Why Do Evangelicals Like Donald Trump? A New Theory: Confession

This has been a season where pundits have been struggling harder than an A-list of New York Yankees the year after Alex Rodriguez joined the team. I mean, they’ve been bad. Lately, they’ve been trying to make up for it, but there’s at least one tiny little area that continues to confound them: why the heck would so many evangelicals and religious leaders support Donald Trump, a guy on his third marriage who quotes “two Corinthians” and clearly embodies at least five of the seven deadly sins?

Before we go there: who am I to know better than the linked media at realclearpolitics.com and the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox? Well, I’ve been blogging about populist frustration for years. On April 17, 2015 — a year ago — at a time when Paul Krugman was trying to get America to say “zombie economics,” I pointed out that Krugman was too beholden to the Democratic Party to say the phrase “zombie politics,” and I went on:

In the last couple of weeks, as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Hillary Clinton have declared their official intentions to run for President of these United States, you could hear the relief from the mainstream media at the prospect of another zombie fashion show. These sclerotic parties — Democrats and Republicans — will spend the next 18 months trotting out the same old zombified, Wall Street-approved solutions. Because despite all the talk of “bottom-up” media, the major networks and sites still carry a lot of power, and they insist that the two major parties are the two only possible originators of political solutions to our problems. Makes you want to eat your brains — or shoot someone’s out.
…In this over-polarized environment, a populist candidate would be like a sailboat in a zombie movie: the one solution everyone should have already tried, the one thing that seems obvious in retrospect. (Seriously, Rick Grimes: get on a boat, find a small empty Cast-Away-sized island in the Bahamas. You’re welcome.)
A populist president that wasn’t beholden to either party would represent a break from zombie politics, a chance to hit refresh on our brain-eaten political system.

Does it yet sound like someone should have listened to me? I concluded:

Money doesn’t always win elections; the latest evidence for that came ten months ago, when Virginian Dave Brat ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary election where Cantor outspent Brat at least 40:1. If Meryl Streep or Will Smith or someone on that level was running on a populist, bring-the-country-together platform, they wouldn’t even need to spend their own money, much less match what the Dems and Repubs will spend in 2016; they’d get boatloads of free press from the, uh, free press. Despite the way they behave, given the choice, major media sources, like us, prefer genuine drama to zombies. Give them a good reason for it, and we’ll all be changing the channel from The Walking Dead.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know that instead of Streep, we’d have Trump and Bernie Sanders, each upending the post-Citizens United playbook on campaign funding. But still…compared to most of the pundits you’re reading, I didn’t drastically misread the electorate.

Perhaps surprisingly, this leads me directly to Trump’s popularity with ultra-religious types. I have a little theory on this that I’m just trying out, could be right, could be wrong, but again, who are you going to trust, me or the mainstream media’s Wrongy McWrongpantses? Like Kevin Williamson saying that the poor are looking for a father-fuhrer?

Clearly some of Trump’s popularity with evangelicals stems from his (perhaps facile) support of working-class frustration. Clearly some more of it stems from his assault on political correctness. I often write about all that, so I’m giving it a break this week and looking at something else.

A recent visit to the Deep South reminded me of a crucial aspect of our most religious brothers and sisters: admitting that you are a sinner in order to be saved. I could quote you at least a dozen lines of scripture, but let’s just say: this is a sine qua non of finding Jesus. Only after you pave your path with your worst sins do you find your stairway to heaven.

Has Donald Trump admitted his worst sins? No, not exactly. His position has supposedly “evolved” on issues like abortion and gun rights, and when Megyn Kelly pressed him on this in that first, ratings-record debate — no doubt seen in clips by many afterward, considering the level of attention brought to the Kelly-Trump “feud” — Trump claimed “You know who else evolved? Ronald Reagan.” Reagan was not an avid churchgoer, but he was almost an honorary confessed-sinner for the way he reversed his old liberal positions toward more conservative ones. Trump is lucky if he can catch a trace of the Christian right-wing goodwill once (and still) extended to Reagan, but that’s only a small part of what I’m talking about.

No, what the Drumph has been most forthright about is the sins of both major parties. More than even Bernie Sanders, Trump has been, uh, “confessing” the sins of Democrats and Republicans regarding post-recession pro-Wall Street policies, the Iraq War, campaign finance, the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement, Obamacare, outsourced jobs, tax shelters, et cetera.

The evangelical movement has invested a lot of faith — to put it mildly — in the Republican Party. After that party has lost political battles, the representatives of that party have not exactly been known to seek contrition. Six months ago, back when there were 17 candidates on two different debate stages, 16 of them never blamed the Republican Party for $4 trillion dollars spent in the Middle East that netted us nothing, as Trump did. 16 of them refused to hold George W. Bush accountable for almost anything, never mind 9/11, as Trump did. Even the other “outsiders” — Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and the insider-outsider Ted Cruz — didn’t come close to saying “a pox on both their houses.” A cleansing pox. A righteous pox.

I’m hypothesizing that a community that waits for the sinner to ask for absolution has, in some sense, been waiting for the Republican Party to ask for absolution. Yes, I well realize that confessing the sins of Democrats and Republicans is hardly the same thing as approaching your minister, admitting your personal failings, and asking for forgiveness from Jesus. However, I’m here trying out the theory that there may be a bit of displacement at work.

Some pundits have been wise to point out that the Republican establishment tends to use conservative rhetoric to seduce evangelicals, and then once in office, ignore the religious people on their way to assuring fat-cat tax cuts. Yes, that’s true. And Trump hasn’t exactly confessed that particular sin. But he’s still confessed a lot more sins than any other self-named Republican. Maybe he’s saving something for the general election.

Yes, I could be wrong. But at least I’m not giving you another zombie column.

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