Politics & Policy

For Traditionalists, a Dark Night of the Soul

(Itsmejust/Dreamstime)
With Trump indifferent if not hostile, religious conservatives need to make their own case to the world.

It’s always been hard to say what Donald Trump thinks about Jesus. His stance on religious conservatives is, unfortunately, much clearer. He doesn’t care about us. He has no interest in religious freedom or in any of our other “fake culture wars.”

When there’s a choice to be made between the pious and the progressive, Trump reflexively looks left. All the overtones of his convention reinforced what we already basically knew: He isn’t planning to stick up for religious conservatives. He’ll accept our votes, but in the cultural arena, we’re on our own.

We need to digest this hard truth right now. If a President Trump were to approve every invasive request the LGBT community laid at his door (veto power over sermons? sanctions for pastors who refuse to marry same-sex couples?), we wouldn’t even be able to complain that he had betrayed us. He’s made no pretense of being on our side.

Even as we try to climb out of this frying pan, we should note that the fire is crackling right beneath us. As Trump’s coronation ensued, another brand of Republican strategists were already exploring the contours of their own post-Trump dream party. Socially liberal fiscal conservatives are hoping that the wrenching events of 2016 might offer a silver lining: an opportunity to offload some of their least-favored fellow travelers. Who do you suppose is on that list?

Religious traditionalists don’t deserve to be blamed for Trump. His support came primarily from the lukewarm and the “nones,” not from the truly devout, who were always deeply suspicious if not openly hostile. Trump is the candidate of the disaffected and desperate. Involvement in a church tends to diminish those feelings, and indeed, it makes far more sense to hypothesize that the collapse of religious mores helped lay the foundation for Trumpism. As G. K. Chesterton once observed, men who choose not to believe in God are susceptible to believing in anything. America’s elites eagerly worked to undermine traditional religion, which has generally been one of the most effective and least hateful sources of order, meaning, and community. Now we’re all reaping the bitter harvest.

These fine distinctions, however, will probably be of little interest to urbane nonbelievers. Religion and Trumpism are connected somehow, and religion is distasteful. Let’s blame the Jesus freaks for this disaster and show them the door.

Traditionalists are in a tight spot. The progressive Left loathes us. Many of our erstwhile allies seem poised to abandon us. We need to find some friends.

When I discuss the plight of traditionalists with fellow conservatives, two responses are common. One is unduly gloomy, and the other unduly sanguine. Optimists scoff at the notion that traditionalists could really be booted from the Republican tent, putting forward the argument that “they can’t win without us!” Pessimists are convinced that the battle is already lost, and that the main goal now must be to buy time while we build our bunkers as strong as we can. Both of these attitudes are misguided.

It really is possible for traditionalists to be left out in the cold. True, a pure Wall Street Journal party would have to compromise with someone if it hoped to win any elections. But there are less-troublesome someones, and as religious believers become more socially marginalized, elite non-believers will become ever more eager to avoid being seen with us. Meanwhile, one painful lesson of the Trump fiasco is that the semi-committed middle tends to be a weathervane. We can’t count on them to stick with us, and in a major political realignment, traditionalists would be in real danger of being the kid who doesn’t get picked for either team.

At the same time, our hand is stronger than pessimists seem to suppose. Religious traditionalists may be a minority, but we aren’t a tiny minority. Even without the Weathervane Middle, we still represent a sizable group of voters. And we can offer much more than just numbers. We have healthy subcultures, grounded in a rich and nuanced worldview. We have strong family structures, and our churches represent a vast network of effective grassroots organizations. Philosophically, we have deep roots in ancient wisdom and are equipped to recommend real alternatives to the soul-crushing, narcissistic path of expressive individualism. Our communities stand as visible evidence that such alternatives can still be realized today.

The wildly disproportionate hatred many progressives show towards traditionalists probably reflects a deep and understandable insecurity.

We should remember when times seem dark that the progressive Left has numerous problems of its own. Its promises increasingly ring false as the fruits of its cultural victories become ever more pungent. It maintains a façade of momentum mostly through activism, but its activists are unstable and hard to tether. Its political strongholds are mostly places you wouldn’t want to live.

The wildly disproportionate hatred many progressives show towards traditionalists probably reflects a deep and understandable insecurity. Against the backdrop of their own failures, the continued vitality of traditional Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and Jews is both maddening and alarming to liberals. These ancient faiths have weathered countless storms and continue to find expression in thriving cultures and communities. Progressivism has nothing to compare with that pedigree.

In short, it’s right to worry but wrong to despair. Religious traditionalists still hold many cards, but we need to play them carefully. That begins by distancing ourselves from the toxin of Trumpism while energetically supporting solid candidates on the state and local levels. Trump may not care about religious freedom, but many Republicans still do. It’s become a commonplace to suggest that the GOP is effectively lost to religious conservatives, and that may ultimately turn out to be true. Let’s not be fatalists, though. We still have the chance to win some important battles down-ticket.

Instead of retreating to our bunkers (as some are inclined to do), we need to be actively engaged, both in our communities and in politics. Trumpism is too emotion-heavy and content-light to endure, which means that a period of rebuilding lies ahead. Traditionalists need to be involved in that rebuilding. We should continue to stand up for life and for marriage, but we should also make clear that traditionalists are not exclusively interested in a smallish handful of social causes. We minister to the poor. We reach out to the prisoner. We work to improve education, to fight addiction, and to give hope to the desperate. For any social problem one might name, there are religious conservatives on the ground somewhere, trying to help. We need to broadcast these efforts and add our insights to public discussion.

To secure our future, traditionalists must convince our compatriots that we are part of the solution, not part of the problem. We have our work cut out for us.

— Rachel Lu is a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.

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