Saturday, May 25, 2024

Analysis | Eager for Christian votes, Trump stokes religious insecurity

Analysis | Eager for Christian votes, Trump stokes religious insecurity

By occupation, Donald Trump is a salesman. In 2015, he shifted from selling products and condominiums bearing the Trump label to selling Trump directly: himself. And he has proved to be very good at it.

One of the main pitches he makes when selling himself is to present Donald Trump as a bulwark against the world’s evils. To a general population, that means that he focuses on how Democrats and President Biden and the media and communists and whoever are hellbent on uprooting American traditions and values. Every action is offered as a step toward the apocalypse, even as the apocalypse remains stubbornly distant from Americans’ daily lives.

To a religious audience, this presentation is more potent. A struggle between good and evil over the fate of the world is essential to many religious traditions and certainly to the right-wing evangelical Protestants to whom Trump most often tries to appeal. So when speaking to Christian conservatives — as Trump did on Thursday evening — the apocalyptic rhetoric and warnings of imminent doom carry an additional weight. Especially when Trump’s focus is on the threat to Christianity itself.

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Trump’s speech carried familiar doomsdayism. The audience was told, for example, that the whoevers had “unleashed mobs of foreign jihadists to praise Hamas in our streets — they’re praising Hamas while they slander law-abiding Americans as domestic terrorists.” They were told that there existed legislation allowing newborn babies to be killed in an extension of abortion rights. They were informed that a second Trump administration would “take back our education system from the communists and the freaks that are destroying it.” The “freaks” here presumably include those advocating the “transgender insanity” he mentioned in the next sentence.

But his pitch was focused centrally on the need for Christians to rally around him and his candidacy.

“How any Christian can vote for a Democrat — Christian, or person of faith, a person of faith — how you can vote for a Democrat is crazy,” he mused at one point. “It’s crazy. They’ve got to stop.”

After all, he said later, Christians were under attack from the left. It was something he pledged to stop.

“I will create a new federal task force on fighting anti-Christian bias. It’s become a very big term anti-Christian bias. Not believable that you have a term like that, is it? When you think about it, it’s like, where did that come from? And it’s very, very recent phenomena,” he said. “Its mission will be to investigate all forms of illegal discrimination, harassment and persecution against Christians in America.”

Where it came from, of course, is the evolution of the backlash against America’s declining religiosity — an evolution to which Trump himself has eagerly contributed.

The decline itself isn’t new. In 1976, Tom Wolfe wrote about the emergence of the “Me” generation, observing that, “since the late 1950s both the Catholic Church and the leading Protestant denominations had been aware that young people, particularly in the cities, were drifting away from the faith.” By the time Wolfe was writing, though, it wasn’t just young people. Nor was it just people on the left.

Every four years, the American National Election Studies (ANES) survey evaluates the views of the public. Since the 1960s, there’s been a steady decline in the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian — across political groups. But most Democrats, like most Republicans, are still Christian.

But Trump was speaking to a specific subset of American Christians: conservative Christians, a group that overlaps heavily with White evangelical Christians.

In his two previous bids for the presidency, Trump has been the beneficiary of overwhelming evangelical support. Pew Research Center estimates that Trump won evangelicals by 60 points in 2016 and nearly 70 points four years later. Data from PRRI published in 2021, meanwhile, showed that there was a strong correlation between the percentage of White Christians in a county and Trump’s margin of support.

Religious leaders are worried about the decline of religious participation, certainly, as they were in Wolfe’s day. There’s a reason that Jesus Christ was being advertised during the Super Bowl.

But it’s mostly on the right that this extension of that insecurity, that sense of embattlement exists. YouGov polling from October (and regularly before that) shows that Republicans are more likely to say that Christians face discrimination than they are to say that Muslim people do — or than they are to say that Black people do.

Of course, this is far less about religion than it is about culture. Conservative Christians who rally around Trump are not doing so because he is a strong Christian. Trump even joked about that during his speech on Thursday, admitting that he “may not know [the Bible] actually so well at all.” They rally around him because he promises to combat broader social change, change that provides space for non-conservative-Christian sentiments and values.

There’s an irony to his rhetoric that Trump probably doesn’t recognize. One of the likely reasons that Republicans are faring better with Black Americans — which Gallup data suggests they are — is that younger Black Americans are less likely to regularly attend church services and Black Americans who don’t attend church are less likely to be Democrats.

The erosion of the community that comes from regular church attendance correlates to an erosion of partisan loyalty among Black voters.

But, again, Trump’s a salesman. He’s making a sales pitch to an audience. If atheists made up a fifth of the electorate (as evangelicals did in 2020) and responded fervently to Trump’s rhetoric, does anyone doubt that Trump would happily give speeches to atheist groups centered on how he would be their defender? In this case, he’s telling a group that feels as though it is losing cultural power that it is right and that he will ensure that it doesn’t.

It worked in 2016 and 2020. Why shouldn’t it work now?

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