Trump’s latest slate of rhetorical outrages began with an interview with Geraldo Rivera on Thursday, during which he made a largely faith-based case against Joe Biden. “I’m in favor of the Bible, I’m in favor of the Second Amendment, right?” he said. “Biden’s against all these things. He’s against oil and gas, he’s against the Bible—essentially against religion, but against the Bible—and he’s against the Second Amendment.”
He would say the same hours later at a speech in Cleveland. “No religion, no anything,” he said. “Hurt the Bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.” At a White House press conference on Monday, Trump defended and explained himself by criticizing the Biden-Sanders unity task force: “If you look at the manifesto that they’ve come up with, and if you look at their stance on things having to do—very importantly—with aspects of religion and faith, I don’t think a man of deep religion would be agreeing to the Bernie Sanders plan.”
The reactions of mainstream pundits and the press to all of this have been heated. Bill Kristol tweeted a photo of Christian leaders praying with Trump in the Oval Office accompanied by an admonishment. “I assume some people in this photograph are going to step forward and caution the president against the presumptuous, not to say blasphemous, claim that a political rival is ‘against God,’” he wrote. “Or is that the kind of religion, is that the kind of Christianity, they embrace?”
Mother Jones’s David Corn similarly demanded responses from Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and other prominent voices in the GOP. “So,” he asked, “there really are no Republicans who have a problem with this?” The writer Kurt Eichenwald called Trump’s comments further evidence of his “insanity.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, apopleptic after Monday’s press conference, made reference both to the history of anti-Catholic bigotry and Biden’s personal tragedies. “Losing a wife and a daughter in a tragic, tragic accident,” he said. “Losing a son to cancer. I mean, my God! To suggest that this man of deep faith ‘hates God and hates the Bible’—it’s unspeakably vile.”
Notably, multiple outlets went out of their way not just to mark what Trump had said but to label it factually wrong, given that Biden is a practicing Catholic. The Washington Post has run two long articles to that effect: one the day after Trump’s initial remarks assessing Biden’s faith and its political implications in detail and another on Monday, questioning whether Trump’s slights against him are strategically sound. “Rather than look for campaign ammunition in the former vice president’s long track record of politically vulnerable votes and policy proposals, Trump has instead chosen to describe Biden as a godless Marxist bent on destroying the country with a radical agenda that would make Che Guevara blanch,” the Post’s Ashley Parker wrote. “The caricature is one that neither Biden’s critics nor supporters recognize—but it’s one Trump continues to promote.”
These defenses, while well-warranted, are curious in their intensity. Of all the controversial remarks Trump has made over the last five years, the hits against Biden on religion are among his most banal. The notion that Democratic politicians are “against God” is one of the load-bearing pillars of conservative politics—the stuff not only of talk radio and Fox News diatribes but completely ordinary Republican campaigns at every level of government for at least the last forty years. Without this rhetoric, the whole structure probably collapses. Bill Kristol and company know this; pretending not to puts their minds and souls to rest. And so, as always, the task of revisiting the many mile markers we passed on the road to Trump falls to the rest of us.
Here’s one: In 2012 at a February campaign stop in Ohio, Mitt Romney tried to underline the stakes of that election for social conservatives. “Remarkably, under this administration, there is an assault on religion,” he said. “An assault on the conviction and the religious belief of members of our society.” He said the same at a town hall in Michigan later that month. “Unfortunately,” he told the crowd, “perhaps because of the people the president hangs around with and their agenda—their secular agenda—they have fought against religion.” In August, that idea was condensed into an ad on the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate through which, the ad claimed, the Obama administration had declared “war on religion.”
Anyone grasping for reasons why these claims weren’t as putrid and absurd as almost anything Trump has said won’t find them in the substance of the main policy dispute they referenced. While the Affordable Care Act required insurers to cover contraception for all employees, churches and other religious organizations were deemed exempt. After criticism from Catholic leaders, the Obama administration clarified that employees at religious hospitals, charities, and colleges would have their birth control funded entirely by insurers and not by their employers, who might have religious objections.
