Last Wednesday evening, a few hundred Christian conservatives gathered at Noah’s Event Venue in suburban Des Moines for a rally with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. It featured leading figures from both the local and national religious right, there to make the case that the movement must unite behind Cruz. “Ted Cruz is one of us,” said Bob Vander Plaats, head of the FAMiLY Leader, Iowa’s most influential evangelical organization. “He’s trustworthy. He hates dishonest gain.” Vander Plaats was both referencing Exodus 18:21 (“But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain”) and taking a dig at Donald Trump.
The fragile truce between Cruz and Trump—and, more importantly, between Trump and the organized Christian right—had abruptly broken down, with religious conservative leaders lining up to stop the avaricious thrice-married billionaire from winning the Iowa caucuses. Leading female anti-abortion activists from organizations including the Susan B. Anthony List and Iowa Right to Life had already released an open letter urging Iowans to support anyone but Trump, writing that they were “disgusted by Mr. Trump’s treatment of individuals, women, in particular.” Christian talk radio hosts such as Michael Brown were lambasting Trump and lamenting the endorsement he received from Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s few major evangelical backers. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, had just endorsed Cruz—on Trump nemesis Megyn Kelly’s TV show, no less—before flying to Iowa for the Des Moines rally. There, the Cruz campaign unveiled Pro-Lifers for Cruz, a coalition with more than 17,000 members; Perkins is its chairman.
“Some were mesmerized by the aura of Trump,” far-right Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert told me at Wednesday’s rally. By now, however, religious conservatives have woken up and realized that Trump doesn’t share their priorities.
Speaking at the rally, Vander Plaats invoked his severely disabled son, Lucas, and said he was outraged to see “a candidate for president of the United States openly mocking and insulting people with disabilities.” (He was referring to Trump’s scornful imitation of the disabled New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski.) Vander Plaats recalled that only a week before, at an event in Sioux Center, Iowa, Trump boasted that he wouldn’t lose support even if he shot someone.* The crowd in the packed hall hissed. “Right away I thought of John Lennon and the Beatles saying, ‘We’re more popular than Jesus,’ ” Vander Plaats said. “That’s a pride, and an arrogance, and a temperament that is a roll of the dice to be president.”
Soon it was Cruz’s turn to speak. He promised that on his first day as president, he would instruct the Justice Department to open an investigation into Planned Parenthood. Cruz said he’d appoint judges who would overturn last year’s “shameful” and “fundamentally illegitimate” Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage. He asked the assembled to pray. “Father God, please, continue this awakening. Continue this spirit of revival, awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from this abyss,” Cruz said. His cadences were those of a preacher.
This sort of rhetoric has won over the heavily evangelical Republican Iowa caucuses in the past. In 2008, Mike Huckabee, with Vander Plaats’ endorsement, triumphed in Iowa. Four years later, Rick Santorum, also endorsed by Vander Plaats, prevailed. The outcome of this year’s Iowa caucus may tell us if the American religious right has retained its outsize influence in American politics or if a new populist force has supplanted it. Trump is demonstrating that many grassroots conservatives are far more comfortable with what Ted Cruz called “New York values” than anyone imagined. If the leaders of the Christian right can’t stop Trump, it could mark the end of the movement as we know it.
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Ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the religious right has been the primary vehicle for populist conservative energies in American politics. It hasn’t always won its battles with the establishment—neither Huckabee nor Santorum went on to win his party’s nomination. But it could legitimately claim to speak for the Republican grassroots. Liberals regularly bemoaned the religious right’s powers in directing the disaffection of downwardly mobile whites away from economics and toward the culture wars. Thomas Frank, in his 2004 best-seller What’s the Matter With Kansas?, described a friend’s father’s journey from liberal teacher to far-right Republican. “Even as Republican economic policy laid waste to the city’s industries, unions, and neighborhoods,” Frank wrote, “the townsfolk responded by lashing out on cultural issues, eventually winding up with a hard-right Republican congressman, a born-again Christian who campaigned largely on an anti-abortion platform.”
Now, however, the movement’s ability to channel grassroots rage is being tested. Anti-abortion activists continue to make great strides, but social conservatives have been routed on the other great culture war battle, gay marriage; the issue increasingly fails to move young evangelicals. Meanwhile, the country as a whole is becoming less religious. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from 78 percent to 71 percent. Thirty-five percent of millennials claim no religion.
