Sarah Posner is a journalist at the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute who reports on religion and politics. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, Salon, The Washington Post, and The Nation, among other places. She’s the author of God’s Prophet: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values and Voters. This interview has been edited and condensed
JW: Return with us now to August 2015, six months before the first primary, when Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions were considered by most people to be a joke. What did Trump look like at that point to evangelical leaders?
SP: Evangelical leaders were pretty skeptical of him. They’ve had a playbook for some decades by which they vetted presidential candidates, and that playbook required the presidential candidates to describe their own religious piety, to describe their own salvation in Jesus Christ, and to also adhere to several litmus tests relating to their opposition to LGBTQ rights, their opposition to abortion, and, currently, their dedication to what the religious right frames as “religious freedom”—to exemptions from having to comply with, for example, the contraception requirement under the Affordable Care Act, or LGBTQ rights, because of their supposed religious objections to those things. Trump has none of those qualities. He was not a religious man. He could not cite a Bible verse to save his life. He’d been married three times. He was a known philanderer and he had only very recently come to his “pro-life” position. He seemed liked an incredibly unlikely candidate for the religious right, particularly because the rest of the field had many evangelical favorites in it—including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, among others.
JW: At the beginning of the primary season, how was Trump doing with evangelical voters?
SP: Evangelical voters were going for him. Of course the field was split among 17 candidates. Back in the early days of the primaries, 20 percent of white evangelical voters were supporting him, which was pretty good—considering the field was so big. One of the earliest evangelical leaders to endorse him was Jerry Falwell Jr., the heir to his father’s Liberty University empire. Falwell endorsed Trump despite the fact that he didn’t adhere to the religious-right playbook. When I interviewed Falwell last spring, he told me that he was following the lead of rank-and-file evangelical voters, who felt it was more important to make America great again than to worry about the other issues that the religious right had traditionally pursued.
JW: When November 8 came and it was a choice between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, how did white evangelicals vote?
SP: That was an easy choice for them. They’ve been inculcated for a couple of decades with the idea that the Clintons were evil incarnate. Top that off with a big dose of misogyny, and you’ve got 81 percent of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump.
JW: If we look at the issues that evangelicals care about, is it fair to say that number one is abortion?
SP: I think that’s fair to say, and I think that evangelical leaders were willing to make a deal with Trump because he promised them Supreme Court justices that were dedicated to overturning Roe v. Wade. They were thrilled when he nominated Neil Gorsuch. Despite the fact that Gorsuch was cagey about that issue in his confirmation hearings, clearly Trump and the religious right knew something about him that the rest of us couldn’t confirm. They wouldn’t be thrilled if they weren’t confident that he was willing to overturn Roe.
JW: You suggested that evangelical leaders were willing to endorse Trump in exchange for the payback they have gotten, starting with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. What would Jesus do when faced with this kind of choice? Would Jesus have been pragmatic about achieving policy goals?
SP: I’m no theologian. Truth be told, there are a lot of evangelical leaders, pastors, people in national leadership positions who were never that thrilled with Trump and didn’t endorse him. Yet you don’t hear a lot of pushback from them at this point, even on Trump policies they don’t like. For example some of them are opposed to his immigration and refugee policies—but there hasn’t been a lot of outrage about that. There has been a lot of praise of the Gorsuch pick.
JW: There have been some other forms of payback. It looks like they’re going to get what they want on the “religious freedom” exemption. What do Evangelicals mean by religious freedom?
SP: The key here is the Hobby Lobby case that the Supreme Court decided a few years ago. That case allowed the owners of a closely held corporation to say, “We have a religious objection to covering a certain kind of birth control in our company-sponsored insurance plan, even though that contraception is a co-pay-free benefit under the Affordable Care Act. We have a religious objection to that.” The Supreme Court said, “Hey, you know what? You’re right. You don’t have to provide that kind of coverage to your employees.” The religious right would like to extend that holding into virtually every area of life, ranging from owners of businesses and how they treat their employees and customers, to government clerks and whether they have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples; to owners of private establishments and whether they have to serve same-sex couples or transgender people or women who have had abortions; and also even to government contractors, like faith-based social-service providers who receive government funding. They would like to see them get all kinds of religious exemptions from who they have to serve or who they have to employ—to exempt them from complying with nondiscrimination laws.
There’s a draft executive order floating around in the Trump administration that would very broadly and staggeringly allow for these kinds of religious exemptions. Parts of it are probably unconstitutional, but since I broke the story back in February about the existence of this order, it seems like legal minds are working on modifying it a little bit. The religious right, including groups like the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom and the Heritage Foundation, all are pressing the Trump administration to sign this thing into law.
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