In the years since, Catholic leaders and others have protested the scope and design of that solution; there have been a series of Supreme Court decisions on the matter, including one this very year. As complex as the legal questions involved might be, the motivations behind Romney’s framing of the issue can be understood quite simply—especially when one considers the fact that Romney signed a health care reform bill with effectively the same provisions on birth control into law as governor of Massachusetts. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012, Romneycare retained the state’s existing “exception for churches, but not church-affiliated employers, such as Roman Catholic hospitals.” John McDonough, a public health professor at Harvard, told the Journal that contraceptives simply “never came up” while the bill was being debated.
None of that prevented Romney from invoking a “war on religion.” Neither did the fact that 17 percent of American voters, and nearly a third of Republicans, believed President Obama was a Muslim at the time. With extraordinarily few exceptions, faith-based attacks are simply what the right does: Demolishing personal history and otherizing opponents are precisely what they are crafted to accomplish. Donald Trump invents attacks on God not because there’s something particularly odious about him but because there’s something particularly odious about the Republican Party. It goes without saying that some who’ve spoken out against Trump this week see Mitt Romney as not only a saint but a figure who might have prevented Trumpism had Democrats been kinder to him in 2012. It’s not terribly important whether this is a lie or a mere delusion. What’s critical is that it is wrong. If at some point between now and November Trump says that a Democratic victory will threaten “those Judeo-Christian, Western civilization values that made us such a great and exceptional nation,” he will merely be quoting Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan. This was the message he deployed to rally evangelical voters in a conference call just before the 2012 election.
That those voters remain a mystery to the political press is itself mystifying. There’s been a tendency to suggest that the Christian right has entered into a novel and strange personal covenant with the president—that, for obscure reasons, Trump has been given a special dispensation for his rhetoric and personal behavior that conservative Christians were reluctant to offer. This persists even in pieces where Trump’s supporters are given the opportunity to speak candidly and clearly for themselves about their support for him. In a dispatch on evangelicals in Iowa this week, for instance, The New York Times’s Elizabeth Dias concluded that Trump’s strength with social conservatives is best explained by his unique role as “their protector.” Trump, she wrote, is “the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly.”
This is a fairly labored rendering of an unremarkable truth: Given their sociocultural interests and anxieties, most of the Christian right will simply vote for whoever the Republican candidate happens to be. One voter, 56-year-old Rob Dreisen, told Dias that his chief political concern is “trying to keep our country the way it was.” “For us,” he said of his own conservative community, “this is as good as it gets. We can do whatever we want.” And, naturally, preventing other Americans from doing whatever they want is high on Dreisen’s list of priorities. “Unfortunately, there’s just more divorce than there used to be,” he said. “There’s more cohabitating. I think it is detrimental to the family. I just think kids do better in a two-parent home, with a mom and a dad.” The notion that he and voters like him see Trump, personally, as a savior was belied by a picture captured by the Times’s photographers: In Dreisen’s garage, he’d hung campaign signs not only for Trump but also for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.
It’s not Trump that the religious right sees as their bully and protector. It’s the Republican Party.
Whether or not Democrats take the Senate in November depends in part on whether they’re able to retain the seat that Doug Jones won against a Republican child molester by less than two percentage points three years ago—a child molester who, unsurprisingly, won the support of 80 percent of white evangelicals. The passes they have given to the president are passes they give out freely to politicians and policymakers they see as pivotal; we should be astonished not by Trump supporters who’d previously sworn that the personal behavior of politicians matters but by the guilelessness of those who believed them.
Similarly, until someone proffers hard evidence otherwise, we should understand that Trump’s religious rhetoric is unhinged not because he is insane or deranged but because he is a Republican. It is messaging that Republican voters have come to expect and that we should all be well-accustomed to hearing by now, even if Trump’s personal affect and political aesthetics, as is so often the case, have convinced the press that he’s reached a new low.