Photo credit: Illustration by Marco Ventura for Rolling Stone - Photo: 2020

America’s Christian Right, Republicans and Donald Trump – 1

Viewpoint by John Newsinger*

This is the first of a six-part article originally published in International Socialism under the title The Christian right, the Republican Party and Donald Trump. Any views or opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of IDN-InDepth News.

LONDON (IDN) – Donald Trump was elected to the United States presidency in 2016 by the votes of the Christian right. Some 81 percent of evangelical Christians, who made up a third of the total electorate, voted for him.

Not only did a large majority of evangelical Christians vote for him, but tens of thousands of them actively campaigned for him, and fasted or prayed for his victory, which they welcomed as a veritable miracle. The triumph of their man against all the odds was the result of divine intervention. God had decided to save America!

This raises two questions. First, how did the Christian right come to have such a powerful voice in US politics, more particularly in the Republican Party, and second how was it that they came to support someone like Donald Trump?

Certainly, the influence of the Christian right in the Republican Party has been growing since the 1970s so that today anyone seeking office has to conciliate them, to bring them on board.

Even John McCain, a warmongering right-wing conservative (at rallies he entertained supporters by singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beachboys “Barbara Ann”), who nevertheless despised the Christian right, felt obliged to placate them during his 2008 presidential campaign, among other things installing Sarah Palin as his running mate. This was the devout evangelical Christian who could casually remark that “waterboarding is how we baptise terrorists”. 

And during the campaign for the Republican presidential ­nomination in 2015, when asked, “not one of the candidates publicly affirmed that he or she believed in evolution” and a number of them urged “that creationism should be taught in public schools”. 

This is in the 21st century in the most scientifically advanced country in the world, but paradoxically, by many measures of religiosity, also “the most religious country in the industrialised world”. The political influence of the Christian right is firmly rooted in an evangelical subculture that we need to understand.

As for Trump, not only did he promise the Christian right everything they wanted, in particular control of the federal judiciary up to the Supreme Court, but he also installed one of their number, Mike Pence, a former congressman and Governor of Indiana, as his running mate.

Even so, how did they come to support an individual as saturated in sin as Trump – a man who has been described as a bullying sexual predator and misogynist, crook and conman, racist and authoritarian, compulsive liar, a man without a Christian bone in his body?

According to Omarosa Manigault Newman, one of his close aides, herself an ordained preacher, Trump “has no knowledge of the Bible at all. It might as well be a paper brick to him”. And as one conservative critic put it: “These supposed champions of morality were willing to support a candidate who regarded the sins proscribed in the Ten Commandments as his personal to-do list”, indeed “their devotion to him was so total and unshakeable that Trump might as well have been the Messiah”.

When the veteran televangelist Pat Robertson interviewed Trump on his “700 Club” show in July 2017, one of his former evangelical employees at the Christian Broadcasting Network commented in disgust that it was less an interview than a “reverential hand job”.

It is worth remembering, at this point, that the Christian right was the driving force behind the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton over his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky! Someone with his morals was apparently unfit to be president!

In sharp contrast, the Christian right overwhelmingly supported Trump through the so-called “Pussy-gate” episode. Indeed, a good case can be made that their support was essential to his campaign even continuing considering that no previous presidential candidate would have survived such a revelation.

More recently, when Trump refused to condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis taking part in the Unite the Right demonstrations called by the alt-right in Charlottesville in August 2017, demonstrations in which one anti-racist protester, Heather Heyer, was killed and many others were seriously injured, many CEOs resigned from his various business advisory boards in disgust.

But not one pastor or preacher resigned from his spiritual advisory board. Indeed, as one of their number made clear: “We’re going to stand up for Trump a hundred times more”.

The continued strength of Christianity in the US is something often ignored by the left. To some extent this is certainly due to “a mistaken belief in the inevitable ‘secularisation’ of modern life”, something that has not occurred in the US

The question of why the United States has not secularised is obviously of considerable importance. For the answer it is necessary to go back to the end of the Second World War and to the start of the Cold War.

