I rise to offer a defense — not a full-throated defense, more of a limited one — of the beleaguered, battered, all-but-broken religious right.
For the past two weeks we’ve watched various paladins of traditional values twist and squirm as they try to square their Christian conservatism with Donald Trump’s sexual attitudes and conduct. They sought a remoralized politics, a less licentious culture, and now they’re making lesser-of-two-evil arguments to protect a pagan demagogue from the consequences of his own unbridled lust.
This is a grim endgame for a movement that just a little over a decade ago had liberals fearing its electoral strength and allegedly-theocratic ambitions. And for those liberals today, the religious right’s crisis tastes like victory and vindication both: Those theocrats are finally cracking up, and Trump has proved that all their talk about virtue and character was just partisanship, with no real moral substance underneath.
In this year of general political misery, I don’t begrudge anyone their share of schadenfreude. But here are four points to keep in mind.
First, serious religious conservatives didn’t want Trump. Yes, he had hacks and heretics on his side from early on: Jerry Falwell Jr., Mike Huckabee, various prosperity preachers. But most churchgoing Republicans preferred other candidates; only 15 percent of weekly churchgoers were steady Trump supporters from the start.
The older culture warriors favored Ted Cruz; younger Christians wanted Marco Rubio (Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University voted decisively for the Florida senator); the naive wanted Ben Carson. Iowa, the evangelical stronghold whose first-in-the-nation status makes every sophisticated GOP consultant groan, gave Trump one of his worst early state showings, while more secular Northeastern states handed him landslide wins. And the Mormons — well, you know about the Mormons. The bottom line is that if it weren’t for the religious right, the Trump takeover would have been far easier, the GOP’s surrender that much more abject.
Second, religious conservatives have stronger reasons than other right-wing constituencies to fear a Clinton presidency. Tax rates go up and down, regulations come and go, but every abortion is a unique human life snuffed out forever. Hillary Clinton’s support for legal abortion at every stage of pregnancy may not be a sufficient reason to hand the Oval Office to a man like Donald Trump; I think that it is not. But given pro-life premises, it is a far more compelling reason than the candidates’s differences on tax policy or education or family leave.
And that’s without getting into the legal and regulatory pressure that a Clinton administration could bring to bear on conservative religious institutions, the various means that liberal legal minds are entertaining to clamp down on religious dissent from social liberalism’s orthodoxies. Asking Christian conservatives to accept a Clinton presidency is asking them to cooperate not only with pro-abortion policymaking, but also their own legal-cultural isolation. If you can’t see why some people in that situation might convince themselves that Trump would be the lesser evil, you need to work harder to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Third, religious conservatives are as divided as any other conservative faction over Trump. Yes, evangelical voters have (up till now) supported Trump at the rate you would expect for a normal Republican nominee. But the religious right is an ecumenical movement: It includes Latter-day Saints rebelling against the Republican nominee, Catholic voters drifting toward Clinton, and conservative Catholic bishops advising the faithful that they need not vote for either Hillary or Trump.
Moreover, within evangelicalism’s complicated leadership, anti-Trump sentiment abounds. For every Carson, murmuring on cable about how “sometimes you put your Christian values on pause to get the work done,” there is a Russell Moore or an Erick Erickson or a Beth Moore attacking their co-religionists for making a fatal moral compromise. Trump is exposing the folly of certain old-guard evangelicals, but he’s also exposing a major generational struggle over what the religious right should be — one that matters to the country and not just the participants, because …
America needs a religious right. Maybe not the religious right it has; certainly not the religious right of Carson and Falwell Jr. But the Trump era has revealed what you get when you leach the Christianity out of conservatism: a right-of-center politics that cares less about marriage and abortion, just as some liberals would wish, but one that’s ultimately far more divisive than the evangelical politics of George W. Bush.
When religious conservatives were ascendant, the GOP actually tried minority outreach, it sent billions to fight AIDS in Africa, and it pursued criminal justice reform in the states. That ascendance crumbled because of the religious right’s own faults (which certain of Trump’s Christian supporters amply display), and because of trends toward secularization and individualism that no politics can master; it cannot and should not be restored.
But some kind of religious conservatism must be rebuilt, because without the pull of transcendence, the future of the right promises to be tribal, cruel, and very dark indeed.
Follow Mr. Douthat on Twitter @DouthatNYT.