For someone who is demonstrably non-devout, President Donald Trump has paid significant lip service to the religious right. He got conservative kudos in 2016 for appointing Mike Pence, a staunchly conservative evangelical, as his running mate, and later filled his cabinet with conservative Christians like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. In May, Trump signed an executive order that makes it easier for pastors to publicly support political candidates, and delivered his first commencement address as president at Liberty College, a private Christian college in Virginia.
It's not hard to understand the motives behind Trump's outreach: The religious right is a political force to be reckoned with at the polls. But two weeks ago, news broke that several high-ranking members of Trump's cabinet, including Pence, Sessions, DeVos, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry have even been attending a weekly Bible study hosted in the White House. News of the Bible study concerned some observers, who feared that the study might put pressure on employees to join, and open the doors for religious belief to influence policy.
Still, Trump is an odd figure within the movement. He has reportedly been invited to the Bible studies, but hasn't attended. (He does, however, receive copies of the group's lessons.) Reportedly an infrequent reader, Trump claimed in August of 2015 that his favorite book is the Bible; later, in an interview on Bloomberg's With All Due Respect, was unable to recite a favorite verse. While it's familiar territory for the country to be led by conservative Christians (George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan courted their ranks), where Trump fits in within the decades-old influence of Evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals, Mormons, and other right-wing Christians on politics remains to be seen.
To discuss the return of right-wing Christian influence in the White House, Pacific Standard spoke with Neil J. Young, independent historian and author of 2015's We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. Young spoke about the transactional nature of Trump's relationships, nationalism within the Christian right, and Pence, who Young says is an under-addressed figure in the Trump administration.
How would you describe Trump's relationship to the Christian right?
All of Trump's relationships, I think, have to be seen as transactional. But the real question remains about what's actually being transacted here. On the policy front, he hasn't made moves to address issues that are traditionally very important to the religious right: The promises Trump has made have been more symbolic. For example, Trump recently promised that "We are going to start saying 'Merry Christmas' again." But beyond "Merry Christmas" rhetoric, I think his central campaign promise to conservative Christians was that he was going to restore right-wing Christians to the center of American power. It remains to be seen how exactly he's going to accomplish that as president, but I think even just the promises of power represented something that voters really seemed to respond to.
Recent reports have revealed that several members of Trump's cabinet meet weekly for a Bible study in the White House. Is this a unique occurrence in the White House?
I would put the Trump Bible study—and any White House Bible study—in the larger context of Bible studies on Capitol Hill, which are quite common. There's a long-running congressional Bible study that's a bipartisan group that has been famously attended by people like Hillary Clinton and other Christians—not only Protestants, but also Catholics, have been known to attend the congressional Bible study.
What's unique and significant about the Bible studies being held in the Trump White House is the person running them: a former basketball player named Ralph Drollinger. He played at the University of California–Los Angeles and had a little bit of a pro career, but he ultimately went into the ministry and operates on the fringes of right-wing Christianity. He's the author of the 2013 book, Rebuilding America: the Biblical Blueprint, and has been a prominent Christian nationalist figure. Based on reports of the Bible study and the materials produced by his organization, Capitol Ministries, we can conclude he's utilizing a theo-political approach to these studies. And by that I mean Drollinger is using the Bible to interpret and grapple with policy.
Trump is not a traditional religious candidate. He's been divorced more than once, he's profane, he's obsessed with wealth. How was he able to win over the "family values" crowd?
We should remember, first of all, that Trump struggled with evangelicals throughout his campaign. There were certainly some that supported him from the beginning, but overall, the support was hard-won over the course of the campaign, much of which did not materialize until election day.
It's also useful to think about who gravitated toward Trump first and who the holdouts were. The people that tended to be most in Trump's camp at the beginning came from the Prosperity Gospel and Pentecostal/Charismatic wings of American Evangelicalism. It's not surprising. Trump apparently has long had relationships with televangelists Pat Robertson and Paula White. And I think he built on those relationships as a political candidate. He struggled more with what you might call "mainstream evangelicals," though obviously they ultimately sided with him last November. Trump's flashy lifestyle and unorthodox manner appealed to the Prosperity Gospel wing, but were really off-putting to more traditional evangelical voters. But as election day neared, we observed these evangelicals making peace with Trump. They began to interpret Trump's vast wealth as a sign that God had favored him as a businessman, and would therefore also favor him as president. His financial success no longer stood in the way of the fact that he's not a "true Christian."
Trump has been accused of racism by a vast number of his critics. Sessions, who is also reportedly a regular attendee of the White House Bible studies, and others within the administration have also come under scrutiny for racism. How does race factor in with Trump and the Christian right?
Most major developments in American political life have had more than a tinge of racism, and this is certainly also true of the religious right. Trump's call to "Make America Great Again"—and of course we know he was not the first to use this slogan—was a whistle call to white nationalism. It resonated with many Christian conservatives, and elicited a nostalgia for a pre-civil rights America, especially among older white evangelicals and those who reside in suburban and rural areas.
I also think that Trump's attack on political correctness, his promises to restore white American Christians to the center of power, his kind of no-nonsense, no-holds-barred way of speaking, I think all of that has this throwback sensibility to a time when white male authority was unquestioned in America. That resonates deeply with many Christian conservatives who think that everything has been turned upside-down lately, not only around around questions of race but especially of gender and sexuality. All these points of tension came together in Trump's campaign and resulted in broad-based support among white conservative Christians.
How does Pence fit in here? Unlike Trump, he's a longtime conservative Christian who has been very outspoken about his beliefs throughout his political career.
Pence was hugely influential in Trump winning over the religious right, and I'm surprised more attention hasn't been paid to his role within this administration as it pertains to conservative Christians. Choosing Pence as his running mate was one of the smarter decisions the Trump campaign made. It signaled to the evangelical base that he was serious about bringing their issues and values with him to the White House.
But Pence has been kind of invisible so far in Trump's presidency, especially compared to Joe Biden and Dick Cheney, who seemed to be more at the center of things.
Absolutely. I think in an administration in which you had a much more secure president, who trusted those around him to do the things that they're best at like Pence, [he] would have been utilized far more. In a way, it's like Trump just kind of wants to do the symbolic stuff. That's the stuff that's better left to the vice president to begin with, and particularly when you have a vice president like this, that could be doing important symbolic work with like key constituency groups. It's kind of stunning that he's not being used for that.
As a historian I'm sure you hate it when anyone asks you to predict the future, but do you have any sense of where Trump might be taking the right-wing Christian movement? Is he helping or hurting the cause?
True, as a historian I don't like to make predictions, and Trump's behavior is especially hard to predict. But I think there are short-term and long-term consequences to consider. In the short term, Trump will continue to make really symbolic moves with the religious right. I think they're going to be his go-to base that we may see him reach out to even more through moments of controversy—of all the different constituencies, they have shown the least drop-off in support for Trump. That aspect would be important for any president, but especially Trump, who cares deeply about public opinion.
In the long term I think this is a disastrous relationship for the religious right. In the coming decade, I think there will be a lot of soul searching within the movement. The movement has had these moments of self-reflection before, even with presidents who conformed well to the values of the religious right. Following both the Reagan and Bush administrations, we saw tons of think pieces from religious right leaders asking: "Have we succumbed too much to political temptation? Has this really been worth it?" I think these sorts of questions will be asked in more corners of the movement and with even louder voices than before. Another possibility is a real splintering of the movement: those who remain close to Trump, and those who will ultimately withdraw their support of his presidency, and also the decision to get behind him in the first place.