The spiritual-industrial complex

The years after the Second World War saw a remarkable growth in religious practice in the United States that was unique in the Western world. While religious observance was in decline just about everywhere else, in the US there was an unprecedented religious revival.

The dimensions of this revival are tremendous, and it is worth putting it in historical perspective. In 1850, only 16 percent of Americans claimed membership of a church. This had risen to 36 percent by 1900, to 43 percent in 1910 and 1920, to 47 percent in 1930 and to 49 percent in 1940. Religious observance actually fell during the war to “a nadir of 35 percent”, but this was only a short-lived decline. There was a sharp post-war recovery and then the upward trajectory accelerated so that by 1950 the number of Americans claiming church membership had risen to 57 percent and by 1960 to 69 percent.

Not only that, but church revenues rose so that they found themselves “rich beyond their wildest dreams” and one consequence was that the 1950s saw the greatest boom in church-building in American history, a boom “in which three billion dollars was spent on new church construction from the end of the war through the summer of 1955”. Sales of the Bible and of other religious books reached an all-time high and in a 1955 poll no less than 94 percent of Americans declared their belief in the power of prayer to change the world.

This religious revival did not just happen though. It was not an “organic” phenomenon, something generated from below, but was, as Jonathan Herzog insists, something planned from the top, the work of a powerful “spiritual-industrial complex”, using all the resources at its disposal to mobilise Christianity in defence of American capitalism and imperialism against the threat of atheistic communism. 

The process of mobilising Christianity as an ideological weapon in the Cold War began under President Truman. As early as 1946, he told a meeting of the Federal Council of Churches that without a religious revival “we are lost”.

A key role in bringing this revival about was played by the president of General Electric, Charles E Wilson, who Truman was to go on to put in charge of the Office of Defence Mobilisation and who can legitimately claim to be one of the architects of the permanent arms economy.

Wilson brought together business, the churches and the government to establish the “Religion in American Life” (RIAL) campaign, which launched a sustained, indeed unprecedented, propaganda offensive to propagate Christianity as a way to both sustain morale on the home front and to sanctify US imperialism abroad in 1949. The campaign was financed by big business and endorsed by the government.

This was the heart of “the spiritual-industrial complex”. The US advertising industry, in the form of the Advertising Council, was fully on board, telling Americans that returning to God, praying and going to church was their patriotic duty. Truman gave both his blessing and government support to the campaign. As Jonathan Herzog writes:

The RIAL campaign ran for ten consecutive years, from 1949 to 1958, and reached millions of Americans. In its first year, more than two thousand communities participated in holding grassroots religious mobilisations. Three thousand towns and cities joined in 1950. The Outdoor Advertising Agency donated 5,200 billboards across America, and 1,800 daily newspapers published editorials supporting the program or carried RIAL advertisements. In 1956, more than three hundred television programs aired the calls for religious mobilisation. If stacked on one another, the RIAL posters alone would extend twelve miles into the sky.

As well as billboards alongside the highways, in 1956, for example, RIAL placed “another 9,857 posters…at bus, train and railroad stations and 59,590 ad cards highlighted inside buses, trains, subways and streetcars”. Indeed, the RIAL campaign “permeated every space in the United States—public and private, national and local, sacred and secular”.

And there were also the celebrity endorsements, from the likes of Bing Crosby, Ronald Reagan, Lionel Barrymore and J. Edgar Hoover, urging Americans to prayer. All the techniques of modern advertising were used “to create new demand for religion. In this way the tools of materialism would fuel a revival of spiritualism”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 February 2020]

* John Newsinger is a member of Brighton Socialist Workers Party (SWP). His most recent book is Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left (Pluto, 2018).

Photo credit: Illustration by Marco Ventura for Rolling Stone

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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