It’s blatantly obvious that Donald Trump is not a real Christian, if you define Christian as a professing and active participant in a denomination or church. Or if you define it as having even the slightest knowledge of the Bible. Or if you define it as not being on the very short list of people the Pope actually calls out as not Christian.
It is also blatantly obvious that Ted Cruz is a devout Christian by at least some of these definitions. His dad is a pastor. He’s never hidden his evangelical faith and has often demonstrated knowledge of the Bible and evangelical theology. The Pope probably doesn’t like him much either, but has never called him out specifically as not Christian.
And yet, Trump beat Cruz (and everyone else) by a 10-point margin in South Carolina, a state known for its Christian demographics. He even beat Cruz among self-professed Christians.
What’s going on?
The general opinion had been, up until recently, that Trump couldn’t possibly do well with the Christian vote. Some pundits, who thought themselves especially clever, also figured that at the same time his pandering to Christians (however flawed) would end up costing him points with voters who don’t come from the Religious Right as well.
But that sure didn’t pan out. Instead, I think we now need to consider the exact opposite: Trump’s obviously fake Christianity might actually be a huge advantage for him on the campaign. It might win him the nomination.
First, some background: in terms of power and influence in the GOP, the Religious Right sure ain’t what it used to be. The younger generation of evangelicals don’t have the same priorities as their parents and feel that politics corrupts Christianity more than Christianity cleans up politics.
That doesn’t mean that most Americans have stopped identifying themselves as Christians – or even that they don’t want their President to be at least Christian in name. It does mean that there’s more Americans than ever who don’t want a Presidential candidate who puts Christian Conservatism above all else.
Look at how the “most Christian” candidates did in this campaign. The ones who were most strongly identified with Christian conservatism – Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum – made no real showing at all. In the old days, like thirty years ago, they probably would have been pretty strong candidates. But this year, most people barely even noticed them.
Ted Cruz has done pretty well and he is pretty Christian. He’s so Christian that he recently said that he is “a Christian first, American second.” But he hasn’t run as just a Christian candidate. He hasn’t hid his strong Christianity but he’s also run a campaign trying to appeal to libertarians, the tea party and just about anything else he has a reasonable chance of claiming. That’s why he’s done better than those other guys.
But not great. Not even with self-identified Christians! How could that be?
Here’s the answer: Trump has done well with about one-third of Christians, who said they would definitely vote for him. And yet another third, more or less, have said they would never vote for him. That’s very important. Cruz is lower on both counts (there are less who say they’ll vote for him, but less who say they would never vote for him). And the type of Christians that really like Trump are different from the ones who really like Cruz. Trump gets a lot of support from more nominal Christians, the kind that don’t take church very seriously if they go at all. Also, the sort that like TV-Christianity, which explains his ties to opportunistic televangelists. But Cruz gets more from the serious Bible-Study crowd.
On the other hand, Cruz’s serious Christianity doesn’t win him any points with people who aren’t hardcore Christians. More and more GOP libertarians are libertarians first, Christian second – if at all. And Cruz’s biblical cozying up to Religious Right causes worry in the same people who like Cruz’s talk on Liberty.
The problem is, when Cruz talks about carpet bombing the Middle East, and only ever talks about religious liberty for Christians, or about using the state to impose big-government rules about gay marriage or abortion, people think he really means it. That gets him support from the hardcore serious Christian crowd but it alienates other voters (especially the rising libertarian demographic). It only gets worse when his celebrity endorsements like Glenn Beck talk about how he’s the president to “get us through the Rapture” or that God killed Judge Scalia to help Cruz win the election.
On the other hand, no one actually believes that Trump is really serious. Mr. Two Corinthians may be crazy in a lot of ways but he’s obviously not working on the Rapture Timeline.
This is why there’s that hardcore group that say they’ll never vote for him. He doesn’t know his Bible, he isn’t one of the truly saved and he already said he was “very pro-choice!”
But in the bigger picture, Trump’s fake Christianity might hurt him a lot less than Cruz’s real Christianity. Cruz is very black and white: you know what he is, and you have to either think it acceptable or not. But Trump has a talent (from years in both sales and showbiz) of being what you want to imagine him to be. If you’re a Televangelist-type Christian, you can convince yourself that Trump is more or less Christian – even if you can’t believe it all the way. If you aren’t in the Religious Right, you can convince yourself that Trump’s New York Values will make sure he won’t actually do anything too radical.
Look at how Trump dealt with the Pope’s condemnation. He has to be given credit for a masterful performance in a situation which to any lesser candidate would have been a disaster occurring on the eve of an important primary. When the Pope said that his actions weren’t Christian, Trump first reacted by going into attack mode (on the Pope!), calling the Pope’s statement “disgraceful” and saying that when ISIS attacks the Vatican the Pope will be sorry if Trump isn’t president. But then a day later he made a full turn, not into an apology but into a suggestion that the Pope was a naive pawn of the Mexican government (adding that the Mexican government is complicit in sending drugs into the U.S.) and that he (Trump) “forgives” the Pope.
Get that? Trump forgave the Pope.
This is why Trump is winning: first he makes sure to look tough, standing up and not taking any crap even from one of the most famous holy men of the Christian world. Then he turns around and FORGIVES THE POPE. And in the process, he accuses Mexico’s government of shipping drugs into the country (justifying his wall plan).
If you’re a Trump fan because you like how he’s tough, you just saw him get tough with a Pope that most Americans think of as very liberal. If you’re a Trump fan because you think illegals are ruining the country, you just saw him stand up to Mexico. If you are an actual Christian, you just saw him offer forgiveness (something that’s a big deal in Christianity) to the Pope (who Evangelicals especially think of as too liberal – and more than a few American Catholics do too for that matter).
Cruz’s real Christianity makes it harder for him to be all things to all people. Trump’s fake Christianity makes it easier. His fans get to pick and choose which of the things he says are things he’s serious about and which they’re sure he doesn’t really mean.
And let’s face it, even the hardcore Evangelicals that think Trump is (to quote Two Corinthians, 11:13) one of those who “are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” would never, when push comes to shove, vote for Hillary. Or for Bernie. They’ll either sit out the election or they will hold their noses and vote Trump anyway. Because even if they don’t believe that Trump is a real Christian, they’ll still feel pretty sure he’ll be a little less hostile to their interests than either of those two.
Any candidate who really is more Christian than Trump probably shouldn’t be so eager to go around playing the holier than thou game with him – at least not too loudly. It might just be a sucker’s game.
Photo by Branden Camp/Getty Images
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com. Follow Kasimir on Twitter @KasimirUrbanski.
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