Those who remain devout may be less closely bound to movement organizations and mores. Evangelical megachurches aren’t shrinking the way mainline churches are, but individual attendance is down. Leaders such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson (who has endorsed Cruz) have nowhere near the influence they once did. “Traditional evangelical power brokers are kind of on the way out,” says Mark Silk, director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College.
At the Cruz rally, I asked the Family Research Council’s Perkins about the surprisingly strong support for Trump among self-described evangelicals. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 53 percent of evangelicals view Trump favorably, up from 37 percent in November.* “Evangelicals are very much reflective of the rest of the culture,” Perkins said. I asked if that meant they’re becoming more disconnected from institutional authority. “Yeah, I think that’s true,” he said.
For those who abhor the goals of the religious right—banning abortion, overturning gay marriage, injecting Christianity into public schools—this may seem like good news. The rise of Trump, however, suggests that we should temper our satisfaction, as the religiously disconnected are not necessarily urbane secularists. While self-described atheists and agnostics tend to be highly educated, 77 percent of those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular” haven’t finished college. Many of these people, largely white, aren’t necessarily hostile to religion; they’re simply as alienated from their local churches as they are from other institutions, including political parties and labor unions. Almost half of those who claim no religion but consider religion important earn less than $30,000 a year. These struggling, detached, impious whites are a crucial part of Trump’s base.
There may be more overlap than we realize between them and the self-identified evangelicals who support Trump. We simply don’t know how religiously connected Trump’s Christian fans are. Trinity College’s Silk suspects that a significant part of Trump’s born-again support comes from what he calls “loosely affiliated or not very frequently attending people who care more about other issues.” According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, Trump’s supporters report less frequent church attendance than either social conservatives or establishment Republicans. Evangelicals who don’t go to church are not, by and large, confident exemplars of family values. Rather, their families tend to be unstable; they are the reason that born-again Christians have higher divorce rates than other Americans.
Steve Deace, a prominent Iowa Christian radio host and Cruz supporter, sees a connection between the rise of Trump and a “lack of influential leaders” among evangelicals. Many may, at some point, declare themselves born-again, but that doesn’t mean they stay tied to the church or that their faith guides their life. Fewer people are “living and thinking like a Christ-follower should,” he says.
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At the veterans’ fundraiser that Trump staged to compete with the Republican debate on Thursday, I sat next to John Jensen, a 70-year-old farmer. He’s an ultraconservative, but when I asked whether he was bothered by Trump’s record on abortion and gay marriage, he said, “That’s Mickey Mouse stuff compared to what’s really going on in this country. We’re $20 trillion in debt. We got aliens all over the place. I harvest wheat out west, and all the little towns are full of aliens.”
Some religious conservative activists in Iowa have been taken aback that many on the right no longer prioritize their concerns. Jenifer Bowen, the head of Iowa Right to Life and a signatory to the anti-Trump letter, says that opposition to abortion has always been the leading issue for conservatives in that state. “Historically, it’s been the caucus process where we pick our most pure candidate on life,” she says. Now, she sees that at least some conservatives have decided that other things—border security, a willingness to defy political correctness—matter more. “All of the so-called rules for how presidential candidacies run seem to have flown out the window,” she says. “He’s just come in and flipped the tables.”
If Trump wins the Iowa caucuses, it will be because he rendered the institutional framework of the modern Republican Party irrelevant. It’s not just his refusal to take part in the final Iowa debate. Part of the lore of the Iowa caucuses is that the citizens of this small state get a chance to evaluate the candidates up close; Cruz, for one, is making stops in each of Iowa’s 99 counties—the so-called full Grassley. But Trump eschews traditional retail campaigning for giant rallies. The voters here can’t get close to him, unlike all the other candidates; he’s replaced one-on-one persuasion with spectacle and celebrity.
