It is a well-known story: The Religious Right first galvanized around Ronald Reagan in 1980. Their ascent was over by 1988, when Pat Robertson’s failed campaign divided its constituency and the Moral Majority was dissolved. But the obituary was premature. Robertson’s campaign rose from the grave as the Christian Coalition, which handed out over 30 million voter guides to help usher in a Republican Congress and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” securing the Religious Right’s influence on the American political landscape for at least the next decade. George W. Bush (in)famously made evangelicals central to his campaign in 2000 and 2004; by the time his tenure was complete, the “Religious Right” had morphed into “social conservatism” and stories of its demise began reappearing, thanks to the ascendance of Barack Obama and a hopeful media obsession with the moderatish, rapidly maturing “young evangelicals.” In both 2008 and 2012, social conservatives were too divided to do much more than give Huckabee and Santorum the appearance of being serious contenders without any of the substance. In the years since, the stream of stories about the end of the religious right has became a flood, thanks in part the resolution of the gay rights marriage dispute in Obergefell.
And yet here we find ourselves one more time, with social conservatives playing a starring role in the Republican nomination. By uniting behind Ted Cruz instead of traditional stalwarts Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee, social conservative leaders have helped push him into the top three in the race. Cruz’s strategy is straight out of 1980: He has made the Religious Right the base of his campaign, fostering social conservatives’ waning hopes that they might once again have a representative in the White House. Such pandering is what wearing Reagan’s mantle apparently requires.
By all appearances, then, the Religious Right is as alive as it has ever have been. But this time, the grievances that animate them have flowered into an overt anti-politics, a willingness to trade the responsibilities of governance for the therapeutic cleansing of disruptive chaos. Trump and Cruz are dominating evangelicals—and Cruz has provided evangelicals what Trump has popularized, except in a (slightly) more respectable form. The life of the Religious Right is that of the undead: Theirs is not the politics of hope grounded in a vision of a common good for all people, but a nihilistic cynicism animated by resentment and anxiety. And therein lies a tale.
Falstaff and Trumpism
The spectacle of Donald John Trump, Sr. would be entertaining if it were a play—as it kind of was, once. Sir John Falstaff—yes, the rotund, uncouth drunkard who is Trump’s nearest literary analogue—gripped the world when Shakespeare first introduced him to the stage and commands our attention even now. Like Trump, Falstaff is a boundlessly charismatic, amusing-yet-damnable force of nature. Henry can’t help but love him, even if he must eventually banish him. Falstaff is the “true and perfect image of life indeed”—or perhaps in our own tongue, ‘high-energy’—and, like Trump, is infamously willing to say whatever his own advancement requires. He is the embodiment and manifestation of an anti-political enthusiasm, a repudiation of governance for the sake of self-interested pleasures and concerns.
But Falstaff is also the most religious character on stage in Henry IV Part One, the play that made him a legend. Shakespeare had originally named the character John Oldcastle, a proto-Protestant dissident who was friends with Henry V. Falstaff is his own man, of course. And Part Two takes pains to distance Falstaff from Oldcastle. But the enthusiastic, devil-may-care spirit that both he and Trump embody has real sympathies with a religious temperament that is skeptical of social forms and emphasizes a grace free of moral reform—both of which suffuse the evangelical world.
The atmosphere that pervades Trumpism, and not policy, is the basis for his surprising shared sympathy with the evangelical world. While the evangelical leadership has gone other directions, the laity has its own attitudes and impulses—and those have more in common with Trump than most evangelical leaders would like to admit.
