Sarah Posner: How Trump Got His Hands on the Religious Right

April 11, 2017

How did a man living an ostensibly godless, hedonistic life become the champion of the very groups who one would expect to denounce his behavior? Being a real estate mogul and reality TV star, it’s no secret to anyone that President Trump has spent far more time in country clubs than churches. A man who’s had several wives, owned casinos and bars, and had multiple accusations of sexual assault leveled against him is hardly the pinnacle of virtue the religious right professes to yearn for. Trump’s aggressively nationalistic campaign rhetoric clearly appealed to the so-called “alt-right,” but he could not have won the election without simultaneously appealing to religious conservatives. So what happened?

Today’s guest is investigative journalist Sarah Posner, whose expertise in reporting on religion and the conservative movement enable her to unravel the reasoning behind Trump’s success with evangelical Christians. Posner’s newest piece for The New Republic is “Amazing Disgrace,” which explores how “a thrice-married, biblically illiterate sexual predator” hijacked the religious right. While the alt-right and the cultural conservative movement have long been at odds, they shared common goals and prospects in the 2016 election, and that what unites them in terms of race and nationalism may be greater than even they would like to admit.

Special note from the Center for Inquiry: This is Lindsay Beyerstein’s final episode of Point of Inquiry. We are enormously proud of Lindsay’s remarkable body of work with Point of Inquiry. She is smart, insightful, witty, and has always been a genuine pleasure to work with, having grown tremendously as an interviewer over her time with us. We wish her great success with her new endeavors, including her new podcast, The Breach. Thank you, Lindsay!

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for news about what’s next for Point of Inquiry!

Welcome to Port of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. It pains me to say that this will be my final episode of Point of Inquiry, but you can find me on my new political podcast. The breach. It’s a deep dove into government corruption. If you want to keep tabs on what’s really going on inside this administration, subscribe to the breach right now using your favorite podcast app or go to rewire DOT news, slash the breach, I assure you. This isn’t your typical Trump bashing podcast. We’re interviewing the people closest to the corruption, investigating what’s happening beneath the surface and holding the government accountable. Each week, we bring you an in-depth interview with a leading academic, journalist or activists on the frontlines. This week’s guest is journalist Sir Kenzer, talking about Trump, Putin and disinformation in Russia. Which brings me to today’s guest, Sarah Posner, an investigative journalist, author and expert on the intersection of religion and politics. She’s here today to talk about her new story in The New Republic about how Donald Trump hijacked the religious right. Sarah, welcome to the program. 

Thanks for having me, Lindsey. 

Donald Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote more than George W. Bush or John McCain or Mitt Romney. And he’s not a traditionally religious person. How do we explain his huge appeal in that group? 

Well, I think part of it had to do with the longstanding disdain that the religious right has for Hillary Clinton. 

I mean, you have to remember that white evangelicals have been hearing about how evil the Clintons are for decades, literally. But I think that that sort of overlooks that’s part of the explanation in the general election, but it overlooks the appeal that Trump had to white evangelicals in the primaries. And the reason why he was able to win the Republican primary, and that is I think that evangelicals, despite the fact that evangelical leaders portray this, need to have a candidate who is pious and biblically literate and against same sex marriage and against abortion and all of that. I think for a lot of evangelical voters, they’re looking for something a lot more that appeals to them, a lot more in their gut. And that all of that stuff really in the end didn’t matter to them. And that what mattered more was that Trump claimed, you know, to make America can make America great again and he was going to get rid of political correctness. I mean, I covered the South Carolina primary. And even at rallies for the other candidates like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, I met voters who didn’t like Trump, but nonetheless expressed their gratitude for how he made talking about political correctness and slamming political correctness. OK, so I think that I think there there’s still a lot of cultural factors that went into that. But it showed in the end that actually the religious right leaders didn’t have as much control as they thought they did over their base. 

It’s fascinating that Trump, what religion he does have, comes out of kind of the school of the church of positive thinking. His old pastor was Norman Vincent Peale. It’s great. Like, you know, he gives this grassroots kind of the selfishness aspects of the selfishness gospel, if you will, into it. 

Well, the prosperity gospel, Ray and I remember back in, like February wrote a piece about how he was like the televangelist candid aide. I mean, if you just look at the photograph of his Trump Tower apartment where you know, that he shares with Melania and, you know, just the gold plated everything and the really garish furniture and appointments and all of that. And to me, it reminded me of a set of the Trinity Broadcasting Network when I was doing the reporting for my book. I went to a couple of those and it actually trumps the inside of Trump’s apartment, actually looked like that was sort of like the fake gilded furniture and just all the, you know, all of this really garish, garish chuch keys and whatnot. 

