As I write this, the Republican primary in my home state of Virginia is in the books, and Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul who has flipped the political establishment on its head with his improbable run for the presidency, has won. His performance on "Super Tuesday" was not as dominating as perhaps Mr. Trump and his supporters had hoped, but it did make the path to the nomination much more difficult for his opponents. It seems that now would be a good time to consider the long-term implications of this current political season, at least from my limited vantage point. Donald Trump's ascension marks the end, in my opinion, of several coalitions which have held sway over American politics and culture for decades.
First of all, I believe we are witnessing the end of the modern conservative movement as it is currently configured. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is currently taking place in National Harbor, Maryland this week, and it was at CPAC in March 1981 that President Ronald Reagan praised political philosopher Frank Meyer's concept of "fusionism" as "a vigorous new synthesis of traditional and libertarian thought -- a synthesis that is today recognized by many as modern conservatism." The ascendancy of modern conservatism which began in the 1950s with Russell Kirk and eventually evolved into a coalition of libertarians, neoconservatives and traditional conservatives, reached its peak with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. Each member of the coalition contributed to modern conservatism's signature political platform of laissez-faire economics and limited government (libertarians), national security (neoconservatives) and "family values" (traditional conservatives).
In truth, this coalition has been crumbling for some time. Neoconservatives and traditional conservatives, once they were in positions of influence, were all too willing to compromise on the notion of limited government if Leviathan could be turned to do their bidding, putting them at odds with the libertarians. Eventually, the libertarian economic philosophy was subsumed by a "pro-business" platform, a collusion between well-heeled businesses and the politicians who depended on their contributions to gain and keep power, the relationship greased by millions of dollars in political contributions and legislation which favored the wealthiest and most influential business interests over others. They paid lip service to libertarian principles on economics and government, but their "crony capitalism" bore no resemblance to true libertarianism.
National security objectives became muddied by political considerations such as nation-building and the promotion of American values globally. The age of terrorism brought new challenges to the forefront, not only in terms of interventionism overseas, but also the precarious balance between national security and civil liberties, the clash between Apple and the FBI being the most current example.
Traditional conservatives exchanged persuasion for politics, hoping to create their virtuous utopia through might rather than right, thereby downgrading the heretofore transcendent Judeo-Christian ethic to just another political interest. Their goals were at odds with the pro-business cabal, for whom currying favor with potential customers took precedence over the promulgation of a conservative social agenda, and libertarians, who generally oppose using the force of government to compel "right" behavior.
Today these factions openly oppose each other, and it is hard to remember this coalition was once considered an unstoppable force in American politics. People who challenge Donald Trump's conservatism must come to grips with the fact that not even the traditional members of the conservative coalition agree on what it means to be conservative. Those coalition conservatives that remain might be able to recite which policy prescriptions qualify one as "conservative", but if asked, I doubt they could tell you what unifying principles tie those talking points together.
Conservatism as Russell Kirk envisioned it was never intended to be a checklist of policy positions, or even a political ideology. It was intended to be a philosophy for understanding and ordering the world around us. Kirk said:
Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata...For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.
In essence, the conservative person is simply one who finds the permanent things more pleasing than Chaos and Old Night. (Yet conservatives know, with Burke, that healthy “change is the means of our preservation.”) A people’s historic continuity of experience, says the conservative, offers a guide to policy far better than the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers.
In his book, The Politics of Prudence, Kirk attempted to define the principles which undergird conservatism as a philosophy, and he believed that conservatism "can accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects", a notion which is lost in today's hyper-partisan atmosphere where even one deviation from the checklist makes one an apostate - and every faction of the conservative movement has its own checklist.
This checklist mentality can have disastrous consequences, as evidenced by the budgetary crisis in the state of Louisiana, where a conservative governor's strict adherence to conservative dogma has proven to be irresponsible - imprudent. if you will.
Going forward, I believe conservatives will find their revitalization in reacquainting themselves with Russell Kirk and his original intent for conservatism, and restoring devotion to permanent things, prudence and healthy change as the hallmarks of the conservative movement in the years ahead.
As the conservative movement becomes unmoored from whatever central organizing precepts once governed it, the Republican Party, which has been the acknowledged political standard-bearer for the movement, is at a crossroads as well, regardless of whether or not Donald Trump is the nominee. While Trump has certainly been the focus of conversation during this election, I've found it more enlightening and constructive to observe the people supporting him and learn more about them and their motivations. There have been a lot of articles written on this topic, and I recommend you look them up and read them to give you a more nuanced and less polemical view of the Trump electorate.
This national election revealed a widening chasm between the party elites and the broader electorate, and while it's easy to dismiss them as evil or ignorant, as both political parties have done, it's also not accurate because, if the polls are to be believed, Trump appears to have broader support than conventional wisdom suggests, cutting across education, age, residential status and income groups.
