The Awkward Image of the Pro-Trumpian Religious Right

Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, is a Provo businessman who has a message for Mormons who failed to support Trump’s 2016 campaign: it is time to repent. “The people who did not get behind Trump,” he explained to the Utah County Republican Women,“probably need to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Maybe I need to show a little bit of humility and ask for forgiveness, because I was wrong.’” Some might have been put off by Trump’s demeanor, but that “was just the culture of Trump’s language and colorful past,” he assured. Trump is, Peay emphasized, the right man to lead a Christian America. One attendee noted that Peay “was inspiring” as he dictated the narrative of Trump’s accomplishments.

You might be tempted to think this was just a standard off-the-wall statement from a very energetic Trump supporter, and therefore without much relevance. But given that it’s spring break and I’m trying to procrastinate grading midterms, let me dig into why Peay’s comments are emblematic of a broader cultural moment.

First let’s talk about the Religious Right.

The fusion of Evangelical conservatism and the Republican Party is of recent vintage, a culmination of divergent streams that climaxed, as per traditional narratives, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The heart of the movement was the fervent belief that political leaders should reflect the values and principles of America’s silent (and Christian) majority. The Reagan and, later, the Bush administrations supposedly represented these evangelical interests by not only pushing conservative policies but also, and this is important, placing Godly men in the White House. The mobilization was so effective that Americans today have trouble fathoming a separation between evangelicalism and the Republican Party.

Trump was always an awkward fit within this trajectory. His very obvious disinclination toward religion coupled with the strong support from traditional religious backers always seemed incongruous. (I can’t choose between his “Two Corinthians” phrasing at Liberty University or this cringe-worthy blessing as the more worthy embodiment of this dichotomy.) Further, his explicitly crude remarks and behavior over the years, with hours and hours of gleeful confessions on Howard Stern’s radio show, made him an unlikely savior for the Religious Right. And that was before the infamous Access Hollywood video leaked out, which contained Trump clearly bragging about sexually assaulting women. But rather than disentangling from the nominee, many doubled down. Roger Stone likened Trump to Sampson, a corrupted figure who is nonetheless an instrument of God. Some rushed to emphasize his (recently fabricated) pro-life stance and (hypothetical) conservative Supreme Court picks. The Religious Right had become pragmatic. As long as Trump delivered on traditionally Republican campaign promises, he could still count on their support.

The case within Mormonism is slightly different, but matches the overall trajectory. I’ve already written, probably too much, on the topic, so I won’t rehash it all here. But suffice it to say that Mormonism has long held an even more fervent belief in the idea of holy leaders, a principle that is quite explicit in the Book of Mormon. It is not enough to promise the right politics, but an elected official should also reflect right values. Any Mormon who argues that “the majority should shut up the minority”–as Peay did yesterday–is ignorant of Mormonism’s past, where the faith has long been attacked for failing to assimilate to mainstream culture. To put it bluntly, pro-Trump Mormonism is an abject disruption of the faith’s political tradition.

So what does Don Peay’s remarks tell us about the modern Religious Right? First, note the remnants of Religious Right discourse: those who failed to support the chosen leader were not just wrong, but in need of repentance. This is still a holy body and a religious community. But, and this is the crucial shift, we are not to extend that standard to Trump himself: he is the product of a crude society whose greatest virtue is survival. Trump is a compromise with the world, an unrighteous man who is able to accomplish righteous victories. America is still supposed to be a faithful body, but we are not required to have a faithful head. A Christian nation with a heathen emperor. Perhaps the righteousness of the electorate is what will keep the unrighteous elected in check. The Body of Trump is not so much an evolution of the Religious Right as it is an awkward amalgamation of it.

What remains to be seen is if this Trumpian political theology is a minor blip in the trajectory of Religious Right politics or the start of a new long-form transformation. But however long it lasts, the bifurcated expectations of national righteousness, as embodied in Don Peay’s remarks to a Provo group of Mormon women, is a telling moment for our time.

[Image courtesy here]

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