And I think that he, too, to evangelicals who have bought into the prosperity gospel. And that’s certainly not all of them, trust me. I think that he was familiar in the sense that he was unashamed to flaunt his wealth and that for these people who buy into the prosperity gospel, the idea that somebody is rich is not the result of the person possibly having scammed people to get rich, which is what televangelists do. But it’s evidence that God has blessed them. And you saw this recently with the White House. After last week, the financial disclosures came out of the White House staff and showed just how many of them. 

Cabinet level people. And how many of them were very, very, very wealthy? And Sean Spicer defended at all and said, well, it’s just evidence of how blessed all of these people are. 

Charles Dobson calls Trump a baby Christian, which is quite a backhanded compliment for a 70 year old Christian to explain to themselves and justify to themselves electing someone to voting for someone who has completely rejected most of Christian values in his personal life. 

Well, I think a favorite narrative for a lot of evangelicals and particularly the sort of evangelicals who, like I said, watch televangelism and the prosperity gospel on TV is the idea that the fallen are always capable of achieving salvation if they just believe. 

And so while this obviously does not hold true for anyone who is liberal, there’s not a lot of forgiveness from evangelicals for liberal failings. Right. Or perceived liberal failings. 

If you fall into the category of, hey, I’m on the side of evangelicals or I’m on the side of conservatives, then they’re going to give you a pass on that and say, hey, you know, like he’s trying he’s having his meetings with Paula White, who is, again, a televangelist and supposedly one of Trump’s spiritual advisers. And that was what Dobson pointed to. He said, you know, that Trump has been in contact with Paula White for some years and they’ve met a lot. And she believes that he’s really learning this stuff. And so it’s just I mean, it’s just ridiculously hypocritical, obviously, because, you know, they think that, you know, gay people are centers. 

But, you know, Trump can do whatever and be be given a pass for being a baby Christian. 

What is Paula White known for among Christians? 

Well, Paula White is known for being one of the Grassley six. So she is one of six televangelists who back in 2007, the Senate Finance Committee investigated for their possible abuse of their tax exempt status. So the puzzle abuses were that they were using their tax exempt status as a church to raise nonprofit funds, but then used them for their own enrichment and their own luxury goods. So they were in the Senate Finance Committee, was investigating, hey, are they going on TV or standing in for their congregation and giving that old prosperity gospel line? If you give me if you sow a seed with me, you know, God will bless you 100 fold in return. 

And then taking that money from their congregation through their TV viewers and buying luxury jets or in Paula White’s case, plastic surgery. 

The Senate Finance Committee ultimately punted on that investigation and basically left it to the churches to, in their terms, self regulate, which was a real travesty. 

Right, because these televangelists are ripping off poor people and millions of dollars. Yes. 

And, you know, it is an abuse of their tax exempt status. Meanwhile, you know, Trump and his allies are focused on repealing the Johnson amendment, which prohibits tax exempt organizations from endorsing candidates. But they’re not looking at all at this. 

But some pull away is known, you know, for for her televangelism. But also she has very successfully marketed her life story of having grown up with a single mother in a trailer park. You know, she hasn’t, you know, a rags to riches riches kind of story. But again, this is proof to her followers that, you know, being a faithful person and believing in God and believing in Jesus is going to bless you with material wealth. 

You write that the religious right has in some ways become a subsidiary of the ultra right. What do you mean by that? 

Well, so the real driving force of Trump’s candidacy was his white nationalism and his appeal to white nationalists or, you know, you might more charitably call them, you know, ethno nationalists or people or nationalists who just happen to be white. 

Or as Steve Bannon likes to say, you know, economic nationalists. Not bad. Wink, wink. 

You know, his campaign was not driven by, as we just talked about, was not driven by the same ideas that have driven the religious right. For example, he did not come out of the box saying, I’m going to nominate Supreme Court justices who are going to overturn Roe v. Wade. He came out of the box saying Mexicans are rapists and criminals and we’re going to build a wall. So it was really the nationalism that drove the Trump train to the extent that evangelicals got on that train. They were getting on. Along with that. Now, of course, Trump has a transactional relationship with the religious right. Right. He knew that they’re this huge chunk of the Republican base that they’re very good at, get out the vote efforts. And so in this transaction, he basically said, OK, well, look, if you guys are going to come out and vote for me, I’ll give you what you want. 

I’ll choose one of the justices from this list, from the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. And, you know, so we’ll have that kind of relationship. I’ll pick Mike Pence as my running mate and so on. 

