This new group is going where never-Trump Republicans haven't gone before
The latest dissent from white evangelical support for President Trump dropped Thursday in the form of a brief video ad from the Lincoln Project, a new super PAC working to rally right-of-center voters against Trump's re-election campaign. Called "MAGA Church," the ad splices together clips of high-profile evangelical and prosperity-gospel Trump surrogates talking up the president's supposed faithfulness with shots of Trump saying very un-Christlike things.
One moment Trump sputters about his disinterest in repentance and divine forgiveness; in the next, a court televangelist enthuses over his "godly wisdom." "I have never seen a more biblical president than I have seen in Donald Trump," declares a voiceover from former GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). "If you don't support me, you're going to be so g--damn poor," says Trump, casually dropping the worst of all curse words in the evangelical lexicon, not merely vulgar but downright blasphemous.
"Is this the best American Christians can do?" the video asks in its conclusion. "Then God help us all."
This clip struck me as curious for two big reasons. First, the video's parade of contrasts seems like low-hanging fruit. Were it likely to change minds, wouldn't it have been done before? And surely Trump's evangelical supporters already realize these incongruities — indeed some, like Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., have acknowledged as much.
Second, the ad doesn't end with a clear call to action, but the Lincoln Project's website says, "Electing Democrats who support the Constitution over Republicans who do not is a worthy effort." This is very different from the tack of evangelical never-Trumpers in 2016, who tended to endorse independent and third-party protest votes (e.g. for Evan McMullin or the Libertarian Party nominee, Gary Johnson) or abstention from voting for president as a conscientious refusal to choose the lesser of two evils. The Lincoln Project ad is also a big step beyond Christianity Today's controversial December editorial calling for Trump's removal from office. As a follow-up article emphasized, nowhere in the editorial was there an "endorsement of the Democrats," whose "pro-choice ... policies would advance so much of what we oppose."
Ads like this haven't "been done before because the well-financed organizations on the left don't know enough to understand how strategic it is," said Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for former President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign, in an interview with The Week, "and the center-right has not had the institutions to organize such a critique." Though circumspect, Wear, who now helps lead The AND Campaign, a nonpartisan organization promoting Christian civic engagement, was hopeful that the effort could prove productive.
The video represents a new development in "anti-Trump coordination on the right," which is needful to break through to conservative voters for whom "the left has no credibility," agreed Alan Noble, an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University who also edits a magazine of Christian commentary on pop culture. Perhaps, Noble said, the video could "help people remember and see and feel the hypocrisy" longer than they otherwise would in our light-speed news cycle.
But Noble was not confident in the ad's power to persuade most pro-Trump evangelicals. "Given how close the last election was, it is possible that the Democratic candidate only needs to move a few fence-sitters in a few strategic states, which is why I think efforts like this video could make some kind of difference," he told The Week. But for much of the intended audience, "Trump is not God's appointed savior; he's just someone who will stand up to liberal political correctness, appoint pro-life judges, and welcome and praise evangelicals instead of mocking them. So, they won't see themselves in this video. They will dismiss it as carefully edited, anti-Christian propaganda."
The Lincoln Project's push to vote Democrat is especially unlikely, Noble said, because of the Democratic Party's leftward move on abortion and other social issues which, for many conservative Christians, matter most. There is a substantial difference between the pro-choice rhetoric of "safe, legal, and rare" that was mainstream for Democrats as recently as Obama's first term and the "shout your abortion" approach of today. Also a hard sell: proposals like that of failed Democratic candidate Beto O'Rourke to strip churches and other religious institutions of tax exemption if they do not support gay marriage, as well as snark like the joking response Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) gave to a question about gay marriage at a CNN town hall in October.
Campaigns like the Lincoln Project video will have a better chance of success, Wear argued, "if the eventual Democratic nominee decides to make an earnest case to these voters." To Noble, that case would include "back[ing] off pro-choice policies" like ending the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits use of federal funds for abortion except under a few circumstances, and encouraging evangelicals "to vote their conscience even if that means abstaining or voting third party." Simply cutting together video proof of Trump's shameless obscenity isn't going to be enough.
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