Moreover, it's also not fair because it doesn't acknowledge the very real struggles the general public has endured as the economic, cultural and political landscape has shifted under their feet as if in an earthquake. Elites, regardless of their political stripes, are equipped to deal with such changes because they either benefit from them or have the means to shield themselves from the consequences. Those without means, however, are at the mercy of these tectonic shifts, and they are fearful, anxious and angry toward the elites who made promises they couldn't or wouldn't keep.
The research I've read on the Trump electorate has certainly opened my eyes to the crises confronting working class Americans daily, and the tragic consequences when there appears to be no solution in sight, and no one to speak for them. It has also changed my thinking about the politics which have contributed in some part to their plight. While I may disagree with their electoral choices, and while I admit there are some ugly undertones to some of what I read and hear, I've emerged from my research primarily feeling compassion for them. These are human beings in pain, and humans don't typically respond to pain in a rational manner.
What's clear is that, regardless of the electoral outcome, the GOP has to decide how to respond to the tremendous gap between the leadership and the electorate. This isn't a task they can perform within the comfortable confines of Washington, DC, either. They need to immerse themselves in the midst of "flyover country" and figure out what the people are looking for in a governing Republican Party, and once they know that, determine if that is what they want to be. As they are working to win back the trust of the rank and file, they also need to create space in the party for minorities and other non-traditional constituencies who may be philosophically compatible with the party, but find it to be largely tone deaf on the issues that matter to them. Needless to say, they have a daunting task ahead of them to build a new governing coalition.
It's not all gloom and doom for the GOP. They still control 33 state Houses and one unicameral legislature, 34 state Senates, and 31 governorships, and they have full control of 23 state governments, compared to just seven for the Democrats. In addition, they still have the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, at least for the time being. Perhaps there is something the national party can learn from its state and local counterparts. One thing, however, is certain; if they want to be a viable national party going forward, they can't stay the same. The Republican Party of the past few decades must evolve or die.
Perhaps the most significant sea change of them all, however, is the fracturing of the conservative evangelical movement which rose to its height during the Reagan presidency and was represented most visibly by the Moral Majority, established by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr., the founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church, Liberty Christian Academy and Liberty University, my employer. At one time, the endorsement of the evangelical right was considered essential to the success of the GOP presidential nominee but, as the years have gone by, their influence has waned, and their favorites in recent elections have not even won the nomination, much less the presidency. Those losses were exacerbated by rapid and radical changes in the American legal and cultural ethic on sex and gender, disrupting mores which had been in place for millennia, and their failure to secure anything other than platitudes from elected officials on the issues they cared about just added to their frustration. Taken together, these factors marked the beginning of the end for evangelicals as a political force in America.
This has led to a lot of soul-searching by evangelicals, a term, incidentally, which not even those who are tagged as such by society agree on, particularly in an election year when it seems that the evangelical vote is divided among several candidates. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, eschews the term for "gospel Christian", and explains how "evangelical" has been so misappropriated that it is "subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Some evangelicals challenged the very notion of their extensive involvement in politics as a hindrance to their witness of the Gospel - the good news - to the world, and that ambivalence is cited by Christian millennials as a key reason why they have walked away from the activism of their predecessors. Even Cal Thomas, the author and syndicated columnist who served as the late Rev. Falwell's communications director in the Moral Majority, eventually rejected the emphasis on political rather than spiritual solutions to the nation's problems, declaring:
We've put too much faith in sending the right person to Washington. The political process is very limited in what it can do for our moral and spiritual problems. Let's not be under any illusion that anything short of the regeneration of Americans will produce a changed America.
It is into this time of introspection that Donald Trump came crashing like a bull in a china shop. Some evangelicals see him as the antithesis of Christian character and are appalled at the fact that so many self-identified evangelicals are supporting him. Russell Moore questions the veracity of their faith, saying:
At least in the Bible Belt, someone may claim to be an evangelical who's drunk right now and who hasn't been to church since someone took him to vacation Bible school back in the 1980s. And so that's not a useful category. What's useful is finding out whether or not people are actively following Christ, whether they're church attenders, for instance.
Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's flagship seminary, made an observation which applies not only to this electoral season, but to the state of American evangelicals as a whole:
We have taken comfort in the fact that there have been millions and millions of us in America. And a part of that evidence has been the last several election cycles, with the evangelical vote being in the millions. And now we're having to face the fact that, evidently, theologically-defined - defined by commitment to core evangelical values - there aren't so many millions of us as we thought.
The rapid changes in American society to which I alluded earlier had already begun to cull out those "cultural Christians" who embraced the moniker primarily because it placed them in the mainstream of popular opinion, not because of any deep, unwavering commitment to biblical principles. Some polls suggest that a key distinction between self-identified evangelicals who support Trump and those who support other candidates is regular church attendance, which validates Mr. Moore's previous statement.
But what of those evangelicals who are clearly committed Christians, but still support Trump?