Consider Hurricane Trump’s rhetoric and aesthetic, which has a simplistic genius: Whatever making America great again means, it is simultaneously aspirational and nostalgic, both laudatory and critical. It’s easy to see why blue collar evangelicals in the heartland who are sharply infected with an anti-China, pro-populist sentiment like such a promise. But the rhetoric of ‘greatness’ has a broader cultural appeal. Video gamers were promised by Playstation that “Greatness Awaits,” and Nike told athletes you should “Find Your Greatness.” Even American Airlines these days is “Going for Great,” proving definitively that the concept can mean anything and hence means nothing. Trump’s sales pitch perfectly fills the greatness-deficit in American public life, and plays upon characteristically evangelical ambitions. Saving the world is what we do, which makes Trump’s promise of having a unique role in history nearly irresistible. In its own way, the promise of making America great again evokes Reagan’s own aspirational “shining city on a hill,” an aspiration that evangelicalism’s pietistic patriotism strongly endorses.
The sympathies appear even more pronounced when considering evangelicalism’s tensions with the prosperity gospel. Trump’s promise of greatness has all the credibility and cash value of the multi-level marketing schemes he has invested in. But such operations offer users a life of financial independence, freedom to be your own boss, the ability to do what you have always wanted to do. They promise for a person what Trump has offered the country, with the same level of clarity and specifics about how that could possibly come to pass. But if Trump’s brand sells to struggling middle-class people who are beholden to the man and yet await their reward, well, so does Paula White’s prosperity gospel. The only pre-requisite for making the appeal work is that one has already been successful: gold thrones for the evangelical preachers, and golden hair for our President-Elect.
But the glitzy promise of multi-level marketing is also inherently evangelistic—more evangelistic, even, than most evangelicals. The “Come to Jesus moment” often comes by way of conversion stories that mimic evangelical salvation tales: “Well, I once was working a dead-end job on the fast-track to nowhere, but now thanks to the magic of Life Saving Product I have an independent income stream and am my own boss! And so can you!” [Stage cues: Just As I Am sounds sweetly in the background.] “I once was lost, but now am free.” Trump is no caricature of this sort of testimonial: he’s so much better and more entertaining at it that he’s broken the curve. The inherent appeal of being a ‘winner’ is not far from the hope of being set free from all one’s earthly troubles. Trump flouts the Bible these days like Big Dan Teague, in part because the kind of commercialized religiosity they represent is not far from the center of the evangelical ethos. “It’s all about the money, boys!” Or in this case, the votes.
And then there is ‘authenticity’, which has governed evangelical political sympathies more than anything else for the past 30 years. Trump may also be a traitor to his own class, as Ross Douthat suggested; but his appeal to evangelicals is not that he’s an Insider who will tell Elite Secrets, but that he’ll say precisely what he thinks—if he thinks. Mike Huckabee went from longshot to serious in 2008 on the strength of evangelicals’ admiration of his ‘authenticity.’ Romney couldn’t fake his realism well enough for evangelical tastes. But Trump’s transparency is—you guessed it—yoooooge. He may be the most authentically real candidate in the history of politics, at least if you ask him. And evangelicals, as much as anyone, have no problem with the presentation of a self that has been inflated to unusual proportions. Evangelicals love a good show, especially when there’s a sales pitch attached. Dallas megachurch pastor Ed Young, Jr. once sold a book on sex by teaching from his bed for twenty-four hours. Trump’s self-aggrandizing seems rather limp by comparison.
The Nihilistic Roots of Evangelical Power
How did we get here? For the past thirty years, evangelicals have sowed an anti-political wind, and now in 2016 they are reaping the Trump whirlwind. Having stoked the affections of alienation and disenfranchisement, evangelical leaders have this cycle scrambled to prevent the laity from voting on them. But those political passions have deep roots, which is why popular evangelical support for Trump has not (yet) diminished. In 2010, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World argued that the Religious Right’s political approach has been shaped by a Nietzschean will to power, which aims to enforce its will through “legal and political means or to threaten to do so,” rather than persuading others or negotiating compromises. This interdependence between the evangelical world and the government has a long history in American life: From Prohibition to the Comstock Laws, evangelicals have been particularly keen to pursue legal remedies for moral problems. Paradoxically, then, while evangelical Protestants have made much in recent years about maintaining a sphere of life beyond the reach of the state (the family, the church, and so on), they themselves have been an instrumental part of the politicization of everything.