But really, we look forward as the V.P. candidate. 

You know, I don’t know. I mean, one of Trump’s a couple of Trump’s long time allies in the religious right were Jerry Falwell Junior, who was one of the earliest evangelical leaders to endorse Trump. Robert Jeffress, who’s a Medicare pastor from Dallas. There weren’t several, even though a lot of the heavy hitter, religious right leaders were slow to come around to Trump. He did have some people in his camp early on. I think, you know, Pence was has long been a favorite of the religious right. 

Long known as an ally, you know, because before he was governor of Indiana, he represented a district in Indiana in the House and was part of a conservative group, a kind of a predecessor group to the Freedom Caucus back when he was when he was a congressman. And he also had toyed with running for president himself. So the fact that his name was floating around as a potential running mate was was not a huge surprise, although I’m not sure who specifically might have suggested it’s Trump. 

Richard Spencer, who listeners will probably recognize from not one, but now two high profile Nazi punching incidents, is really perceptive about the relationship between white nationalists like himself and more conventional evangelical voters. What does he have to say about that topic? 

Well, it’s fascinating. And you’re right. I, too, thought he was very perceptive about that. When I interviewed him back in September. So this is before Trump won. 

He was very disdainful of the religious right. You know, you have to all right. To call mainstream conservative caucus or conservative. But he did say that, you know, white evangelical voters are basically voting for the same things that white nationalists want, or, as he would put it, identity Koreans want, you know, just like sort of like normal, what he would call normal, like white society, where everybody’s good and moral. Now, despite the fact that he was so disdainful of the religious right during the campaign, I think once Trump won and Trump won with, you know, he went to one without the support of white evangelicals, Spencer kind of changed his tune to me and basically said, hey, look, you know what? We’re going to be willing Daltrey it’s going to be willing to work with the religious right, because I can see now that we want the same things. And what’s more is there’s a growing movement within the right of. All right. Christians. 

You know, Spencer himself is an atheist. He supports abortion rights. 

Or, you know, it’s he doesn’t really care really whether women have abortions or not. 

And his priority in white women is he’s OK when whereas the boarding white babies willy nilly. 

Well, no. Well, I think that it’s just an issue that he just doesn’t think is important. Right. 

He also told me that he thought it would be really great to have paid maternity leave because then women would, instead of pursuing careers, they’d stay home and take care of their babies. But the abortion thing did not and does not seem to move him that much. You know, I’ve heard him talk in podcasts about like how he just doesn’t care about the issue one way or the other. 

It’s interesting. Spencer seems to be on the right side of the historical argument about what really has moved the religious right over the years. People think it’s abortion. But, yes, you mentioned in the article it’s really about federal funding for segregated institutions. That race is a lot bigger role in the genesis of the religious right than the religious right usually says in public. 

Right. So, you know, if you look back on the history of the religious right, many figures on the religious right were a upset about school desegregation, which is why we have Christian schools. And they were also very animated by the federal government’s. The IRS is revocation of the Tax-Exempt status of Bob Jones University, which happened in the 70s because Bob Jones University had a policy that banned interracial dating on the campus, Bob and Bob Jones University, the Fundamentalist University in South Carolina. And so this is what really animated them, the idea that the big bad federal government would interfere with a Christian institution’s interpretation of the Bible and use that power to take away their tax exempt status. So you see how that argument, maybe not necessarily in the race context, still animates the religious right. When they talk about like the Johnson amendment and they worry about the IRS taking away their tax exempt status, you’ll often hear them still talking about the Bob Jones University case. And so there’s a lot of historical evidence that that was really an animating feature for the religious right and that it actually took some time for them to realize, oh, well, I actually like abortion is a good organizing principle for us because we can bring evangelicals and Catholics together and organize around this idea that it’s terrible to kill babies. So, yeah, there is a history of racism in the religious right. And Spencer, in that sense, is right that white evangelicals historically have been animated by that. And Mays’, many of them may still be. 

I thought it was really interesting. The one of the white nationals, the other white nationalists that interviewed for the piece was talking about weaving the Confederate flag into as a Christian symbol and kind of coming full circle with the racism and the Christianity. 

