When the history books reflect on Donald Trump’s presidency, the religious right’s unflinching support of him will surely get a lot of ink. Trump promised the religious right everything it wanted and then some—particularly conservative federal judges and Supreme Court justices who would roll back abortion and marriage equality.
It is obvious why the religious right supported Trump. One thing that has nagged at me for the better part of six years, though, is how they could justify doing so. How could rolling back abortion and marriage equality be so important that some of the same people who pilloried Bill Clinton over character issues were willing to make a Faustian deal with a guy who plastered a news anchor’s personal cell number on social media, mocked the disabled, condoned violence at his rallies and against the media, and reveled in degrading women?
Looking back at how the religious right has done business since it started rearing its ugly head in the late 1970s and early ‘80s seems to reveal at least part of the answer.
All too often, it seems that the nation’s self-declared moral guardians have been willing to forsake Jesus’ warning in Matthew 25 about caring for “the least of these.” They have been willing to throw the vulnerable under the bus for the sake of not only making America great again, but making America Christian again—or more accurately, making America Christianist again.
A stark example of this mentality comes from James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. Long before he rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s as one of the most vocal generals in the religious right army, Dobson was a prolific author. But at least two of his books say a lot about who he really is.
In 1983, he penned a book called Love Must Be Tough, in which he offered advice to individuals and couples in troubled marriages. One of those individuals was “Laura,” a mother of two in a horribly abusive marriage for the last 12 years. According to Dobson’s book, Laura’s husband was two-faced, or at least he was in 1983. While most people knew him as a prominent lawyer and church leader, he frequently went into fits of rage and beat Laura to a bloody pulp before blaming her for the abuse.
A trained psychologist like Dobson would know that there is only one acceptable response to Laura’s question: Tell her to get out, and get out now. For that matter, it shouldn’t take any training to know that marriage died long ago. But incredibly, Dobson told Laura that “divorce is not the answer to this problem.” Rather, he encouraged Laura to “change her husband’s behavior” by taking his most outrageous demands, wadding them up, and throwing them back at him.
Dobson did suggest that Laura move out until her husband “gives her reason to believe he is willing to change.” Only then, he noted, should the process of reconciliation begin. But one shouldn’t need a psychology degree to know that when abuse has gone on for this long, there’s no reconciling, especially when kids are in the situation.
In 2015, R.L. Stollar of Homeschoolers Anonymous, a community of people who share their experiences in the evangelical homeschooling world, discovered that the sage advice from Dobson remained unchanged in the 2007 edition of Love Must Be Tough. The book has gone through four editions, with the advice to Laura remaining the same in all of them; the most recent was in 2010.
Telling Laura to stay in an abusive marriage isn’t the worst thing that has come from Dobson’s pen. That came in 1978 from one of his many books on child-rearing, The Strong-Willed Child. Dobson starts that book by recalling how he took a belt to his 12-pound dachshund, Sigmund Freud, after “Siggie” refused to go to bed. This vile account has remained unchanged through five editions—most recently in 2017. As disturbing as this is on its own, it’s even worse when considering the mountain of evidence that cruelty to animals inevitably leads to cruelty to people.
Dobson still went on to become one of the most powerful voices in the religious right, with the ear of three presidents—including Trump. Watch him give his thoughts about Trump on CBN News.
But how was Dobson even allowed to get to that point? The only plausible conclusion one can draw is that the publishers, pastors, and Christian radio stations who supported Dobson and Focus on the Family were willing to overlook these outrageous statements due to his conservative views on child-rearing, reproductive roles and rights, and the family. A little violence against a senior dog didn’t matter so much when Dobson’s publisher and his audience liked the rest of the book.
This conclusion doesn’t sound so outlandish in light of the religious right still being in thrall to Trump, even in the face of his many depravities. Trump infamously declared in January 2016 that he wouldn’t lose any supporters even if he turned Fifth Avenue into a bloodbath. But in 2020, The New York Times’ religion reporter, Elizabeth Dias, revealed that Trump said something else in that speech.
“I will tell you, Christianity is under tremendous siege, whether we want to talk about it or we don’t want to talk about it,” Mr. Trump said.
Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”
If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.
“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
Trump gave that speech in a corner of northwestern Iowa that’s one of the most fundified regions of the country. This was the former bailiwick of one of the most odious members ever elected to the House, Steve King. According to Dias, this speech encapsulated why people in this region, and evangelicals as a whole, flocked to Trump. They knew full well he was a gangster, a boor, a bully. But at least he was “the bully who was on their side,” someone who would “restore them to power.”
