not indifferent when the gospel is at stake.” In the most stinging paragraph, Crouch writes:


“…Trump is an idolater in many other ways. He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge. He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.”


Christianity Today’s denunciation of Trump is unprecedented in its recent history, especially given that he represents the party that has been a standard-bearer on culture-war issues (abortion, sexuality) that remain theologically important to the Christianity Today editorial staff and readership alike.


The editorial by WORLD magazine is perhaps even more remarkable, given the magazine’s deeply conservative political orientation and its extra step of declaring that Trump should withdraw from the race. Editor-in-Chief Marvin Olasky and the editors write:


“Although WORLD over its 30 years has been more critical of Democrats than Republicans, particularly because of the abortion issue, we are not partisan. The standards we applied to Bill Clinton in 1998 are relevant to Donald Trump in 2016. A Clinton resignation would have been good for America’s moral standards in 1998. A Trump step-aside would be good for America’s moral standards in 2016. It’s still not too late to turn the current race between two unfit major party candidates into a contest fit for a great country.”

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