Onward, Christian Soldier Trump
You can't win the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina without religious voters. According to exit polling, "born-again or evangelical Christian" voters accounted for 72 percent of the GOP primary electorate last Saturday. In his thumping victory in the state, Donald Trump carried a 33 percent plurality of them.
As my colleague Leonid Bershidsky reported, Trump did not fare especially well among conservative religious voters seeking someone who reflects their values. Indeed for the 37 percent of voters who told exit pollsters that "shares my values" was the most important quality they sought in a candidate, Trump finished last in the field.
Unfortunately for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are both competing for their votes, many conservative evangelical Christians have concluded that they don't need someone who shares their values. They can tolerate, even embrace, a candidate who is profane, greedy, vain, shifty and thrice-married with a loud history of sexual conquest. (Winner of the South Carolina primary in 2012? Newt Gingrich. Hmm.)
Speaking to MSNBC, Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, said that South Carolina evangelicals had proved to be not values voters so much as "nostalgia voters," eager to Make America Great Again by returning to an idealized socially conservative and white-dominated past. But if this is nostalgia, it comes in a particularly anxious form.
In 2013, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg conducted a series of focus groups with Republican voters, dividing them into distinct groups of evangelicals, Tea Partyers or moderates. The socially conservative evangelicals had little in common with the moderates, but they considered Tea Partyers to be vital allies. Like the Tea Party groups, evangelicals viewed President Barack Obama and his party not as wrong-headed domestic political opponents but as an existential threat.
Participants were asked to write down their private thoughts about Obama. Here are some responses from evangelicals in Virginia and Colorado:
"Not a US citizen. Supports Terrorists."
"I don't believe he's a Christian. He's a tyrant."
"He is going to try to turn this into a communist country."
The window for compromise with a terrorist-supporting communist tyrant is not vast. Which explains why Greenberg found that evangelicals valued Tea Partyers primarily for their aggressive attacks on Obama.
"Evangelicals who feel most threatened by trends embrace the Tea Party because they are the ones who are fighting back," Greenberg's report states. Instead of seeing Washington as a site of gridlock and paralysis, these voters perceived national politics as a series of devastating losses endured by conservatives. Republicans, in their view, were prostrate before a liberal Democratic steamroller.
Trump doesn't promise to conduct himself with faith, hope and charity. He promises to smite the enemies of cultural conservatives and make things the way they used to be -- politically incorrect, economically secure and traditionally hierarchical, with white men on top. (That's the essence of the Trump definition of "great.")
In South Carolina, the less education a voter claimed, the more that message resonated. Trump dominated among voters with high school or less education. He did slightly less well among voters who had some college, and a little less well again among college graduates. He handily lost voters with post-graduate educations to Rubio.
"Apparently Trump does best with non-college white evangelicals while Cruz and Rubio do better with college educated," e-mailed Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz, who has analyzed religious polarization in U.S. politics. "It makes sense if you think of Trump’s appeal to this group being based on fear of social change and a sense of being under threat by changing values and demographics."
For conservative evangelicals who feel battered alike by the global economy and rapid cultural change, Trump's bombast and crude aggression may not appear very Christ-like. But many are not looking for a candidate to embody their values. They're looking for a warrior to protect them.
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