In a perceptive piece in the Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote that a Trump win would show how little the right-wing public cares about the intellectual infrastructure of the modern conservative movement:
What so frightens the conservative movement about Trump's success is that he reveals just how thin the support for their ideas really is. His campaign is a rebuke to their institutions. It says the Republican Party doesn't need all these think tanks, all this supposed policy expertise. It says look at these people calling themselves libertarians and conservatives, the ones in tassel-loafers and bow ties. … These people are worthless. They are defunct. You don't need them, and you're better off without them.
Should Trump triumph in Iowa, it will demonstrate that the Christian right, a crucial part of the conservative infrastructure, is similarly losing its relevance. It’s not just that Trump has been married three times; so was Newt Gingrich, who garnered significant religious conservative support four years ago. It’s not that Trump is an entertainer who used to be pro-choice; so was Ronald Reagan. What’s striking about Trump is that he doesn’t even try to speak in the idiom of the Christian conservative movement. At a FAMiLY Leader event last year, he admitted he’s never asked God for forgiveness. Speaking at Liberty University, he pronounced 2 Corinthians as “Two Corinthians,” when any regular churchgoer would know that it’s “Second Corinthians.” Even describing his change of heart on abortion, Trump uses rhetoric that’s completely unmoored from that of the anti-abortion movement. Abortion foes talk about life beginning at conception and claim a duty to protect the weakest among us. Trump talks about a friend of his who wanted his wife to have an abortion; she refused, and the child grew up to be what Trump called a “total superstar, a great, great child.” The evangelical author Trevin Wax wrote in response, “If the ‘right to life’ is in any way dependent on what the probable outcome of a child will be, then we are right back where we were a century ago, when the forerunners of today’s abortion industry were advocating eugenics to ‘weed out’ less desirable groups.”
If Trump isn’t interested in speaking the language of the religious right, neither are many of his supporters. Last Tuesday afternoon, two married couples in their 20s huddled in the biting cold outside a school gym in Marshalltown, Iowa, waiting in line for a Trump rally that would begin three hours later. Eric Struve, a 27-year-old nurse and hobby farmer, said it was his first time going to a political rally since high school, when he’d had to see “that faggot Obama” for class. Despite the slur, Struve says he once supported Obama. Now he and his wife, Valerie Struve, also a nurse, had changed their voter registrations from Democrat to Republican to caucus for Trump. The No. 1 issue in the election, said Eric Struve, is immigration.
“They’re going to corrupt our America is what they’re going to do,” Struve said. “Screw up the economy. They come in; they take over. They’re going to screw up Medicare and Medicaid. They don’t pay taxes. They take our jobs, send them overseas because they can do everything cheaper. It’s all screwed up. So yeah, they need to build a wall. And Mexico can pay for it.”
A flat, unlovely sprawl of a city, Marshalltown used to be overwhelmingly white, but two decades ago, immigrants from Latin America started coming in to work in the meatpacking plants. Today, the population of 28,000 is about one-quarter Hispanic; there’s also been a recent, smaller influx of Burmese refugees. These demographic changes have coincided with a nationwide decline in blue-collar wages and a rise in white social breakdown. At the rally, I met 22-year-old Nick Braye, a recovering drug addict who makes pizzas for a living. He’s a Sanders supporter but had come to see Trump out of curiosity: “The circus doesn’t come to town often,” he said. Braye told me that Marshalltown is known for meth. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find the American dream out here,” he said.
Trump’s fans would likely agree with this assessment. The Struves’ friend Leslie Krough, a 28-year-old with a 5-year-old daughter, was there with her husband, Trent. He’s a longtime Republican; she’s always been a Democrat. A former certified nursing assistant, she described her adulthood as a bitter disappointment. “It’s crazy,” she says. “They didn’t tell us that this is how it’s going to be when we grew up. We were young, and we wanted to just grow up and be free and do what we want, but they didn’t tell us that this was what the world was.”
She was talking specifically about how hard it is to make a living and how little a dollar can buy—problems she blamed on illegal immigration. “All these people that are working tax-free, they’re having all these kids, and that’s biggering our population, and we’re paying for those kids,” she says. “There’s people out there getting $800 in food stamps and then selling them for drugs.”
In the Trump campaign, Krough sees people rising up to create a better world. “I was watching The Lorax with my daughter today,” Krough said, referring to the movie version of Dr. Seuss’ environmentalist children’s book. “And I got to thinking, ‘Oh my God, it only takes one person to change the world.’ That’s what he did in The Lorax, and I’m going to Trump today. Is that a sign, or what?”
