Trump Is Incidental to the Culture War

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Why do Evangelicals and other religious conservatives support Donald Trump?

Sometimes liberals try to explain conservative behavior as the product of false consciousness. Sometimes they claim not to understand it at all. Ezra Klein takes up the challenge of answering this question by examining a recent speech by Attorney General William Barr. Shockingly, he more or less hits it on the head. Christian conservatives, he writes, “believe they’re being routed in the war that matters most: the post-Christian culture war. And they see themselves as woefully unprepared to respond with the ruthlessness that the moment requires.”

Klein gives an unflattering description of this as an “apocalyptic psychology that motivates the strained defenses of even Trump’s worst behavior.” Along the way, Klein dings National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, for saying he will root for Trump in 2020 despite the fact that the president “doesn’t respect the separation of powers in our government, he doesn’t think constitutionally, and says and does things no president should do or say.” Klein calls it a form of “Flight 93ism” after the 2016 essay by Michael Anton, declaring the contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton as a “Flight 93 election” in which conservatives must charge the cockpit or die.

Klein simply attempts to describe this mindset, but doesn’t quite pronounce on whether conservative religious believers are justified in adopting it: He merely hints that Flight 93ism might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. His essay is an implicit response to those liberals who think that at least some portion of religious conservatives should be able to see the Trump presidency as an emergency for all Americans, and that those conscientious conservatives should set aside their cultural concerns and join liberals in ending it. The point he seeks to drive home is that conservative Christians see the culture war as more important than any of Trump’s unconstitutional behavior, and that the latter is thus a price they are willing to pay to preserve a chance at victory in the former.

But that conviction, that winning the culture war supersedes Trump’s unconstitutional behavior, is one Evangelicals and other religious conservatives share with leading Democrats. Democrats are no more willing than social-conservative Trump supporters to lay down their culture-war objectives and enmities in order to save the constitution from the president. As Ross Douthat and others have pointed out, if liberals really believed that Trump was a threat to the constitutional order or a harbinger of fascism, they would begin doing what many liberals did after the 2004 election: making rhetorical and political gestures toward conservative churchgoers in order to mollify them and win the next election. This strategy paid dividends back then — Democrats, you’ll recall won big in 2006 and 2008 — but no Democrat of note is advocating it now.

Instead, one is tempted to think that liberals see Trump’s struggles as an opportunity to win more culture-war battles more comprehensively. The Democratic presidential field has pushed hard on cultural issues. In a televised forum, Elizabeth Warren was asked what she’d tell a hypothetical supporter who said, “Senator, I’m old-fashioned, and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.” (This self-description would apply to a significant plurality of Americans and a significant percentage of African-American Democrats.) Warren said “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy” — as if women were already uniformly supportive of same-sex marriage — and added, “I’m going to say, ‘Then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that . . . assuming you can find one.’”

The crowd lapped up Warren’s expression of contempt, which was far from unique within the crowded field of presidential contenders: Before he dropped out, Beto O’Rourke said that he believed in stripping tax-exempt status from churches that don’t celebrate same-sex unions.

O’Rourke was criticized by some voices on the left, including Pete Buttigieg. At The New Republic, Matt Ford said O’Rourke was “out over his skis,” complained that he’d given credence to conservative Christians’ claims of persecution, and admitted that punishing “houses of worship” for their beliefs about marriage would be illiberal. But Ford positively welcomed O’Rourke’s attempts to clarify his position when challenged on it later. O’Rourke said, “When you are providing services in the public sphere — say, higher education, or health care, or adoption services — and you discriminate or deny equal treatment under the law based on someone’s skin color or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation, then we have a problem.” Ford concluded that this rhetoric mirrored the Equality Act, which has broad support among Democrats. He was in effect conceding only that houses of worship are untouchable. If O’Rourke had his druthers, parochial schools, Catholic-owned hospitals, and Evangelical colleges would not be able to set dorm policies and codes of conduct, make hiring and firing decisions, or compensate employees in a way that is consistent with their religious beliefs. It’s a vision of free exercise that begins and ends at a church door.

In the last decade, conservative Christians have become used to such rhetoric and seen the real-life consequences of its growing popularity. They’ve seen individuals such as Brendan Eich, a true innovator in his field, fired as CEO of Mozilla not because he ever discriminated against anyone, but because others argued that his own Christian convictions, manifested in a political donation to the Proposition 8 campaign in California, made him unfit to oversee their work and made them feel unsafe. They’ve seen mayors who are part of the Democratic mainstream argue for economic blockades of corporations such as Chick-Fil-A for the supposedly dastardly sin of donating to the Salvation Army. They’ve seen hospice nuns dragged through the courts because they want to hire and compensate people in a way that doesn’t make them participants in what their faith teaches is a mortal sin. They’ve seen religious schools dragged into national controversies for hiring and firing teachers in line with their faith. They suspect that legislation such as the Equality Act would make them potentially liable as employers and would revise Title VII litigation to make themselves a legal risk as employees.

In each case, the Left dismisses these complaints as special pleading or whining. It’s just signing a piece of paper, they say to the nuns. It’s just the lack of market access in a town. It’s just anger whipped up by the media. Free speech has consequences, and if you don’t like the laws, just find another profession in which you can follow your religious scruples. None of this can reassure people who know from history that Thomas More was executed for not signing a piece of paper related to state business, that penal laws once restricted Catholics and Presbyterians from access to town markets and certain professions, and that monasteries were burned down because of sensational journalism.

Progressives believe they are just vindicating human rights when they pursue their culture-war goals relentlessly. And like Evangelicals, they don’t think Donald Trump’s depredations — however appalling — are a reason to lay down their arms in the fight.

Trump dominates the news, but he’s almost incidental to our politics, which are driven by fear of one another, not of him.

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