These evangelicals see Mr. Trump as the strong, politically incorrect, resolute leader who will protect our religious liberties, essentially the only thing remaining to us in post-modern America. They have grown weary of those who "come from us", to paraphrase former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, or who speak the lingo but go to Washington and do nothing for us, thereby devaluing our investment of time. talent and treasure in their campaigns. While other evangelical leaders castigate them for their apparent hypocrisy - Peter Wehner says the same people who crticized President Bill Clinton for his moral failures are now supporting "a moral degenerate" in Trump - they point out that past candidates for president who garnered broad support from evangelicals were not "pure", either. David Brody, chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, sums up the dilemma:
The condemnation of Trump’s Christian supporters from within evangelical circles is troubling. Is there now a threshold of Christianity that you need to achieve to be a “real evangelical?” In other words, if you support Cruz you’re a true believer but if you go with Trump you’re not? Are “Trump Christians” going to have to wear a political Scarlet Letter? And if we’re going to go down that road, where exactly do we draw the line on morality? What about John McCain in 2008? Should evangelicals have spurned him because he had an affair with his first wife? What about Ronald Reagan? He was divorced and his wife celebrated astrology.
In effect, Donald Trump has created a rift within the evangelical community that won't go away after the election. Even if he doesn't win, the wounds within the evangelical community are deep and will take some time to heal.
The battle came to Liberty University earlier this spring, when university President Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son of the late founder, went public with his personal endorsement for Mr. Trump. As a non-profit institution, Liberty University is not permitted to endorse political candidates, although individuals may support whomever they chose. The tension the endorsement created, which had largely been kept out of the spotlight, burst into the open this week when Mark DeMoss, the chairman of the executive committee for the University's board of directors, decided to go public in the Washington Post with his objections to the endorsement, claiming to speak on behalf of several alumni, faculty and students who had contacted him to express their consternation. President Falwell expressed his disappointment with his colleague and friend, and his wife, Becki, later responded in a social media post with a stinging rebuke of Mr. DeMoss and other alumni critical of her husband's endorsement.
This disagreement is more than just a conflict between competing evangelicals. When Mark DeMoss's father died, the late Rev. Falwell took young Mark into their home, and when he graduated from Liberty University in 1984, Falwell hired him as his chief of staff. Jerry Jr. and he were classmates at Liberty and graduated together. The main academic building on campus is named for Mark DeMoss' late father, Arthur DeMoss, and a student clubhouse is named for his brother, David DeMoss, who was killed in a car accident in 1986 in his senior year as a student at Liberty. Mark DeMoss and his family are long-time contributors to Liberty University, and he has indicated that he will continue to serve on the board of directors. I mention this only to highlight the deep and potentially lasting impact of the "year of Trump" on the political evangelical movement in general, and on the family that ostensibly gave it birth decades ago.
So what is the way forward for the conservative evangelical movement?
Frankly, I will not mourn the demise of the movement as a political faction. A healthy American polity needs a reformed and revitalized conservative movement and Republican Party to compete in the marketplace of ideas. The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, does not need politics to accomplish the Great Commission - period.
Should Christians be engaged in the political process? By all means. "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Psalm 24:1), and that includes government and politics. As individual citizens, we should be well informed about the candidates, we should vote according to our beliefs, and we should pray for all who ascend to a position of leadership, even if we didn't vote for them, so they may rule as the Lord intended. While rulers in Biblical times were not elected, the Bible is not silent on the character we should seek in our rulers - "But select capable men from all the people--men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain--and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens" (Exodus 18:21).
Some of us may be called to public service, as Joseph, Deborah, Daniel and David were, and it is an honor and privilege for me as an educator to help prepare those young men and women here at Liberty University upon whom God has placed that calling.
Lord Acton's famous quote, however, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely", should be a warning to Christians about the dangers of becoming a political interest group. The prime directive of politics is power; if a political entity cannot obtain or hold power, then it is ineffective and has no reason to exist in its ineffective form. This is where the conservative movement and the GOP find themselves today.
Christianity, however, should never seek power as a tool with which to advance itself. It's bad enough that the God-sized, life-saving and everlasting message of salvation through Jesus Christ is being shoehorned into a box that not only constricts its reach, but has only enough room for those who agree with the political message therein. When the Gospel is relegated to a political faction, the good news is corrupted because the faction does not seek salvation for all mankind, but power for some.
I believe in an intentional God, and I am absolutely certain that He's not looking at Donald Trump and exclaiming, "Well, I didn't see him coming!" Jesus assures us that "My Father is always working, and so am I." Even before the "year of Trump", I indicated that Christianity in America would undergo a culling of the ranks as social changes compelled us to choose between the "The Earthly City" and the "City of God", to quote St. Augustine. That process is accelerating with the rise of Donald Trump, and what emerges from it, I believe, will be a faithful, sacrificial remnant of believers, less concerned with being a dominant cultural and political force in America and more concerned with winning as many souls as possible to inhabit the City of God. As with Gideon's army, once the Lord winnows us down to the ones who truly love and obey Him, the victory which follows will bring Him, and Him alone, the glory.