Among some of the religious conservatives who helped place Donald Trump in the presidency, there is a subtle but growing sense of buyer’s remorse. To them, Trump has not been ennobled by the office as they had hoped. He has not allowed his newfound but much touted commitment to faith to lift him above the crass brawler he has been most of his life.
For some of these religious conservatives, it is the pettiness that offends most. They had hoped for a healer, rather than the kind of man who would call protesting NFL players “sons of bitches” or who would feud with the beleaguered mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, while she stood elbow-deep in the waters of hurricane Irma. For other faith-based former Trump supporters, it is the sense that something is amiss in the president’s inner being, that perhaps TV host Stephen Colbert was right when he spoke of the president’s “anemic firefly of a soul.”
Then there are those who simply fear that the chaos in the White House and Trump’s bare knuckles approach to threats like North Korea will lead the nation into avoidable disasters.
They had hoped for a better man. In fact, they were promised one. During the 2016 presidential election, many conservative religious leaders, traumatized by the Obama years and terrified of a Hillary Clinton presidency, turned to Trump as the champion of their hopes. In doing so, they remade his campaign into a holy crusade, excusing behavior they had often derided in their pulpits.
It worked. By the time the dust settled, Donald Trump had won the votes of 81 percent of white evangelicals, more than half of all Roman Catholics, and more than half of all weekly church attendees in the United States.
In their defense, these religious conservatives believed themselves under siege. During the Obama years, they had endured bombardment of nearly everything they held dear.
It was candidate Obama who had once declared that working class white voters “cling to guns and religion” because they “get bitter” and are angry about people who “aren’t like them.” As president, Obama seemed never to have heard of an abortion he couldn’t support, unswervingly served an LGBT agenda, and used the weapons of his Justice Department against traditional faith and its practitioners time and again, even famously suing a small order of Roman Catholic nuns.
As the 2016 presidential race neared, Hillary Clinton seemed an equal threat. She had once told a global conference of women that abortion rights required “deep-seated ... religious beliefs” to be “changed.” As secretary of state, she proclaimed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights a “priority” of American foreign policy. This in an era of global terrorism and nuclear threat. She was so subject to the prevailing political winds that though as first lady she had once championed the Defense of Marriage Act by citing Bible verses, no one celebrated the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling legalizing same-sex marriage as publicly as Hillary Clinton.
By the launch of the 2016 presidential race, then, religious conservatives were desperate. They longed for a candidate sympathetic to their sufferings. They hoped for someone who channeled their anger. They would settle for a conservative who could win.
They found all of this in Donald Trump — he of the racist campaign statements, the womanizing, the casinos, the misquoting of scripture, and the foul language. A religious rebranding soon began. He was, some said, like Lincoln — perhaps not an orthodox believer but guided by the better angels of his nature and the hand of a history-ruling God. Maybe he was Churchill — crass, blasphemous, gifted, and ordained. He might even be like Cyrus the Great — a vile pagan but a tool of God nonetheless.
It was all part of an audacious religious makeover. Yet victory has come with great risk. American religious conservatives are wed to Donald Trump now. They will be made to answer for the mores, the methods, and the machinations of the Trump administration.
Perhaps it is just this connection to their seemingly untethered president that is causing some religious conservatives to have second thoughts. Perhaps they sense that if Trump fails them, if he betrays their vision, the banner of religious conservatives may be forced from the field of American cultural battle for a generation or more.
There is still a chance for a change. There is still the possibility that religious leaders with access to Trump will dare to call him to the full implications of the faith he claims.
Perhaps then we shall see the better angels of our nation take flight, even during the tempestuous presidency of Donald Trump.
Stephen Mansfield is the New York Times bestselling author of The Faith of George W. Bush, The Faith of Barack Obama, and Choosing Donald Trump: Faith, Anger, Hope and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him. For more information, visit StephenMansfield.TV.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.