It’s been one of the enduring, vexing, ongoing mysteries of the Trump campaign and presidency. Namely, why so many Christians and evangelicals — oftentimes the very same ones who've condemned obscene or philandering politicians of the past in starkly moral terms — have thrown their weight so enthusiastically and wholly behind Donald Trump, both as a candidate and a president? What explains Trump's continued sway over his evangelical Christian supporters?
Over at Salon, Chauncey DeVega compellingly argued on Friday that the phenomenon is at least linked to a strain of evangelical hostility toward questions of fact and empiricism, citing recent findings in the Journal of Religion and Health that bolster a pretty obvious reality: Something being grounded in factual reason doesn't necessarily mean it will cause a devout person to question their own beliefs or sense of morality.
If you've ever gotten into an argument with somebody over matters of personal beliefs (often deeply held yet utterly factually unsupported), this probably wouldn't surprise you. After all, the urge to not admit that you might be wrong, or indeed even consider that you might be wrong, is a human trait. While it might show itself more drastically in matters of religion, and may be more intractable when questions of morals and personal faith are concerned, anyone who's ever been caught in a frustrating, banging-your-head-against-the-wall conversation before has probably witnessed this before. Or, in more reactionary and defensive moments, has felt the impulse themselves.
However, there are indeed concrete political outcomes driving evangelical Christians to back Trump, too. And while that might strike you as cynical ― and deeply hypocritical, given the moralizing terms with which many of the same evangelicals castigated and condemned former President Bill Clinton for his marital infidelity ― it does make a sort of internal sense.
Namely, whether they think he truly believes it or not, Trump is the undeniable leader of the only major political coalition ― major enough to win elections and set policy, at least ― that's advancing a raft of ideas that are near and dear to the hearts of countless Christian conservatives.
You know the kind: abortion, so-called "religious freedom" issues (like not wanting to subsidize birth control for women), and control of the Supreme Court, which has stung the Christian right in the past with socially liberal rulings, and which they'd like to see established as a conservative bulwark against evolving and shifting cultural norms.
Trump explicitly pandered to these sorts of issues during his campaign, even as he put on a less-than-convincing portrayal of a faithful Christian. He made it patently obvious that he would nominate an anti-abortion judge to the Supreme Court ― a pledge he seems to have kept in Justice Neil Gorsuch. He pointed to ISIS's violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East, inflaming anti-Muslim sentiment within American Christian communities.
And even though he's made remarks that hinted at a tolerance and open-mindedness on social issues that are uncommon for a Republican candidate ― like his campaign comments about longtime conservative Republican and transgender woman Caitlyn Jenner, or his reference to the LGBTQ community in his speech at the Republican National Committee ― he's made it clear through his actions, and the people he's surrounded himself, with that he's willing to tow the line.
He picked a Christian hardliner in Mike Pence for his vice president. He upended protections for transgender students. He announced that transgender people couldn't serve in the U.S. armed forces. And he pushed for a health care bill that would've stripped funding to Planned Parenthood for a year, as well as released a budget proposal that would've defunded it entirely, despite voicing some cautious support for the organization during the campaign.
In short, while it's always a tempting to think that Trump holds a particular ideological, emotional, or cultish thrall over his die-hard supporters, it's important to not lose sight of some of the real, tangible issues guiding his support.
Because ultimately, when someone makes it clear they'll do whatever you want on some of the biggest, most-central issues in your worldview, it's incredibly easy to leave all those aesthetic and moral concerns behind. Even, say, if that person used to support abortion, engages in sectarian attacks against other Christians, and has been accused of sexually assaulting multiple women. It may be gross in the extreme, but it's the reality we're all now living with.