Yes. Well, you know, a lot of the ultra Christians and I’ll emphasize that we don’t know what the number of people who consider themselves to be outright Christians in the United States is, and that outright Christianity has has quite some amount of denominational diversity within it. You know, it includes the Orthodox Christians and Lutherans and Southern Baptists and so on. So is as if for anyone who’s read the article, you’ll see kind of that that range of denominational thinking within outright Christianity. But for many of them, the Southern culture is a huge part of that identity. And they sort of like you say, they see the Confederate flag as not just a symbol of the lost cause, but a symbol of this brand of Christianity that has been, in their view, wiped out or attempted to be wiped out by political correctness that has pervaded the church in their view. So, like, they don’t like it that the Southern Baptist Convention voted to get rid of flying the Confederate flag. And, you know, so that affection for the Confederacy is definitely a big part of the mindset of some of these outright Christians, particularly in the South. 

It’s interesting with Russell Moore from the Southern Baptist that you were talking about in the story about how he came to prominence both as a Trump critic and as a reciprocal objector of the Confederate flag. 

Yeah, yeah. 

So, you know, Moore was one of the leading voices in the never Trump camp on the on the evangelical side of the never Trump camp. And, you know, he is somebody and, you know, I don’t want to overstate this. Right. Because, I mean, he’s a very conservative person and he shares many of the ideological and policy views of the religious right. However, he was not willing to trade that for, you know, having Trump, right? No. But, you know, it’s not like his views on abortion or same sex marriage are really that different from Tony Perkins, for example. But he just has a different approach for how he thinks that should get done. So he was a very outspoken critic of Trump and explicitly called Trump out on racism and xenophobia and nativism. 

And you would have thought from reading many of the op ed that Moore wrote over the course of the campaign that he was expressing the views, the widespread views of evangelicals, that they didn’t like this racism and xenophobia, and that Trump was going to clash with them on that, but that he turned out to be wrong. And so I thought that that was just really telling. 

I was amazed how white the Southern Baptist Conference really is. Like The Washington Post said, it’s 86 percent white. That shocked me. 

Oh, it’s one of the whitest, I think, aside from the LDS church. 

I think it’s one of the whitest denominations in the country. Yeah. 

So there are a lot of Baptists who aren’t Southern Baptists and that there are Baptist denominations that are predominantly African-American. But the Southern Baptist Convention is very, very white. But, you know, Moore does not speak for all evangelicals, obviously. But I think that a lot of people perceived him as someone who spoke for all Southern Baptists. But it seems that he didn’t and that he had perhaps misread the people in the pews and that, you know, in some senses, like what some Southern Baptists who were allies of Moore said to me over the course of the campaign that he was out ahead of where the people in the pews were. 

By and large, he might actually lose his job as the head of the Southern Baptist Convention, right? 

Yeah, well, there was some talk of that right after the election. 

There was a article in an article in The Wall Street Journal where Robert Jeffress and some other major figures in this other. This convention really came out swinging against Moore and suggested that perhaps their churches were going to withhold their donations, their contributions to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is said to the arm of the Southern Baptist Convention that that Moore heads. And for a while it looked like there was going to be this big shake up. 

But I think that other leaders within the domination do not. I think that they realize that they can’t afford to just, like, get rid of more. Right. Because that would really crush their their PR that they that many of them want out there. That’s the Southern Baptist Convention is a forward looking denomination that doesn’t want to be stuck in the past and wants to get rid of the taint of racism. I mean, remember that Moore, Moore’s predecessor, Richard Land, was forced out because in part of racist statements that he made, it was also in part because he plagiarized them. 

But and so I think that the denomination as a whole is is mindful of that. 

So I think I think that that more is going to be able to hold on for a while longer. But he has been noticeably less outspoken, in fact, not speaking at all on these issues. 

Really what role the Steve Bannon’s religious views play in his his nationalistic politics? 

Well, you know, banning is Catholic. But I think that he’s not. 

I mean, I talked to him about religion when I interviewed him at the at the Republican National Convention. He did not strike me as somebody who is particularly religious. And it struck me that perhaps he was looking at an alliance with the religious right as a just as a political strategy, really, because I met him at a screening of a film he had just made with Citizens United. That was a sensibly about religious freedom. And when I asked him about, well, who is your audience for this movie, I said, well, it’s definitely evangelical. I said, oh, your audience isn’t the. All right. And he said, no. The audience for this film, isn’t he all right? I sort of see the religious right. We need to be in coalition with them because we’d otherwise never have a big enough coalition to beat back what he calls the progressive left. So I think he sees the religious right as a key ally in his fight against the left, which I think is his main overarching ideology, that he has to fight the left. But he did not he did not strike me as someone who had given a lot of deep thought to religion or theology. 

Once you like one on one, he has some, you know, affable and chatty. 

