The establishment wing of the Republican Party has a religion problem. It’s not that the candidates it prefers are insufficiently religious – it’s that their professions of piety and faith aren’t working anymore, and nobody’s sure what to do about it.
For a generation, the GOP has largely been able to count on the fact that if the party put up an establishment candidate who went to church most Sundays and made the occasional anodyne comments about the importance of faith in his life, the evangelicals would fall in line behind him. (It’s always been a “him.”)
This year, though, the current frontrunner in the Republican primary is viewed as the least religious of all the major party candidates running for president, according to the Pew Research Center.
Trump’s opponents, of late, have been going after the billionaire real estate mogul for his perceived moral failings and his cynical nod toward a religious conviction they plainly believe he doesn’t actually possess.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who is not running himself but who will be appearing beside Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at campaign rallies, went after Trump on Twitter over the weekend, blasting the former reality television star for his marital infidelities and his claims about sleeping with married women.
“You brag abt many affairs w/ married women,” Sasse Tweeted. “Have you repented? To harmed children & spouses? Do you think it matters?"
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, on Tuesday, said that he doesn’t even believe Trump is actually a Christian at all.
“Trump views all this not from a position of his faith, he views it all as politics. I think faith goes way beyond politics,” Bush told reporters. Asked if he believes Trump is a Christian at all, he said, “No, I don’t know what he is. I don’t think he has the kind of relationship he says he has if he can’t explain it any way that shows he is serious about it.”
The problem for Republicans opposed to Trump is that nobody in the party – even evangelical Christians – seems to care.
Pew found that more than half of white evangelical Christians, a group that votes overwhelmingly with the Republican Party, say they believe Donald Trump would be a good – even great – president. Currently, 39 percent say they plan to vote for him, giving Trump the lead among all Republican candidates.
The thrice-married Trump, who has written about his many affairs with married women and who is clearly a stranger to traditional Christian concepts like humility, forgiveness and the renunciation of material wealth, has been heartily endorsed by major figures in the evangelical movement.
Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the founder of the Moral Majority and current president of the evangelical Christian Liberty University, endorsed Trump on Tuesday, saying, “He is a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”
Texas televangelist Robert Jeffress, who heads the influential First Baptist Church in Dallas, is a regular at Trump rallies. At one, he said, “I want you to know I would not be here this morning if I were not absolutely convinced that Donald Trump would make a great president of the United States. Most Americans know we are in a mess, and as they look at Donald Trump they believe he is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of this nation we love so dearly.”
In his remarks about Trump’s religion Tuesday, Bush let drop a hint that he understands there is something else driving Trump’s ability to pull evangelicals away from other, more religious candidates.
“For a guy who has stated he has never sought forgiveness, it’s hard to imagine how someone who is a strong believer would embrace that idea. There may be other reasons that Mr. Falwell is supporting him,” Bush said.
It hardly takes a political genius to figure out what some of those other reasons are. Trump has exploited the fears and frustrations of many Americans. He excoriates immigrants and Muslims, demeans women and makes absurd promises about the riches he will deliver is he’s elected. He’s turned himself into a lens that focuses the rage many Republicans feel about a world that is changing around them right back on the party that they blame for not fixing their problems.
Republicans like Bush and Sasse are wasting their time criticizing Donald Trump for not being sufficiently religious or moral, because that isn’t what Trump’s voters want.