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How Trump Stole the Soul of the Values Voter Summit

This weekend's annual gathering was evidence that the religious right never had much quarrel with far-right populism.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

There is a point during every Values Voter Summit when the unconverted observer fights stupor. The old white men are interchangeable, distinguished only by the different colors of their ties. Even the yearly cameo by Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson makes little impression. The speakers’ cadences are those of the country preacher, and they ramble and gesticulate until the air feels gelatinous and every second holds a century. It can be easy to forget what you are really watching: a gathering that allows the nation’s most dedicated Christian activists to network and strategize. It is an event for the purest of the pure.

So this year’s spectacle at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., was significant not only because it shook up the usual formula, but also because its most celebrated speakers fell well outside that God-fearing realm. When Donald Trump appeared at the summit on Friday, the first sitting president to do so, the audience howled. They leapt to their feet and applauded with an enthusiasm that was only matched on Saturday, when former White House aides Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon received multiple standing ovations for their own speeches. But these Trumpian additions to the customary lineup of Duck Dynasty stars and pro-life leaders and Michelle Bachmann indicated no discrepancy or compromise. To the contrary, it revealed the ways in which Christian politics and far-right populism have long overlapped.

This year’s Values Voter Summit possessed specific import: A politically powerful base gathered to redefine itself after a major victory. Senator Ted Cruz may have won the summit’s straw poll for the third time, but on Friday and Saturday Trumpists dominated the proceedings. Thanks to Trump, conservatives have reconquered the federal government. Via Trump, they have put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, rolled back Obama-era health care regulations requiring contraception coverage, and banned transgender people from serving in the military. And all they had to do was make an alliance with the most un-Christian of leaders, who has gleefully mocked those of devout faith, including his own vice president. “America is a nation of believers. And together we are strengthened and sustained by the power of prayer,” Trump declared at the summit, without a trace of irony. “We’re saying Merry Christmas again,” he said, and the crowd yelled “Yes! Yes!” as if it were the first time they had heard that promise.

Eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, a fact that bewildered some secular onlookers and agitated some Christian dissenters, like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore. There are differences, certainly, between the Christian piety on display at the summit and the alt-right sympathies of Trump, Bannon, and their cadre. Despite Bannon and Gorka urging the crowd to defend the rights of all Americans regardless of sexual preference, the Values Voter Summit will never welcome gay figures like Milo Yiannopolous or Peter Thiel. Richard Spencer’s atheism would win him no friends in this audience.

But where the two groups find common ground is in the idea of a pure Western civilization that has come under assault by liberals, foreigners, and the elite. Bannon’s narrative of a clash of civilizations is a reflection of this idea, pitting the Christian West against the Muslim East. Evangelicals, for their part, are perpetually at war with darkness, defending a Judeo-Christian polity from the forces of secularization and the encroachments of other religions, like Islam. In this story, evangelicals are holy warriors, while nefarious agents target beleaguered cake-makers and county clerks to force them to bow to the nefarious LGBT Agenda. They are obsessed with the idea of America being corrupted—if Jesus cleansed the temple, then they will drain the swamp.

All of this fuels a politics of grievance, whose greatest nemesis is a governing class composed of sell-outs and sinners. Conservative Christians have long understood politics to be a battle between the pure of heart and a malicious establishment. Their pleasure with the Trump administration is not pleasure with the Republican Party at large. For evangelicals, Bannon’s populism only reinforces the villainous nature of their traditional enemies in the Republican Party, the left, and the press.

When Gorka announced that he and Bannon have “declared war on the RINO class,” that they are “going to take on every swamp dweller” and “celebrate the Judeo-Christian values that America was founded on,” evangelicals in attendance understood him to be a fellow traveler. Bannon engendered the same understanding. “There’s a time and a season for everything,” he declared, paraphrasing Ecclesiastes. “And right now it’s a season of war against the GOP establishment.” Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, Bob Corker—Bannon railed against them all, to the crowd’s adulation.

Later, inside the exhibition hall, values voters swarmed Gorka for photos, while right-wing organizations courted supporters. Tradition, Family and Property, a far-right Catholic group, offered a magazine called Crusade; Prince William and Kate Middleton beamed from its cover, unaware that a group promising Christian “counter-revolution” had co-opted their image. Around the corner, Reactionary Times Radio interviewed attendees. Women dressed like modest Rosie the Riveters, in long red skirts, hawked a support group for ex-abortion workers. The mood was upbeat. Michael Jackson blared from the speakers. And attendees told me they were mostly satisfied with Donald Trump.

“I would not necessarily characterize him as a Christian, but I do think that he has surrounded himself with some good role models,” said Tessa Longbons, age 21. “I think he’s made steps in the right direction. If you talk to a strong Christian like Mike Pence, sometimes that can rub off a little bit.” Most Christians she knows, she added, did not support Trump in the 2016 Republican primary, but this reticence is fading. “They’ve been pleasantly surprised that he has stuck to some of his promises,” she explained.

Millie March volunteered 500 hours to Trump’s campaign.
Sarah Jones

Travis Weber, director of Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, praised the selection of Neil Gorsuch and said of the administration, “They’ve done a lot of good things on religious liberty. We’re still looking for more to be done in some areas, but for instance, protecting people in terms of conscious objections to abortion-causing drugs, abortion services, health care—that’s something we see as positive development.”

Twelve-year-old Millie March was more enthusiastic. “It was Trump’s best speech ever,” she announced, and ran off. A Trump doll wagged from her open backpack.

But for the most part, assessments of Trump’s young administration were superseded by attacks on the religious right’s numerous enemies, which include Planned Parenthood, the Southern Poverty Law Center, George Soros, and, of course, the swamp. In a breakout session hosted by the legislative arm of the American Family Association, AFA Action, the group’s vice president, Rob Chambers, collected my name before the panel began. He then pulled up my New Republic review of Bible Nation—about the pernicious influence of Christian-owned businesses like Hobby Lobby—on his phone and read a portion out loud to the audience. “You may want to go back and read your Constitution,” he told me, before launching into a rant against the swamp that I presumably represent.

After him, Debbie Wuthnow of set out a methodical plan for victory. “A lot of the blame for the swamp lies with those who have left it there,” she told the crowd. “God worked in this last election because Christians turned out to vote. If they turn out to vote in the primaries they can drain the swamp.” To help voters weed out swamp creatures, Wuthnow’s guide asks candidates detailed questions about their doctrinal positions—is man naturally sinful, for example. “They’re coming to you interviewing for a job,” she said of candidates. Her audience listened, rapt. Emmett McGroarty of the American Principles Project followed her, and urged “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” He took the phrase from Steve Bannon.

At the heart of this drive for purity, and the overweening resentment it produces, is not Christian spirituality, but a fear of being eclipsed by people who are not like them—a fear of replacement. The underlying similarities with the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville—those who chanted, “You will not replace us”—are hard to ignore.

The old disagreements feel distant now. Trump belongs to the religious right, and it belongs to him. And what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.