But, you know, he was this was a reception after the screening of the movie. And I mean, if he was you know, other people wanted his attention aside from me and he was for it. 

You know, he he talked to me for a while and was chatty with other people and wanted to get a beer and. And then when I asked him to introduce me to someone else that had been involved in making the film, he introduced me without knowing anything about me, except that I was a reporter. Introduced me to this other person. 

Is a hardcore leftist, thus striking back? 

Yes. Yes. He has a very abiding antipathy to the left wing media. 

I would have a dreamer. He’s not like it. Like he did not rant and rave. 

Like I said, he he comes across affably. 

Now, it’s sort of interesting you think about in terms of Trump and Bannon using the religious right or the other way around, who’s got the upper hand in this relationship? 

Well, I think that Ben, in as a singular figure, has risks facing him right now, mainly just because of his status and role in the Trump administration. Questions around his role in the Russia scandal. So you know who. We don’t know what might happen to him. And, yes, he, in a way, leads a movement and led bright barcoding, helped shape what Bright Baat is today. But the religious right is a movement with a lot more foundation in our politics and particularly in our in the Republican Party and our electoral politics. At the same time, though, the religious right is itself experiencing a lot of turmoil because of generational changes, but also because of its decision. By and large, to commit to Trump. 

So I would say the religious right. But I don’t know. 

I mean, they’re certainly getting everything they want as far. I mean, Trump couldn’t pass health care defunding Planned Parenthood, but everything that’s within Trump’s power to give them, he’s given them on women’s health and reproductive rights. 

Yes. And he’s they’ve been thrilled with some of his other actions, like his rescinding of the Obama guidance on the trans students bathrooms that the Department of Education guidance under Obama. You know, they’ve been thrilled with that. So he’s done very little to upset the religious right. But on the other hand, the religious right is very easily angered. So he could do something that would piss them off. But he hasn’t so far, which is actually pretty remarkable. 

Was the religious right behind the cuts to the U.N. Population Fund? 

Oh, yes, because they believe that the U.N. Population Fund pushes abortion, which it does not. It’s not true. But they’ve that’s a myth that they’ve helped perpetuate. And so this was something that they were very excited about that he did. 

And with the U.N. Population Fund, were they allowed to talk about abortion as an option or would they have been bound by the Mexico City doctrine that prohibits that anyway? 

Right. So they. Right. So they that I hadn’t even thought of that. You’re right. Because since trumpery and stated that they and they got U.S. funding, they wouldn’t have been able to do that anyway. So cutting off their funding seems doubly cruel because the funding that they did get from the U.S. and from other countries goes to, you know, not just contraception, but rape prevention and HIV and AIDS, TB prevention and prevention of female genital mutilation and all kinds of things that women around the world desperately need. And you know that women can die if they don’t get. So the the idea that this is a pro-life position is pretty preposterous. 

Just recently, Trump came out swinging on behalf of Bill O’Reilly, asserting that there was no basis to any of his sexual harassment claims. I’m just wondering if. Was there a struggle among evangelicals to deal with the fact that Trump himself is a self professed sexual assault or essentially has grabbed them by the pussy type thing? 

Well, you know, to me, this was a sign of how little power women have within evangelicalism still, because I’ve got a lot of reporting on sexual abuse within evangelical organizations. And so when I first heard the Access Hollywood tape, my immediate thought was to all these women that I had interviewed who had been victims of sexual abuse in evangelical organizations. And I thought, wow, this is really going to be something where they will say this is familiar, powerful man using his power to sexually abuse women. And I thought that it would be a turning point because so many evangelical women either have been the victims of sexual abuse or know someone who’s been the victim of a sexual abuse, particularly at the hands of a man who claims a lot of power. And I actually talked to women, evangelical women, right around the time of that tape about what they thought and how they thought it was going to affect Trump. And in the end and we did unfortunately don’t have a gender breakdown of the exit polling, the white evangelicals who voted for him. But in the end, you know, it ultimately didn’t matter. And I just thought that that was so it may be so sad because it really reinforced to me that these evangelical women who have been victimized by sexual abuse have like most doubly Tripoli quadruply feel like they have no allies or support. 

So that’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the program. Happy to do it, Lindsey. Thanks. And thank you to all our faithful listeners. 

No pun intended. I’ve loved every second of being your point of inquiry host. I’ll see you over at the breach for your weekly digest of government corruption. New episodes every Tuesday. That’s a rewire dot news slash breach. 

Until then, keep inquiring point of inquiries is production at the Center for Inquiry. Become a member and support the advancement of science and reason by going to center for inquiry. Dot org slash membership. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.