Can Social Conservatism Survive Trump? The Movement Remains Divided

by Placerville Newswire / May 30, 2016 / comments

On 21 October 1949, Huxley wrote to George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, congratulating him on "how fine and how profoundly important the book is". In his letter to Orwell, he predicted: "Within the next generation I believe that the world's leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience."

[By JOHN MCCORMACK]  Social conservatives and evangelical leaders who were some of Donald Trump’s staunchest foes during the GOP primary now face a dilemma in the general election: Should they vote for a man as immoral as Trump in order to stop Hillary Clinton from becoming president?

Since Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee on May 3, Princeton professor Robert George, a leading social conservative intellectual, has been thinking about that question. He hasn't been able to reach a conclusion yet.

"The best argument for holding our noses and voting for Donald Trump can be summed up in two words: Supreme Court," says George. There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton would shift the balance of the Court to the left, and there would be disastrous consequences for conservatives who care about issues like religious liberty and the right to life. Trump released a list of 11 potential Supreme Court nominees, but did not promise he'd pick one of them as president but would nominate a person like them. Given Trump's record of dishonesty and infidelity, George says Trump's pledge to appoint constitutionalists is "essentially meaningless," but "with Trump, you've at least got a shot."

"I could never in a million years pull a lever for Hillary Clinton. Her character is at least as bad as Trump's, and her policies are if anything even worse than those he proposes," says George. But he still worries that Trump could do more damage to conservatism and the country than Clinton in the long-term: "I cannot say right now that the consequences of four years of Hillary would be worse than four years of Trump."

Social conservatives are used to voting for candidates—including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Mitt Romney—who have, like Trump, changed their positions on abortion. What they have not yet tolerated is voting for a man whose public behavior is so deplorable he could degrade the culture and discredit the moral authority of his supporters, their organizations, and their party for a generation.

Trump has mocked and insulted women, the disabled, and even prisoners of war. "I like people who weren't captured," Trump said of John McCain in July. Trump dodged the draft with a medical deferment for "bone spurs" that didn't stop him from playing sports in college; he later told Howard Stern that avoiding venereal disease in the 1980s was "my personal Vietnam." He has publicly bragged about sleeping with the wives of other men. He has repeatedly lied about matters big and small. By Trump's own admission, he has never asked God for forgiveness.

Supporting Trump would be particularly problematic for pro-life voters. The problem isn't merely that he recently supported partial-birth abortion (something no previous nominee has ever done), floated a pro-abortion vice presidential nominee, waffled on defunding Planned Parenthood, and has a wildly implausible story for changing his views on the pro-life issue. Trump has said that he would order the military to intentionally target the families of terrorists—in other words, he has called for the murder of innocent women and children, born and unborn.

Supporting Trump has already caused a certain amount of moral and intellectual corruption among some conservatives. In May, a caller to the Laura Ingraham show said he didn't know how he could vote for Trump without feeling like he was losing his soul. "The problem I have with this thing is that Donald Trump as a person violates every moral principle I have been raised with and raised to believe," the caller said. Ingraham shot back by suggesting Trump's character flaws were in the same league as those of Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln. "Reagan was divorced," Ingraham said. "Lincoln suspended habeas corpus for goodness sakes," she added. "He had to do some really immoral things also to win the Civil War."

"What really concerns me about social conservatives, especially people like Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson—I'd include Bill Bennett in this—are people who have written books about the importance of character," says Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life and Faith Angle Forum programs at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

"Evangelical social conservatives are going to lose any cachet in bringing up character questions in the future about anything," Cromartie says. "They're just going to lose all credibility." Cromartie is holding on to a glimmer of hope for a third-party candidate that he can vote for in good conscience.

Maggie Gallagher, the former president of the National Organization for Marriage who now works at the American Principles Project, is another social conservative leader who has already decided that she can't vote for Trump in November. "The degradation is certain and the benefit is so uncertain that I could not persuade myself to do it," says Gallagher. Trump lost Gallagher during a debate in March when "the guy who wants to sit in the White House started voluntarily discussing his genitals on national television."

