Last weekend, a dozen socially conservative organizations hosted their annual Values Voter Summit in Washington. The forum claims to advocate “traditional marriage, religious liberty, sanctity of life and limited government.” In 2015, only 5 percent of participants in a Values Voter straw poll picked Donald Trump as their first choice for president, placing him in a distant fifth. But this year’s conference closed ranks around him.
Defending an inveterate liar, lecher, and abuser is trickier than speaking for Jesus. It requires a new moral code. What should “values voters” stand for in the age of Trump? Here are the new values, according to the conference speakers.
1. Good works don’t matter. Michele Bachmann, a former Republican presidential candidate and congresswoman, declared from the podium:
If you think at the end of your life, that life is made up of a pan balance, and if you did more good things than bad things, that somehow that will get you into Heaven, I’m sorry to say you’ll be tragically mistaken on that final day. There’s only one way that you go into Heaven, and that is receiving and believing that it is God who saved your sins, and that He is who He says He is.
This is basic conservative theology. But in preaching it, Bachmann left out something else the Bible teaches: “Faith without works is dead.” In social and political debates, Christians have traditionally agreed that we should be judged by our behavior.
Trump has changed that. Unable to defend his conduct, his supporters argue that conduct doesn’t matter. Bachmann told the conference that Trump’s faith had washed away his sins, that he had “received the Gospel” and was “a changed man.” She couldn’t point to a shift in his behavior, but she cautioned: “No one knows the thoughts and intentions of a person’s heart.” Bill Bennett, the author of The Book of Virtues, also spoke in Trump’s defense, dismissing his misdeeds. “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future,” said Bennett. “Let us support the president in the good works he intends to do.” Conservatives used to believe that virtue could be observed. Now, by postulating private salvation and hypothetical reform, they imply that the president, in effect, can’t be judged.
2. Authenticity trumps virtue. Bennett praised Trump’s unscripted insults, calling them the spontaneous genius of an “authentic Queens guy.” He brushed aside criticism of the president’s behavior, contending that Trump has “the gift of always being himself. What we get is real.” Conservatives used to mock the elevation of self-expression over objective rules of decency. Now they celebrate it.
3. Everything is transactional. In the old days, moralists said they couldn’t be bought. Now they proudly wear price tags. Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told the conference that Trump was worth electing just to get a Republican-appointed Supreme Court justice. Bennett said that during the election, he had made the same point to Trump’s critics. “In philosophy, we talk about necessary and sufficient conditions,” Bennett explained. “If you think he’s going to appoint a real conservative to the Supreme Court, that’s a sufficient condition of voting for him.”
This sounds like right-wing absolutism, but it isn’t. An absolutist might say, for example, that getting a conservative court appointment was a necessary condition to vote for Trump. But Bennett says it’s not just necessary; it’s sufficient. That means Trump could do anything else—shag an intern, grope staffers, talk a woman into an abortion, start a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula—and Bennett would still support him.
Nor do these apologists mind that Trump sees evangelicals as just another constituency requiring a quid pro quo. “Every time I’ve spoken to the president since the election, he reminds me of how strong the evangelical, social conservative vote was for him,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council. Bachmann said Trump had told her the same thing and—alluding to the president’s address to the conference on Friday—added, “It’s why he was here.” What’s striking in these stories is the absence of any relayed comment from Trump about shared values. Trump seems to see his relationship with evangelicals as fundamentally about serving him, not God. And his nominally religious allies don’t care.
4. God belongs to the West. Many Christians believe that people of all religions are drawn by the same divine presence. Even in the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush, an evangelical, spoke of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as related faiths. But Trump sees Islam as hostile, and so do his surrogates. At the Values Voter Summit, Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, said the “creator” exalted in the Declaration of Independence was “the God of the Torah and the New Testament. … It’s not the God of the Quran.” Bauer accused President Obama of giving “more speeches about the wonders of Islamic civilization than he did about the wonders of Judeo-Christian civilization.” Bachmann added that Europe “is in the process of being de-Christianized and will be Islamized. How do you pull back from that? Let’s not get to that point.”
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign CEO and White House adviser, also addressed the conference. He framed the clash of cultures as geographic, if not ethnic. He told the attendees that they represented “the Judeo-Christian West” and that China, a nation “at full economic war with us,” was “a Confucian mercantilist society.” Never mind the Muslims. We’re at war with the Confucians, too.
5. Worship the state. Christianity was founded as a universal faith. But Trump’s supporters, parroting his nationalism, focus on allegiance to the United States, not to God. At the Values Voter Summit, speakers ridiculed “globalist” and “transnational” ideas. The most commonly invoked issue wasn’t prayer or abortion; it was the refusal of football players to stand for the national anthem. Bauer denounced Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who had launched the protest movement, for saying, in Bauer’s words, “I’m not going to stand for a national anthem of an unjust country.” In the church of Trump, accusing the United States of injustice is blasphemy.
6. Don’t welcome the stranger. Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of Act for America, told the crowd that refugees should be kept out of the United States:
Cases of rape and sexual assault [have been] reported already in six states where refugees are resettled. … They have no respect for women, children, or our American values. Welcome to the new American citizens we are importing. They are bringing with them diseases that we once eradicated in the United States. … Refugee resettlement is not about humanitarianism. But it’s about supplying cheap labor. … The regular American is going to the back of the line, paying for the salaries of refugees we are importing to this country, who hate America, do not share our values, and a lot of them actually are working against our own country.
As she left the stage, Gabriel received prolonged applause.
7. Take pride in your enemies. Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host, urged the attendees to measure success by their accumulation of enemies. Bauer, Bennett, and Meadows struck the same theme. But pursuing antagonism can lead you to evil. Ingraham’s list of groups worth offending began with antifa, La Raza, and the anthem protesters. Bauer defended Confederate statues, arguing that people who opposed them “aren’t just haters of the South. They’re not just haters of Judeo-Christian values. They hate America.” Trump’s White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway, boasted that by defeating Hillary Clinton, Trump had “kept open the first-female-president-of-the-United-States job.” When you explicitly take pride in defeating women, Latino groups, and critics of slavery, your denials of bigotry ring hollow.
8. Tear things down. Social conservatives used to revere tradition. Now, in the name of Trump and populism, they trash it. From the conference podium, Roy Moore, the Republican Senate nominee in Alabama, read a poem mocking “well-established precedent.” Meadows demanded an end to the nearly 200-year-old Senate filibuster rule, concluding, “To heck with tradition.” In place of the old idea of preservation, Trump’s advocates celebrated destruction. “We gave Eric Cantor a two-by-four across the electoral face,” Ingraham crowed, celebrating the 2014 defeat of the Republican House majority leader. Bannon praised Trump for sabotaging health insurance markets by cutting off federal payments. “Gonna blow that thing up,” Bannon effused. “Gonna blow those exchanges up, right?”
In his closing remarks, Moore said America had lost its way because it had lost God. “We have forgotten the source of our morality,” he lamented. But the sickness among social conservatives in the age of Trump goes deeper. They haven’t just forgotten the source of morality. They’ve forgotten what morality is.