The business of saving souls has always had its charlatans. In the United States, the religious right often seems to serve up more than its share. Take Ralph Reed, for example. The political operative who rose to fame as executive director of the now-defunct Christian Coalition, Reed has long used his evangelical cred to feed his for-profit businesses, as he did when lobbyist Jack Abramoff hired Reed’s firm, Century Strategies, to rally his Christian soldiers to oppose the casino-building plans of one American Indian tribe in order to serve the gambling interests of a competing tribe. (This scheme, along with others, landed Abramoff in prison for bribery.) It should come as no surprise, then, to find him as a lead evangelist for Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Today, Ralph Reed heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, yet another religious-right organization treated as a credible institution by both the media and right-wing evangelical Christians. For Reed, the nonprofit organization maintains his place as a leader of the faithful, a place that is critical to his ability to bring in business to his for-profit political consulting firms, Century Strategies and Millennium Marketing.
Reed would have you believe that he began his friendship with Trump seven years ago because of the tycoon’s change of heart on the matter of abortion, but I’d personally bet it was the gambling. And the money.
Asked by NPR’s David Greene in a June 22 interview just how Reed and his fellow evangelicals could possibly support a thrice-married casino-owner as their candidate, Reed replied: “There’s a myth out there that they’re driven by identity politics. … That’s just simply not true. They have supported candidates who had … theologies they consider to be anathema, like Mitt Romney’s Mormonism, for example. And they voted 78 percent for Romney.” And if Reed has his way, they’ll vote for a foul-mouthed philanderer who swindled a lot of people out of their money, whether through his Trump University enterprise, or by using the bankruptcy laws to stiff his creditors.
Reed has always been part of the pragmatist camp of the religious right, that group of leaders who are willing to compromise their professed values in order to ally with power. Pat Robertson, creator of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Christian Coalition, is the most visible among them. Then there are the so-called purists, represented by James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family media empire, who, in their support of Trump, suddenly seem not so pure.
On June 21, Trump convened an extraordinary gathering that drew hundreds of evangelical leaders to Sodom—a.k.a. New York City—at which he promised to appoint anti-choice Supreme Court justices and to take up the cause of pastors who claim a right to maintain their churches’ tax-exempt status, even if they use their pulpits as a vehicle for electioneering.
But for leaders who have posed as purists over the decades, that was apparently not quite enough. In order to sell Trump to their followers, they need him to get on the Jesus train. In order to win the presidency, Trump needs those evangelical voters, so it seems he has hopped aboard.
Over the course of that day, the GOP standard-bearer also met with a group of about 40 of the religious right’s most influential leaders, including Dobson. In a brief interview with pastor Michael Anthony (Paolicelli), who pens the blog Godfactor.com, Dobson not only expressed his support for Trump, but painted the swindler as a fellow religionist.
“I mean, he did accept a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I know the person who led him to Christ, and that’s very recent,” Dobson told Anthony, who uses his middle name as a surname. Dobson continued: “I believe he really made a commitment—he’s a baby Christian. We all need to be praying for him, especially if there’s a possibility of him being our next chief, chief executive officer.”
Trump’s stumbles on matters of the Christian faith he claims—his ignorance of biblical passages, his admission that he has never prayed for forgiveness—seemed to be no big deal to Dobson. “Yeah, well, you gotta cut him some slack; he didn’t grow up like we did,” Dobson told Anthony.
And with that, the moral bankruptcy of the religious right was laid bare. The sanctification of racism, xenophobia, and sexism was arrayed for all to see at the gathering at Trump Tower, where Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the founder of the Moral Majority, posed for a photo with Trump in which a framed cover of Playboy magazine—one on which Trump poses with a scantily-clad model—provided the backdrop. A movement that was always driven by the theology of white patriarchy has found its ultimate candidate. I’d call that identity politics.