The 2016 Republican presidential campaign has transformed American politics, likely forever. Everyone is making adjustments, but two recent illuminating episodes suggest that some Christian Right leaders are finding the changes to be unusually awkward and challenging.
The Christian Right, as a voting bloc, has never united behind a single candidate during the Republican presidential primaries (with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s unopposed second-term races). Still, we tend to forget that the movement has never been monolithic and that there have always been political tensions between rival candidates and factions. But the factional tensions are different this year. And there are two main reasons for this.
The first tension is related to the unique, and uniquely divisive, candidacy of Donald Trump. Evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie, in a curiously overwrought speech, widely-discussed in the evangelical press, has gone so far as to call it a conservative “crack-up.” The second is the specter of Dominionism as it relates to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his campaign.
The Christian Post recently reported on the eyebrow-raising remarks of evangelical think tanker Michael Cromartie at a luncheon sponsored by the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington DC. (IRD is best known for its efforts to degrade the historic communions of mainline Protestantism.) Cromartie runs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) in Washington, DC.
Cromartie is upset that the “new branding” of evangelicalism and the Christian Right is being ruined by evangelical and conservative leaders who support Trump. He said the movement has benefited from the rise of Jim Daly of Focus on the Family, and megachurch pastors and authors Tim Keller and Rick Warren. He believes that they better “present” the movement’s goals than such founding Christian Right figures as James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell, Sr.
But this rebranding, Cromartie says, has been undone because of the pro-Trump activities of noted Southern Baptists such as megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
The Christian Post continued:
“In the last six or seven or eight years, we now have new leaders to replace those leaders, so that it’s a new branding of evangelicals in our society,” Cromartie stated. “Now, that is all out the window, ladies and gentleman, when Jerry Falwell Jr. has the audacity to come out and endorse Donald Trump, when Robert Jeffress goes on and sells his soul every week on Fox News, encouraging the candidacy of Donald Trump.”
“If this is not a crack up,” Cromartie observed,” I don’t know what it is.”
As if to underscore his confusion about all this, Cromartie also cited blogger Matt Walsh, whose hyperbolic post “Let’s Remember The Cowardly Conservative Leaders Who Betrayed Us For Trump” leaves readers with little doubt that the faction fighting is getting bitter.
Speaking of Falwell and Jeffress, Walsh declared:
“They now promote Trump in direct defiance of Scripture, which clearly stipulates that anyone who desires to be a leader must be noble, respectable, temperate, and dignified (and probably not someone who brags about his adultery and thinks the nation’s largest abortion provider is ‘wonderful [sic]). To claim Trump belongs in any of these categories is blasphemy.”
“Our ‘leaders’” he continued, “have subjugated themselves to the American Kim Jong Un simply for the publicity and the ratings and the chance to be friends with a billionaire celebrity.”
Meanwhile, the candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and his unexpected emergence as the leading candidate of both the Christian Right and much of the GOP establishment as an alternative to Trump is causing the movement other kinds of indigestion.
Catholic neoconservative strategist Robert P. George is apparently worried about how voters will react to the way Senator Cruz relates his religious views to public policy. Specifically, he is worried about Ted Cruz and Dominionism.
At the beginning of the presidential primary season four years ago, the Christian Right was similarly worried that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) were receiving press attention for their well-established involvements in the theocratic politics of Dominionism.
In that race, those two candidates both dropped out early. But with Cruz actually having a shot at the nomination, George apparently hopes to squelch the emerging discussion about Cruz and Dominionism before it goes any further. This may be why he was featured in a recent article in Christianity Today, which sought to smear researchers who have published about Cruz’s dominionist roots, namely evangelical historian John Fea, evangelical psychology professor Warren Throckmorton, Daily Beast writer Jay Michaelson, and myself.
In the article, George claimed:
“The contemporary religious Left’s version of McCarthyist red-baiting is to smear opponents by labeling them ‘dominionists.’ … Ted’s not a dominionist; he’s a constitutionalist.”
This is as silly as it is wrong. What’s more, although former PRA Senior Analyst Chip Berlet and I may have defined and popularized the terms “Dominionism” and “dominionist” in the 90s as a way to describe a tendency that is evident across a wide swath of evangelicalism, we have always sought to apply it fairly and accurately.
Nevertheless, George and the authors of the article did not offer a single example of the supposedly McCarthyist-style uses of the term by those of us named in the article or anyone else.
Also ignored by the authors and George is the fact that the term was part of the debate about Christian Reconstructionism in the evangelical community for years before Berlet and I used it for wider publics. (These usages are discussed in Christian Reconstructionism: R.J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism by Michael J. McVicar, University of North Carolina Press, 2015.; page 204.) The term has also been objectively employed in many scholarly books and articles.
As I recently told journalist Bill Berkowitz, who wrote about the discussion of Cruz and Dominionism for Truthout, “The question of whether Cruz is a Dominionist will linger because the available evidence suggests that he is.” John Fea has detailed how, in addition to Cruz’s own statements, Cruz’s father Rafael (who is also his principal campaign surrogate) is openly a 7 Mountains Dominionist, as is the head of Cruz’s Super PAC – revisionist historian David Barton. One of Cruz’s foreign policy advisers, Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council, is also a well-known 7 Mountains Dominionist and a longtime board member of a 7 Mountains political project called The Oak Initiative.
The public debate about the Christian Right is usually limited to the tripartite agenda of what they term “life, marriage, and religious liberty” as put forth in The Manhattan Declaration. But their agenda has always been broader and deeper than that, which is why Robert P. George, the principal author of the Declaration (and current Vice Chairman of EPPC) does not want to risk us talking about the political and economic dimensions of what they mean by “taking dominion” over society. This, combined with the bitterness of some about evangelical support for Trump, may very well signal a period of disunity rather than the politically homogenized evangelicalism preferred by Washington, DC think tanks and power brokers.