Donald Trump at a service commemorating the late evangelist Billy Graham at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Image: Aaron P. Bernstein/DPA/PA Images
Far from an impotent relic, the religious right’s regressive creed is resurgent.
By Alexandre Paturel / 07.25.2018
One of the remarkable things about Donald Trump is the extent to which he has attracted comparisons with the past. This is despite the general feeling that his political career, its embrace of brashness and almost obsessive use of social media, has something distinctly modern, if not unprecedented, about it. Now a year and a half into his first term, the POTUS has invited analogies with Athenian demagoguery, Roman despotism, and Germany in the 1930s. But in drawing such simplistic historical parallels, the liberal commentariat are underestimating the president’s Christian electoral base as a relic rather than a resurgent force that must be reckoned with.
Trump’s 2016 electoral victory benefited in large part from the enormously high support of white evangelicals — a fact that is all the more astonishing given Trump’s seemingly unreligious persona. Yet the ongoing influence of a Republican-leaning “religious Right” is also often treated as if it properly belonged to a premodern, bygone political era. This may be a natural response for liberals who, in the style of Rawls, have come to equate American democratic modernity with the separation of politics and religious doctrine. And, of course, we should be appalled by the resurgence of an exclusionary discourse that among other things is deeply hostile to LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. However, it is at best facile to relegate the influence of the religious right to the status of an oddity in a political modernity now built on the division of church and state. Significantly, it underplays the novelty — that is to say, the modernity — of that same religious right.
The mass mobilisation of white religious conservatives as an organised, self-identifying electoral bloc is usually traced back to the role of televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr. and the Moral Majority in Reagan’s 1980 landslide electoral victory. With the AIDS epidemic that followed quickly on the heels of Reagan’s inauguration, the 1980s also marked a watershed decade in the development of a highly aggressive religious-conservative campaign against gay rights. For these reasons, looking back to this period is particularly insightful for understanding religious-right sexual politics in the age of Trump: In many cases, it is the same grassroots organisations, and indeed individuals, who have so recently benefited from fanning the flames of illiberalism.
And yet, the surprising thing about the political language of the Christian right, from the 1980s right through to the first decade of the twenty-first century, is actually its lack of reference to biblical eschatology, theological tradition, or religious moralism. Certainly, the super-church sermons of preachers like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, were characterised by the explicitly faith-based discourses one may expect. Such rhetoric has always been central to religious-conservative mobilisations, and remains so. However, other equally important aspects of the religious-right discursive repertoire have been unduly neglected. Predominant in the documents, writings, and speeches of religious-conservative organisations like Concerned Women for America, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Focus on the Family, is a political language that is in fact highly secular.
Since the 1980s, it is not the presence so much as the relative absence of “religion-talk” that has defined contemporary religious-conservative politics. In light of the AIDS epidemic, religious conservatives often framed their hostility to gay rights in the “science-talk” of public health – biology, lifestyle and illness. And in seeking to (re)criminalise same-sex relations, the political vision they championed was not in the main theocratic, but rather was presented as a call-to-arms for the “common folk”, those whose voices are meant to count in a democracy, to rise up against a powerful elite that had allegedly watched over the growth of a sexually permissive culture and politics. Religious-conservative political language, in other words, has for decades been deeply populist, sourcing its power not from a faith in the divine, so much as in its provision of a reactionary, illiberal, and Manichaean worldview that hinges on a sense of crisis and democratic deficit.
Donald Trump’s political career has revealed the normative fragility of the sexual liberalism and women’s rights that under Obama many had begun to take for granted. The current president has often pandered to the evangelical constituency of his electoral base, for example threatening to ban transgender persons from the military, uphold workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and cut funding to global humanitarian efforts against AIDS. Notwithstanding his current difficulty in dismembering the legal architecture that has been built around the protection of genders and sexualities, what portends a greater threat may yet be the normative damage wrought by his illiberal discourse. In contemplating this danger, it is worth considering Trump’s own longstanding involvement with white religious conservatives, which, though rarely spoken of, stretches far beyond his decision to nominate ardent evangelical Mike Pence as his vice president. This may come as a surprise to those who discern little in the way of eschatology, theology, or moralism in his politics. However, this should not blind us to the shared sexual illiberalism that continues to animate the relationship between the White House and its evangelical support base. In fact, the current administration and the white Christian right share a historic affinity in their common use of a largely secular, populist language that hinges on vague allusions to immediate danger and a political elite whose “swamp” must be “drained”.
It is in this sense that neither the religious right nor Donald Trump are best understood with reference to premodern analogies. Both are distinctly modern phenomena, best understood with reference to a secular political vernacular that is at heart a populist one. This is important, for as we think of how to preserve, and in fact enlarge, our current regime of gender and sexual rights, it may not be merely a question of looking forward, away from the religion-laden political illiberalism of the past. This perhaps seemed to be the solution for liberals under Obama, for whom the memory of Bush Jr. was fresh. Rather, if populist sexual illiberalism is what the political right is increasingly turning to, the left must respond by challenging the largely secular discourses that continue to threaten our rights, not only now but also as we look ahead into the future.
Originally published by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.