Gallagher says that supporting "a guy who says crude, disgusting, hateful-to-women, highly sexualized, racist things that violate American principles" would "establish that we don't care about any of those things." She fears that a Trump presidency could do more to hurt the conservative project in the long-run than a Hillary Clinton Supreme Court appointment. If Trump pursues a trade war, "he's going to be not the next Ronald Reagan, but the next Herbert Hoover," says Gallagher. "My greatest fear is that he would preside over an economic disaster that means the American people will reject Republicans for the next generation."

Yet it still seems likely that most social conservatives will ultimately back Trump because of the Supreme Court. As part of the unification effort, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has organized a meeting between Trump and some 400 social conservatives in Manhattan in June. Perkins, who supported Ted Cruz in the primary, says that he hasn't made up his own mind about Trump but is seeking reassurances on the process Trump would use to vet Supreme Court nominees and pick a running mate.

When asked if Trump would need to behave better to earn his vote, Perkins replied, "I don't think I'm going to find common ground there. The common ground I'm looking for is on policy." But if they vote for Trump, won't social conservatives be conceding there are no absolute minimum standards of decency and character so long as a candidate presented a better chance of appointing good Supreme Court justices? Would these social conservatives vote for David Duke or an abortionist if that was the Republican alternative to Hillary Clinton? "That's kind of a hypothetical that we're not at," Perkins replied. Well, yes, kind of. Not yet, at least.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has been a staunch critic of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but he won't say how he intends to vote: "I'm more concerned about people who follow Jesus Christ degrading themselves morally with silence or acceptance when it comes to huge moral issues."

"With either of these candidates, I wonder what on earth the next generation of children will learn coming from the bully pulpit," he says. "The pro-life movement cannot coexist with either sexual revolutionary libertinism nor with Howard Stern-style misogyny."

Moore says that the Clinton-Trump election is "giving us a choice between Gloria Steinem and Howard Stern. In either case we lose. We lose in different ways. We lose in some ways faster in one direction than we do in the other. We also have to be the people willing to say that both of those directions are toxic and lead us in places that are awfully unsustainable for the kind of character the Founders knew is necessary to sustain a self-governing people."

"The worst thing we could end up with is two morally relativistic ideologies in American life, who both accept the principles of the sexual revolution and see morality simply in terms of the will-to-power," he says.

Moore has heard from many evangelicals "who plan to vote for Donald Trump simply on the basis of the Supreme Court and feel really guilty about it," many others who "hope for a third-party alternative right now," and others "who plan to write in Ben Sasse or someone else in November" if a third-party candidate doesn't emerge. "I've actually heard from conservative evangelical women who are devastated to say but whisper to me that they're planning to vote for Hillary Clinton."

Although Moore says there are no silver linings in this election, he believes that the nomination of Trump and Clinton ought to provide a "sober realization that many things social conservatism was saying about American culture were even more correct than we knew. I think only a culture habituated by a generation of pornography could give us a Trump-Clinton election."

One story to emerge from the Republican primary was Donald Trump's surprising strength among evangelical Christians, but that story really wasn't accurate. Trump performed very poorly among voters who regularly attend religious services. In the March 15 Missouri primary, Trump won 40.9 percent to 40.7 percent. According to the exit poll, 57 percent of the electorate said they attend religious services weekly, 33 percent said they occasionally attend services, and 9 percent said never. Trump lost weekly congregants by 20 points but won occasional congregants by 20 points. The poll didn't break down the 9 percent who said they "never" attend religious services, but for the numbers to add up Trump must have won at least 75 percent of them.

While Trump was very weak among religious voters, it turned out that religious voters were collectively too weak even inside the Republican party to stop Trump from winning the nomination. "I think it gives us a sobering view of what it takes to rebuild culturally in the aftermath of this," says Russell Moore.

With an eye toward that rebuilding process, Princeton's Robert George says "it will be important whether Trump wins or loses for there to be spokesmen and leaders of social conservative causes who will not have been besmirched and tainted by their association with Trump."