On marriage, the recent source of so much consternation within the evangelical world, the problem of how the church and state interact is particularly acute. As University of Chicago legal theorist Mary Anne Case has observed, evangelical Protestants are uniquely dependent upon the State for their marital practices. As they do not have their own formal divorce or annulment proceedings and courts, evangelicals have outsourced such statuses to the states. Such intimate integration of the church and state, Case argues, has a historical lineage: The Puritans themselves viewed marriage as a political contract, rather than a sacrament, to the extent that in some cases preachers were not present so as to not confuse the church and the state.
This narrow identification between the religious community and the political order, however, has generated a strong sense of grievances at the shifts in political opinion, grievances that the Roman Catholic community and Black Protestant churches do not feel as acutely given their long history as outsiders. As Case writes, for evangelicals, marriage law “could be put in service of sectarian ends by groups that substituted capture of the state institution for development of their own clearly religious alternatives.” When those institutions were lost (as the public schools were in the 1960s), an acute but understandable sense of oppression gripped the evangelical political life. Hunter’s analysis concurs, identifying ressentiment as the corollary of the political will to power. For evangelicals,“injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on whom they see as responsible.”
Such an anti-politics of resentment, alienation, and disenfranchisement is at the heart of Trump’s appeal, even if the issues that he has been most vocal on are not traditional social conservative concerns. But ressentiment is not rational to begin with; it is not rooted in a deliberative, robust account of the common good, even if it uses such rhetoric to justify itself. The energy that generates ressentiment is more primal, more visceral—and hence, like Falstaff, less bound by particular moral outlooks than it might seem. The strange willingness of social conservatives to sometimes overlook the wildly disparate moral characters from their own outlooks of those who seek their votes—as evangelicals almost did in 2012 in their flirtations with Newt Gingrich—represents a willingness to sacrifice their principles on the altars of political power. This is the political ethos the Religious Right has fostered within their constituency for thirty years—and now, at the hands of Trump, it has finally born its nihilistic fruit.
Cruz, Trumpism and the Vanity of Evangelical Politics
Donald Trump may not be palatable to the establishment Religious Right—but Ted Cruz is, and as a candidate whose sole accomplishment seems to be ‘disruption’, he promises evangelicals Trumpism with a veneer of respectability. The galvanizing support by the traditional evangelical leadership class for Cruz was as predictable as the Cruz-Trump love affair. Cruz has followed the Reagan-Huckabee playbook of wooing evangelicals impeccably, while holding the decisive advantages over Huckabee and Santorum of not being either of them. In Cruz, conservative evangelicals have the embodied promise of a younger, chaos-light candidate who is firmly and securely one of their own—that is, one who shamelessly subordinates the religious life to the pursuit of political power.
Compare Cruz’s courtship of conservative evangelicals with Marco Rubio’s. Rubio endorsed Mike Huckabee in 2008 (disclosure: as did I), so he has roots in the social conservative world. Rubio’s stance on abortion is impeccable for social conservatives, and his personal life seems to exude the family-first conservatism that social conservatives have (ostensibly) made their distinctive witness. Rubio even packs more theological freight into a five-minute explanation of salvation than many evangelical preachers. As a religious conservative, Rubio seems almost too perfect. Consider the astonishing fact that on a November Sunday in Iowa, Rubio went to church—that is, he went to church to go to church, rather than to shill for votes. His decision to forgo campaigning that day “raised questions” among those who have apparently forgotten the 10 Commandments—which evangelicals infamously have sought to keep in public places, even if they have not taken them all to heart.
Ted Cruz went to church in Iowa, too, one week after Rubio. And there he made it obvious (if anyone could doubt it) that he is willing to pander to evangelicals in ways that clearly make Rubio squeamish. Cruz reduced the evangelical megachurch he visited to a glorified campaign rally, complete with Cruz 2016 slides on the screens behind him. What began with Reagan’s delicate “I endorse you” to an extra-ecclesial gathering has culminated in the shameless, overt subordination of the inner life of the church for political gain.