Seen in this light, the religious right’s continued support for Trump despite his voluminous outrages, as well as its willingness to peddle a false narrative about him, makes more sense. For instance, after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, it seemed like religious right leaders were falling all over themselves to say that his profane words didn’t matter nearly as much as Trump’s promise to appoint line-drawing conservatives to the courts who would roll back abortion and marriage equality. Indeed, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council openly admitted he and other so-called moral guardians were giving Trump a “mulligan” for his past depravities. To service the massive debt he owed them for their support in 2016, Trump just had to give evangelicals what they wanted on policy. During Trump’s first impeachment, pro-Trump pastors actually claimed that those evil liberal Democrats were actually impeaching their values, under the influence of demons.
This nonsense hasn’t let up since Trump left office, even though it has been demonstrated beyond any doubt that Trump was not just lying about the 2020 election being stolen from him, but also incited a deadly insurrection in hopes of stealing another term. For the better part of a year, a number of so-called “prophets” have insisted to everyone who would listen that Trump is the legitimate president, and that God himself will right the terrible wrong done to him. One of them, Johnny Enlow, even declared with a straight face that those who don’t bow and pray to the orange god that he and his fellow moral guardians helped make do so at risk of their salvation.
Sadly, this approach is working among the religious right’s followers. In late September, a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute found that a whopping 61% of white evangelicals believed that Trump had a second term stolen from him. An equally staggering 68% of white evangelicals considered Trump a “true patriot.”
In what world is it possible for people holding themselves out as moral guardians to go all-in for a man whom they know is a thug and a reprobate? And in what world is it possible for a significant segment of a major party’s base to be in thrall with such a man even after it has been amply demonstrated that he is guilty of moral and political corruption at best, and treasonous acts at worst? In the world of the religious right.
With this knowledge in hand, a number of other low moments in the religious right’s worship of Trump suddenly make more sense. The one that sticks out the most came during the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Almost from the moment Trump picked Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, the religious right went all-in on the effort to get Kavanaugh that black robe. It’s no surprise: Kavanaugh was Reason 1-B for the religious right prostrating itself before Trump. (Neil Gorsuch was Reason 1-A, and Amy Coney Barrett was Reason 1-C.)
But just how determined the nation’s so-called moral guardians were to get another potential vote against Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges was revealed when Steve Strang, publisher of Charisma magazine, claimed that Christine Blasey Ford’s claims that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her were no big deal.
For some time, Strang has used his platform as the publisher of the largest Pentecostal/charismatic-oriented magazine in the world to carry water for the religious right, including the effort to bully the country into worshiping Trump. Strang has written two paeans to Trump, God and Donald Trump and Trump Aftershock, arguing that Trump’s upset victory was a miracle, and that he wasn’t just making America great again, but Christian again—which we’ve of course heard before.
Strang hit absolute bottom in late September, when he told Charisma’s Facebook followers that Kavanaugh should have been confirmed—even if Ford’s allegations of assault were in fact true. As he put it, even if one believed Ford, Kavanaugh was merely engaging in “the kind of nickel and dime stuff that high school kids do.” No, this isn’t snark. Watch him say it.
Ford claims Kavanaugh hustled her into a bedroom, pinned her to the bed, groped her, and covered her mouth. Clearly, Strang believed that behavior that the rest of us would consider ghastly sexual assault didn’t matter as much as another vote against abortion and marriage equality.
While I’ve come to expect very little from Charisma of late, I’ve been befuddled for some time at how Strang felt safe saying something so degrading. But Strang was speaking to a constituency that allowed someone to ascend to an early leadership role after he bragged about animal cruelty. That might explain how Strang’s moral compass could be so warped.
I’m also reminded that a number of supposedly mainstream elements of the pro-life movement have openly declared that nobody should be allowed to get an abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. Most of us in the reality-based world know that denying a rape or incest victim the option of an abortion would have the effect of victimizing them all over again. Further, medical opinion is almost unanimous that it’s far too dangerous to force anyone younger than 13 to keep a pregnancy to term, and even patients as young as 15 risk severe complications if they give birth.
But Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List doesn’t care. In 2015, she told a Christian radio show in Des Moines that “any child at any stage should be protected from conception.” To Dannenfelser’s mind, whenever lawmakers carve out access exceptions for rape and incest in a law restricting abortions, it’s merely “a political judgment” to get it passed. Dannenfelser conceded that as much as she didn’t like a rape and incest exception being included in a bill that would have banned abortion after 20 weeks, the alternative was “no bill at all.” Meanwhile others view such an exception as a matter of basic decency. Silly us.
Former Arkansas governor and two-time presidential candidate Mike Huckabee doesn’t appear to see it that way. In a 2016 appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, discussion turned to the ordeal of a Paraguayan girl who was forced to carry a pregnancy to term after her stepfather brutally raped her:
Huckabee didn’t seem to mind that Paraguay’s ultra-strict abortion laws forced this girl to give birth despite her youth. While conceding that what happened to that girl was “a tragedy,” he claimed that letting her have the option of an abortion would take away “the possibilities that exist for that child.”
The worst example I’ve seen in recent years came from a pair of anti-abortion activists in Alabama, infuriated when a 12-year-old girl was permitted to have an abortion after she was raped by a male relative. A juvenile judge allowed the girl to get a waiver to Alabama’s parental-consent law, and the Court of Civil Appeals let the waiver stand. When local abortion foes Lorie Mullens and Win Johnson heard this decision, they hit the ceiling.
Mullens, who ran a crisis pregnancy center in Montgomery, claimed the girl would be “a perpetrator of this newest violence” if she went through with the abortion. Most crisis pregnancy centers are in the business of scaring women with information that’s inaccurate at best and dangerous at worst, so you can be pardoned for questioning whether Mullens had this girl’s best interests at heart.
On the other hand, Johnson, who ran the Administrative Office of the Courts when Roy Moore was state chief justice, framed the abortion ruling as allowing the girl to “murder her own child in her womb.”
It’s clear: The pro-life movement, and the religious right as a whole, have nothing to do with the sanctity of life, and everything to do with subjugating women. This is a faith with leaders who teach that divorce isn’t ever the answer.
It’s no accident that much of the pro-life movement seems willing to stand against basic human decency. The religious right as a whole speaks to a constituency that is increasingly out of touch with the country. In a March piece for The Washington Post, historian Steven Gillon noted that under the influence of the religious right, the GOP is the party of white Christians—in a time when the country is becoming “less white and less religious” by the day.
Gillon noted that this trend actually dates back to 1984, when Ronald Reagan sealed the alliance between the GOP and the religious right with a golden braid. Since then, white people have gone from 80% of the nation’s population to 60%. While white evangelicals make up only 16% of the overall population, they account for 35% of Republicans—and most of the GOP’s most loyal base. Gillon believes that motivating a dwindling base is why social issues have become the heart of GOP messaging, and also explains the recent rash of voter suppression measures from Republican lawmakers.
Suddenly, the religious right’s pact with Trump makes even more sense. The nation’s self-appointed moral guardians knew the country’s demographics were moving against them, and were willing to listen to anyone who promised them a way to hold onto what they still had, even if he was a reprobate. Along comes Trump, who told them what they wanted to hear: Christians didn’t have nearly enough power, a situation that he would put right if elected. As Dias put it, the religious right was more than willing to support a bully, so long as he promised them power.
From where I’m sitting, though, the religious right was primed to support such a bully long before Trump. It’s the only way to explain how Dobson was ever in a position to become what passes for mainstream in the religious right, despite espousing views that any right-thinking person would consider repugnant. It’s not too big of a leap to go from accepting such a man as a leader to embracing a man who became the most unfit and unqualified president in our history. Clearly, Trump didn’t expose a bug in the religious right, he exposed a feature.
Perhaps Dobson would never have been allowed to amass the power and influence he still retained after leaving Focus on the Family in 2010 had the repugnant views he espoused in Love Must Be Tough and The Strong-Willed Child gotten greater notice. It’s not too late for him to get a long-overdue dose of accountability. Those books are still available for sale in mainstream bookstores around the country. They’re also available from many Christian outlets, like Lifeway and Christian Book Distributors. I wonder what would happen if people reached out to these retailers and shared the worst of his writings.
Inevitably, Dobson would frame it as an attempt to “cancel” him. Far from it. Perhaps if Dobson learns that lesson, the religious right will begin to understand that no cause, no amount of power, is ever so important that the innocent must be trampled in order to further it.