I asked the group whether it mattered to them that Trump is not particularly religious, has been married three times, and used to be pro-choice. “I don’t care about that,” Eric Struve said. “Separation of church and state,” added Trent Krough. Struve is quick to avow his faith in God, but he has a low opinion of religious conservative leaders. “A lot of them are kind of fake people, if you ask me,” he said. “Anybody can put on a face and act like they believe in God.”
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It’s hard for a liberal not to feel a touch of schadenfreude watching the religious right, once an angry right-wing insurgency, being flummoxed by a new angry right-wing insurgency. At Cruz’s rally I spoke to Jason Jones, a prominent anti-abortion activist and filmmaker based in Hawaii. The rage of Trump supporters baffled him. “I don’t get it. I don’t see where this disenfranchisement comes from, this anger comes from,” he said. “I do get frustration with the establishment of the Republican Party, but then there’s Sen. Cruz, who has actually stood up to the establishment of the Republican Party!”
Other socially conservative leaders were similarly puzzled. “Certainly, there are things that can scare us about the current status of our country, but I don’t understand that anger and that rage,” Iowa Right to Life’s Bowen said. She seemed to have no idea how much she sounded like the Republican establishmentarians who once looked aghast at the rise of the Moral Majority. After all, it’s always been the religious right—a group the Washington Post famously described in 1993 as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command”—that has been seen as representing the irrational, atavistic side of conservative politics.
Cruz’s backers hope that, ultimately, Trump’s people won’t turn out to caucus. Yes, they’ve lined up for hours in the cold to get into his rallies, but maybe that’s just because, like Nick Braye, they want to see a show. “I think there’s a lot of celebrity there,” FAMiLY Leader’s Vander Plaats told me. “People want to see him. They want to see what he’s going to say next. They want to be able to say, ‘I saw Donald Trump when he campaigned for president.’ We’ll see if that translates into votes. I don’t think it will.”
But if it does, we will witness the coming-out party of an American analogue to Europe’s ethno-nationalist right—a right more unified by race than by religion. That’s not to say that the traditional Christian right hasn’t been driven by racial animus. Dartmouth religious historian Randall Balmer, himself an evangelical, convincingly argues that the modern religious right emerged from the effort to protect the tax-exempt status of so-called segregation academies: all-white Christian schools that sprang up in the South to thwart desegregation. The story the religious right tells itself, however, is about a struggle for moral—not ethnic—purity; it expects its political leaders to bow in the direction of that narrative.
Trump, however, is telling a different tale. His story is about a once-strong nation beset by dangerous foreigners and the great man who promises to swoop in and save it. His deviations from conservative Christian orthodoxy don’t much matter because it’s identity, not belief, binding his followers together. The lack of emphasis on ideology—not to mention theology—is one of the biggest differences between his movement and the Christian right, and it’s one reason conservative elites have such a hard time fathoming it.
Hannah Arendt, in her opus The Origins of Totalitarianism, described a mixture of “gullibility and cynicism” seen when deracinated, atomized people come together in a mob. She wrote:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Sixty-five years before Trump’s rise, Arendt captured some of the dynamic between the candidate and his followers. He lies to them, but he also flatters them and makes them feel savvy, breaking the fourth wall of politics to explain his calculations even as he engages in them. At a rally in Pella, Iowa, on Jan. 23, Trump all but announced his ideological opportunism. “When I’m president I’m a different person,” he said. “I can do anything. I can be the most politically correct person you have ever seen.” Members of the evangelical elite don’t understand why this admission did not, at last, burst Trump’s bubble. “What is this phenomenon that’s going on?” asked Bowen. “Is this really the heartbeat of a lot of Americans, or are the polls exaggerated?” We’re about to find out.
Correction, Feb. 1, 2016: This article originally stated that Donald Trump was in Sioux City, Iowa, when he said he wouldn’t lose voters’ support even if he shot someone. Trump was in Sioux Center, Iowa. This article also originally cited a Public Religion Research Institute poll as showing that 53 percent of Iowa evangelicals view Trump favorably. The figure refers to evangelical voters nationwide.