In January, This American Life aired an episode called “I thought I knew you.”
The part that concerns me is a segment involving conservative Christian radio host Tony Beam. Beam hosts an influential show in South Carolina. His endorsements are meaningful and in 2008, he favored Mike Huckabee, in 2012, Rick Santorum.
But this year, he was very excited. He’d really found his candidate. Ted Cruz not only had what Beam believed to be the right Christian conservative agenda, but also the political strategy to win. He quickly and enthusiastically endorsed Cruz.
Then Trump happened.
At first, Beam, like most of the Party, and most analysts, didn’t take Trump seriously. He was an amateur after all, a reality TV star who had never run for office. What’s more, he was a buffoon who didn’t take seriously either the beliefs of the party or traditional campaign strategies.
What happened surprised Beam and sent him into a soul-searching session, along with many debates with his listeners. They flocked to Trump and nothing he could say about Trump’s background, demeanor, or policy positions seemed to matter.
One thing that turned Beam off of Trump was an interview he gave where he was asked whether he’d ever asked God for forgiveness for his sins. The now presumptive Republican nominee claimed he didn’t need to as he didn’t make mistakes. This, of course, didn’t sound like any kind of Christian Beam recognized.
Beam was aghast during the first Republican debate, when Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked Trump about his interactions with women. Beam thought the question was a reasonable one, as it goes to how a potential national leader treats other humans. He expected Trump’s dismissive response to rightfully earn him the scorn of Republicans across the country.
It turned out quite the opposite. The interaction got the candidate sixteen seconds of applause and much of the party turned on Kelly, claiming her question to be a hit job. Kelly, for her part, is a typical Fox host, a party loyalist, conservative as they come.
The problem, as I’m sure Beam is still struggling with, isn’t that he didn’t understand Trump. He was, and had long been, misreading his audience.
It would be easy to oversimplify, but there are multiple strains within the Christian right. On the one hand, some of its members do hold deep religious convictions that lead them to desire a heavy right-wing Christian presence in government. There are problems with this perspective as it is reliant on a strictly literal interpretation of biblical text, yet one that is devoid of the historical context. This leads to a strange skew in their political impulses on its own.
Yet there is another strain of the movement, one far deeper, and one that is larger in influence than ministers like Beam realized. It is a mean-spirited element, one focused on nativism, racism, and misogyny. Those influenced by this strain of conservatism simply attach themselves to religion as an excuse for the biases they already hold.
Kelly’s question about Trump’s treatment of women was mild by normal standards. His conduct over the years has been abominable toward them. From telling one person “You have to treat ’em like shit” to publicly fantasizing about dating his daughter, his behavior has ranged from creepy to reprehensible.
Yet, there is an element of the party that loves it. They revel in the misogyny, the buffoonery, the insult comic aspect of the Trump campaign. The more the media shine a light on this aspect of his persona, the more they flock to him, certain that “the establishment”, however that is defined, is just out to get their guy.
This shouldn’t be surprising for those who know their history, but most of us don’t. The modern mythology is that the religious right came to the fore as a response to the legalization of abortion in the 1970s, but that excuse was tacked on later. The movement really got going in support of the racist policies of Bob Jones University, which barred black applicants until forced by the courts to admit them. They continued to ban student interracial relationships long afterward, yet a stopover at the school remained a mandatory one for conservative politicians for years after.
National Republicans understand they’re in a quandary. As Jonathan Chait recently wrote for NY Magazine, for leaders like Paul Ryan, there may be nothing “inherently racist” about their policy agenda, but they need the support of a racist constituency to enact it.
It’s certainly the case that many Christian conservatives abhor this type of behavior and come to their beliefs from a genuine place. But there is a large element of the movement that is motivated by something much darker and it’s time they came to terms with it and addressed it head on.
*A version of this piece appeared in the Porterville Recorder on July 20th, 2016.
Michael Carley is a writer (among other things) living in central California with his wife and son. His first novel, Know My Name, was published in July 2016. He currently writes a weekly column for the Porterville Recorder, a small local newspaper. He can be contacted at [email protected]”
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