The rise of Donald Trump has me thinking of Tennyson, and specifically of the last scene in “Idylls of the King.” Arthur, mortally wounded in a final battle against his son Mordred, reflects on his failed kingdom to Sir Bedivere, his only surviving knight. It reminds me of the Religious Right after Trump.
I have some expertise on the Religious Right. I worked at an evangelical ministry during the halcyon days of the Bush Administration. Early in college, I was that conservative firebrand who loved picking fights with liberals in econ class, and thought that Reagan’s gospel was a logical extension of Jesus’s.
A lot of that embarrasses me now, and I’ve been distancing myself from it for years. But I still have enough of a connection to feel like Sir Bedivere, alone among the ruins of Camelot. Like Arthur, the Religious Right sowed the seeds of its own destruction. But also like Arthur, there’s something tragic in its passing.
So now, in Arthurian fashion, come hear my tale of Camelot’s fall. My lords, my ladies, I humbly present: Idylls of the Right.
The Coming of the Right
Ere the Religious Right came, many a liberal politician ruled in this country. This heathen host swarmed the believers, taking us off guard. Before many Christians were even paying attention, the political scene jolted sharply to the secular. Roe v. Wade made abortion on demand legal nationwide. Traditional family values were abandoned in everything from novels to music to movies. It became taboo to even bring a Bible into a public school. Evangelicals wondered if this new political order had a place for their values. It seemed that man was ever more and more, but God was less and less.
Then the Religious Right came, riding upon a Grand Ol’ Elephant.
Their names were Falwell. Robertson. Lott. For the evangelicals who felt suddenly alienated from politics, they seemed to drop from heaven. They gave voice to a silent majority’s biblical values. They gave evangelicals the chance to build the country anew.
The evangelicals joined the Republicans with glorious designs. America had wandered from God long enough. But that old order had changed, yielding place to new. America would once again be a city on a hill, a light to the nations.
A new Camelot.
We Made a Realm and Reigned
For a time, it worked. The evangelical-swelled Republicans beat back the Left. We rode from Camelot, Faith and Piety our standard. In 2000, the blue hordes fell before our zeal. In 2004, they retreated still further, and truth marched on. “Values voter” became a political buzzword. “The Passion of the Christ” played in our theatres, “The Book of Virtues” stood on our shelves. The culture was ours for the winning.
For we evangelical knights, those were the days of light. We became friends with leading Republican politicians. We gained key victories in the courtrooms and the newsrooms. We even had a seat of honor at the Bush White House, in those golden days that were.
The Red Queen
The marriage of Republican and evangelical seemed like a perfect tapestry. But even then, the edges had started to fray. At first, we said our core concerns were the moral issues which transcended politics—life, marriage, religious liberty. But as time went on, this started to ring hollow.
When I was in college many evangelicals—including me—didn’t want just those core issues. We wanted all the issues. How could we give up all our influence now? The Republican Party, with power in her hand and a smile on her lips, demanded that we trust her not at all, or all in all.
We chose all in all, pledging ourselves to our Red Queen. Soon the things that we valued became the things Republicans valued. It still meant being pro-life and pro-religious freedom, of course. But it also meant accepting climate skepticism and increased gun rights. It meant supporting the Iraq War and tighter border security. It could even mean supporting torture. Evangelical and Republican blurred into one.
But little did we know that among our Republican allies, the face-flatterer and backbiter were the same. And in a wink, their false love would turn to hate.
The Birth of Mordred
Once joined to our Red Queen, our fondness for power soon turned to a dark-sliding lust. To sate our desire, we turned to the shadowy edges of Camelot, to Coulter and Hannity, Breitbart and Fox News, to the endless stream of internet clickbait.
We should have realized it was wrong. But power intoxicated us. We soon grew tolerant of what we had disdained. In our urge to take back the White House for the Republicans, we started viewing these grievance-mongers as allies.
Like Morgause to Arthur, they came as a dark fairy—sinister, sensual, enticing. We consented. We soon found ourselves raging against political correctness. Rejoicing with people who would ban Muslims from America, and ship all the Mexicans back over the border. Preparing the way for those who would Make America Great Again.
Thus Trump was born.
Last Battle of the Right
Like Arthur against Mordred, the final battle of the Religious Right was not against the liberal heathen, but our own monstrous offspring. So we rallied around Rubio, Cruz, and anyone else who wasn’t Trump.
From the political rallies to the Twitter feeds we closed, never yet had we fought a fight like this last, dim, weird political battle.
But as we fought, a death-white mist fell over us. Friend and foe were shadows in the mist. Religious Right stalwarts like Huckabee and Carson dashed to Trump, and many wondered who was friend and who was foe. So all campaign long the noise of battle rolled among the mountains from sea to shining sea.
Yet even as the knights of the Religious Right fell about our leaders, Trump stands unscathed. Yes, the reality TV mogul who brought the heathen back among us, yonder stands, unharmed, traitor to the Republicans. And poised to win the nomination.
This is where the story meets the present. The fight for the nomination is lost, Camelot smolders, and our thrones are splintered by the axes of the Trumpish masses. Now all we can do is keep Trump from the presidency. Like Arthur in his dying fight, we only have one act of knighthood left—whether this is voting for Clinton, voting for a third party, or simply not voting.
This act may, at least, destroy Trump’s candidacy, ere we ourselves pass.
The Passing of the Right
Even if we do stop Trump, he’ll still mortally wound us with his heathen sword. And there the Religious Right will lie, body splayed on the sand, Excalibur bent and bloodied, the corpses of its knights strewn steaming in the waves. When Sir Bedivere bends his knee to Arthur, dying sun at his back, what words are left?
When the Religious Right joined the Republicans, their goal was to “turn America around or prepare for inevitable destruction.” Being simple, we thought to work God’s will. But we’ve stricken with our sword in vain. Our political allies were actually traitors to our peace, and our political realm reeled backward to the beast, and is no more.
It’s easy to throw stones at the Religious Right, and many of these are deserved. Yes, we fused Christian values with Republican values. Yes, we made political alliances with all the wrong people. And yes, some of us went the way of Huckabee and sacrificed principle to politics.
But we shouldn’t be too hasty. Because we don’t see to the close, the Religious Right—warts and all—may still have produced good. Yes, there was corruption. But there were also the many, many good-hearted people helping the world in their own ways. They started crisis pregnancy centers and volunteered for campaigns and spoke in the public square with grace. Most of the people I know from the Religious Right were like this. Long after the failure of the politicians passes, these common graces will stay.
What’s more, if the Religious Right had stayed blameless, their end still would have come eventually. Even the best political system is fleeting. The old order changes, yielding place to new. Otherwise these good customs might start to corrupt us.
Yes, our failures seem shameful as the sun sets on our world. But perhaps one day, on the other side of Avalon, our political seeds will reap something good. Among those summer orchards we can finally be healed of our wounds—even the ones we inflicted on ourselves. Because from the dawn there comes a faint sound like the last echo of a great cry. As if some fair city were cheering a king returning from his wars.
Matt is a lawyer specializing in religious institutions. He’s also a writer who explores evangelicalism and quitting cynicism at mattmellema.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Mellema.