Indeed, no religious arena has been immune to Cruz’s political ambitions. He announced his campaign at Liberty University, which bills itself as the world’s largest Christian university, and indelicately placed his own political hopes in the hands of the conservative evangelical community. “Imagine,” he bluntly put it, “millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values,” before turning his family into a political prop to demonstrate his social conservative bona fides. On the day of an important Iowa social conservative event, the Presidential Family Forum, Cruz not-so-subtly announced the formation of a “Prayer Team.” Direct contact with the Almighty about all matters Cruz comes with strings, though: Team Cruz will require your name and address, please. “The prayers of [middle-class, registered Republicans] availeth [many votes].” So the Bible says somewhere, I think. Most perniciously, Cruz managed to turn an event about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East into a news story about himself, proving in the most abhorrent of ways that absolutely nothing is sacred when everything is political.
Cruz’s unsavory use of the religious life for his own advancement, however, is the playbook that the Religious Right has written for itself, creating a vicious cycle that identifies the evangelical world with such shameless politicking. Attempt to carve out a path respects the church’s independence, avoid subordinating the Christian life to political ambitions, and many conservative evangelicals will simply tune out. Pandering is the litmus test for politically conservative religious ‘authenticity.’ Evangelical pastors and laypeople who are more careful in their theological politics are understandably invisible to the media in political seasons—which rewards the Religious Right with the attention they crave, and is instrumental to their ongoing power.
Ignore the fact that such an empty political cycle lacks the robust theological sensitivity that Scripture requires of the people of God. Overlook, if you will, the idea that Cruz’s naked flattery toward evangelicals and Trump should make anyone who has read Proverbs cautious. Remember, instead, the jilted feeling evangelicals have had from political leaders who promised evangelicals the moon and did not deliver: that alone should require from evangelicals a healthy skepticism about Cruz’s promises. And then consider that Cruz’s overt religiosity—which itself should make evangelicals wary—appears to some people who knew Cruz in the past to be a learned art. Fool me once, and all that. But nostalgia is a force both forgetful and powerful and the vanity of the Religious Right is apparently insatiable.
The Politics of Hope and Despair
By signing on to the Disruptive Wing of the Republican party, conservative evangelicals seem to have finally traded in the hope of governing for the politics of disruption and despair. Since George W. Bush left the White House, conservative evangelicals have luxuriated in their perpetual alienation from the halls of power. Maintaining just enough influence without actually governing has been a structural feature of the movement. It has allowed evangelical leaders to perpetuate the illusion of having political clout without being able to generate enough votes to win the White House or having enough political savvy to be taken seriously by whomever does.
Supporting Trump and Cruz because they promise to introduce the chaos our political class deserves may give vent to the dissident, chaotic spirit of John Oldcastle. But electing Falstaff or the politician most eager to imitate him would be an apocalyptic, anti-political judgment that our political order is beyond repair. That is hardly the ‘good news’ that the name ‘evangelical’ is meant to signify—but then, evangelicals are some of the only American’s remaining who use ‘apocalyptic’ non-metaphorically.
Voting for Ted Cruz further subordinates the faith to the aim of political gain in a way that should make preachers of the Gospel blanch—which is why, as a conservative evangelical Republican, I will abstain in the general election if Cruz is the nominee. No politician who so overtly, so profligately subordinates the life of the Church to his own political gain should receive the support of those who claim the Gospel as their banner. The only small consolation the Religious Right might have is that the exhausted, cynical anti-politics that Cruz has so effectively tapped into may at last finally die with a bang this cycle, and not with a whimper.
Matthew Lee Anderson is a D.Phil. Candidate in Christian Theology at Oxford University. He wrote this because he needed to get it out and on with his life.
Feature image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Cruz#/media/File:Ted_Cruz_by_Gage_Skidmore_4.jpg