Donald Trump’s supporters always had diverging interpretations of his campaign mantra, “Make America Great Again,” yet they all centered on returning the country to a better and more comfortable time.
To economic nationalists, it meant going back to an era of high tariffs and buying American. To defense hawks, it meant returning to a time of unquestioned military supremacy. To immigration hard-liners, it meant fewer jobs for foreign-born workers—and, for some of those voters, fewer dark faces in the country, period.
But for many evangelicals and conservative Catholics, “Make America Great Again” meant above all else returning to a time when the culture reflected and revolved around their Judeo-Christian values. When there was prayer in public schools. When marriage was limited to one man and one woman. When abortion was not prevalent and socially acceptable. When the government didn’t ask them to violate their consciences. And, yes, when people said “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”
This explains one of the more striking lines in Trump’s speech Friday to the Values Voter Summit, which in just 10 years has become one of the premier annual gatherings of social conservatives in Washington. Touting the “customs, beliefs and traditions that defined who we are as a nation and as a people,” the president recalled the Founders’ repeated reference to a “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. “How times have changed,” Trump said. “But you know what? Now they’re changing back again. Just remember that.”
The audience roared with a 20-second standing ovation.
Of course, much of the cultural drift the “values voters” fear seems irreversible as America’s demographic transformation yields an electorate that is younger, more ethnically diverse, more urban, more educated and less religious. Same-sex marriage is settled law with ever-broadening public support; abortion rights are probably impossible to fully retract. And the country’s steady secularization, decried for decades from church pulpits, appears to have accelerated in recent years: According to a comprehensive Pew Research Center poll of more than 35,000 Americans, the share of self-identified Christians decreased nearly 7 percent between 2007 and 2014, while the share of religiously unaffiliated citizens increased nearly 7 percent in that time.
What, then, can a thrice-married Manhattan billionaire—or any politician, for that matter—realistically offer Christian voters who hope for a cultural and spiritual revival in America?
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, the conservative group that organizes the Values Voter Summit, says Trump’s greatest impact is legitimizing those people and views that have been marginalized. “Barack Obama used the bully pulpit and the courts to demonize those who held to the very values that made America great. And Trump is doing the opposite,” Perkins says. “What the president and his administration can do is once again make people feel like it’s OK to stand up and talk about these traditional values, and engage in these conversations. Then we can win hearts and minds, and that’s where the transformation begins.”
Others, however, are taking a more direct approach. The biggest draw of the weekend event, other than the president himself, was Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate and former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court. Moore was removed from office twice: once for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from courthouse grounds, and 14 years later, having reclaimed the position, for directing state judges to ignore the federal government’s legalization of same-sex marriages. To Moore and his admirers, these incidents were evidence of American turning its back on God—tribulations that have been used to rally the faithful in his deeply religious state as he went from a quixotic Senate hopeful to the favorite.
When Moore spoke to a Friday luncheon sponsored by the American Family Association, he was introduced unapologetically as someone who would put Christianity ahead of the Constitution. When a video played detailing the Ten Commandments saga in Alabama, the room of several hundred retirement-age attendees shook their heads in disgust. And when he took the stage, he stirred the crowd. “It was never about the Ten Commandments; it was about the God who gave the Ten Commandments,” Moore said. “We forget that what they really want to do in this land is remove the knowledge of God. That won’t happen, as far as I can see, because I think the people of God are rising up in this land today. In 2016 we were given a new lease, a new reason, and it’s upon us now.”
Seated at the rear of the room, John and Jill Stabley nodded along. The older married couple from Delaware have attended the Values Voter Summit seven previous times, but this year feels different. “Suddenly hopeful,” Jill says. “We grew up in an era where people were thinking of others, and trying to do the right thing—.” John interrupts: “And walking with Christ.” He pauses. “There’s no going back. All these outside people are coming in and tearing us apart.”
By “outside people,” John means immigrants—particularly Muslims, whom he says are undermining the Constitution in pursuit of sharia law. (John believes Obama is a Muslim, and Jill says the Common Core education standards were used to indoctrinate students with Islamic ideology.) The focus on immigration in these Christian circles speaks to the budding union between Trump’s evangelical and nationalistic supporters, which was on display at Perkins’ weekend event. He raised eyebrows by inviting former White House aides Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, the polarizing promoters of Trump’s “America First” message, to speak at the event, despite neither having any roots in the Christian conservative universe.
This shotgun wedding resulted in some predictably awkward moments. Bannon, emphasizing the importance of grass-roots politics in winning elections, raised the 44th president’s former job title. “What’s a community organizer? I’ll tell you what it is. Somebody that could kick your ass—twice.” There were crickets from the audience; it was almost certainly the first time someone had ever used a curse word during a speech to the Values Voter Summit. Earlier, in his own speech, Gorka had stressed how liberating it was for him and Bannon to now be working outside the White House. “The left has no idea how much more damage we can do to them as private citizens,” he said to scattered applause. Responding to Gorka, conservative radio host Erick Erickson, a frequent Trump critic, tweeted, “Sad to see this said at a Christian conference. Where is the grace? Where is the mercy? Where is the Christ?”
These are good and fair questions. But anyone expecting the evangelical right to shy away from Trump world’s hardball approach to politics hasn’t been paying attention the past 18 months. Many Christian voters embraced Trump not despite his provocative style but because of it, betting on a brash street brawler to win the culture battles they had been losing for generations. And their faith has been rewarded: From abortion policy to religious liberty to judicial appointments, Trump has delivered for social conservatives more than any other constituency, making them the unlikely cornerstone of his coalition.