Donald Trump has secured the Republican nomination for president. His dominance of the party is due in part to the support of “Religious Right” voters who backed the thrice-married formerly pro-abortion casino magnate. Why?
I know of two theories regarding religious voters and Donald Trump. And I have a third.
The first theory is that Donald Trump is popular among religious voters because other things have replaced religious belief as a motivating factor for how people vote, even for religious people. And the dwindling number of Republican voters who do still oppose Donald Trump out of religious conviction can expect the right to turn on them with a vengeance.
The second theory is that Donald Trump’s popularity among religious voters is confirmation of Ross Douthat's thesis that we have become "a nation of heretics," not in the classic Protestant vs. Catholic sense, but in the sense that much of what we call Christianity in America—whether Protestant or Catholic, liberal or conservative—has ceased to be Christianity in even a bare bones C. S. Lewis/Mere Christianity way. By this reading, the New Age-y or Prosperity Gospel ideologies in our churches have diminished our powers of discernment and softened us up for Donald Trump.
I am sympathetic to this view, but there are some important signs that contradict it. Douthat has a whole chapter against Glenn Beck, for instance, and Beck is actually the last man standing against Donald Trump in Conservative Big Media. And I am not aware of a single Catholic equivalent to, say, Trump supporter Jerry Falwell, Jr. Many Catholics do support Trump but I cannot name a single prominent Catholic leader who supported Trump prior to his becoming the presumptive nominee.
Finally, I present my theory: The Benedict Option gave us Donald Trump. I cannot say for sure if this is true. But based on my own experiences as a social conservative activist in the Northeast, I believe it is plausible.
By "Benedict Option" I don't necessarily mean the Benedict Option as defined by Rod Dreher, a definition that is much in dispute. I mean the Benedict Option as it has been understood and received by many in the Christian community.
And it is not just the Benedict Option. I mean "Seeker Friendly" churches. I mean a false but very popular view of Pope Francis that misreads him as saying that we should quit fighting abortion and the LGBT agenda. I mean anything that says—or is received as saying—that Christians should withdraw from public life.
My evidence for this is strictly anecdotal. But I think that this particular ideology has had a deep effect on many small-"o" orthodox Christians, including Catholics. This is especially the case here in the Northeast, where getting churches involved in fighting for our culture has always been an uphill battle.
Ten years ago, the churches of New England rose up against the legalization of same-sex marriage. In Connecticut, we gathered 100,000 signatures for traditional marriage and rallied 6,000 people at the state capitol on a freezing cold day. We defeated it every year at our legislature but our State Supreme Court, by a four to three vote, imposed it anyway.
Some of the same churches that defended traditional marriage a decade ago now seem to be in thrall to ideologies urging a Christian withdrawal from public life. This has had an effect on how they vote. Some view Trump as the strong man best positioned to make the government leave them alone to practice their faith. Many seem to have given up on political involvement altogether.
What You Get
Regardless of whatever the Benedict Option actually is, it and other things are heard as a call for disengagement from politics. Many small-“o” orthodox Christians are actually doing it. This is especially true here in the Northeast, where Trump scored his biggest margins of victory.
Perhaps this is what you get when orthodox Christians withdraw from public life. You get Donald Trump.