Donald Trump’s earthly bargain with the evangelical right

Donald Trump’s leaked remarks to evangelical leaders last month contained a telling choice of possessive pronoun: “I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote.” Another Republican president might have referred to “our people”. This one does not feign membership of the flock. He tables an earthly bargain: it is me, or a Democrat; Brett Kavanaugh, or a liberal justice, on the US Supreme Court.

The Senate’s probable confirmation of Mr Kavanaugh, a more bankable conservative than the retiring Anthony Kennedy, will be read outside the US as another coup for the Christian right in the west’s most pious nation. Mr Trump’s impertinence — he also teased the gathered faithful that they had “plateaued” — suggests something else. The religious influence on American conservatism is on the gentle wane.

White evangelical Protestants are a declining share of the population. There are Latino and Asian Christians to replace them, but their politics are too varied to herd into a rightwing pen. Public opinion on same-sex marriage has softened at speed. Millennials, poised to become America’s largest living generation, are as liberal as their reputation. Extrapolate from these trends, and the geopolitical drift of the US from Europe masks an underlying convergence of the cultures.

A coherent and organised force can hold out against headwinds. The question is whether evangelicals are either. They were never a monolith, hence the rifts over subjects as momentous as slavery and as tactical as the alliance with the Republican party a century later. Charismatic leadership and a siege mentality after the permissiveness of the 1960s held an otherwise tenuous coalition together. With Billy Graham, who died in February, went perhaps the last of its great leaders. Whether it can speak as one has not been in such doubt since the mid-20th century dawn of the modern movement. What Charles de Gaulle said about France and its cheeses is true of America and its denominations: the myriad range suggests ungovernability.

In her work on evangelicals, the historian Frances FitzGerald sees a trend to fragmentation. “New evangelicals” are taking un-Republican positions on healthcare, the environment and criminal justice. This is partly a sop to millennials, partly sincere exegesis: a reading of scripture that prizes social and economic fairness as highly as the “below the belt” questions of yore. Still others are withdrawing from partisan politics altogether, having little to show for it.


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