Sarah Posner is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones, among other outlets. In her new book, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Alter of Donald Trump, Posner draws on years of reporting to examine the close relationship between the president, his famously religious base, and the explicitly racist elements that have rallied to his political coalition.
ECM: Around the end of 2016, a narrative emerged claiming that white evangelical voters “held their noses” and voted for Trump because he was the only alternative to Hillary Clinton. You were there reporting it all. Was that your sense at the time?
SP: I wouldn’t say they were holding their noses. They converged on Trump during the Republican primary, but they did so from two separate tracks. Many white evangelical voters were supporting him from the beginning, while many white evangelical leaders were favoring another candidate, like Ben Carson or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Some leaders, like Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr., understood from the outset that the base was falling for Trump, and so went ahead and endorsed him early on. Eventually the rest of the leadership came around based on conversations in which Trump pledged to enact their favored policies and appoint their favored judges, and things like that. By then they were enthusiastic, based on the energy that they felt radiating from the base and on the promises that Trump had made.
ECM: You write that Trump was attractive to white evangelicals who wanted a strongman to press their issues, and that his executive order on religious freedom amounted to a “blueprint for an assault on civil rights.” Is the Christian Right agenda as dark and illiberal as that sounds? And is Trump enacting it?
SP: Yes and yes. Some of it is not being enacted by Trump himself—it’s being enacted by cabinet secretaries, political appointees, and agencies. But his administration is working on it. What we saw in the first draft of that executive order was a plan to give broad religious exemptions to people and businesses and government officials who opposed LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and other kinds of civil rights on “religious” grounds. Trump didn’t sign that version, but he authorized the Justice Department to put these religious freedom guidelines into place, which Jeff Sessions did. Sessions launched a “religious freedom task force” within the Justice Department, and Bill Barr has been even more aggressive in promoting the “religious freedom” of conservative Christians through guidance, threats of litigation, and intervening in litigation. These same policy initiatives have played out in other agencies. The Christian Right agenda demands exemptions from many of the important civil rights advances that have been made over the past two decades, and works to replace them with what it would characterize as government from a “Christian worldview.” But that simply means elevating the rights of conservative Christians over other citizens.
ECM: How would you characterize the relationship between the Christian Right and the so-called “alt-right” since 2015? Is it reciprocal? Transactional? One-sided? Or something else?
SP: It’s something else. It’s not operational because there was no coordinated planning to bring the groups together behind Donald Trump. The alt-right as a movement is a separate entity from the Christian Right, but there is some overlap—some people who affiliate with both groups and who saw Trump as a sort of political savior. They were electrified by his campaign rallies, his demonization of immigrants and people of color, and his pledges to enact policies that would deal harshly with members of those communities. As Trump was energizing the alt-right, the Christian Right leadership mostly refused to criticize him for it. (The few figures who did—like Russell Moore—were quickly isolated and marginalized.) So when you look at how Trump has conducted his presidency, putting someone like Stephen Miller in charge of his immigration policy, trying to ban Muslims from entering the country, separating children from their parents at the border, and then you hear Christian Right figures praise him as the most pro-life president ever or the most pro-religious-freedom president ever or the greatest ally they’ve ever had in the White House, you can see a meeting of minds even if they never got together to formalize a partnership. Now, there was one notable person who did think about this, and that was Steve Bannon. When I interviewed him in 2016, he told me that the alt-right needed the Christian Right in order to win elections, and so he hoped the two groups could come together behind a candidate.
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