In mid May, the Trump administration announced a new policy that would prevent federal family-planning funds from going to Planned Parenthood. (The regulation forbids funding for programs that also perform abortions.) It was only the latest in a series of policies with great appeal to social and religious conservatives.
Only days before, the administration had broken ground on a new embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. Trump has also issued orders to block foreign-aid money from supporting organizations that perform abortions, to reduce the chance that federal policies will infringe religious liberty, and to exclude transgender individuals from military service.
Even more than these policies, the president’s judicial appointments have delighted social conservatives. The new judges are expected to make the legal landscape more favorable for religious-conservative causes such as the protection of religious liberty and unborn life. Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court, is for example considered likely to rule that a baker has a First Amendment right not to be required to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.
The foreign-aid policy has been put in place by every Republican administration since Ronald Reagan’s. But George W. Bush’s administration did not attempt to remove domestic funding from Planned Parenthood and was part of a long line of administrations from both parties that reneged on promises to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Social conservatives have never had more power and influence within the Republican party. That’s true at nearly every level of the party. A higher and higher proportion of Republicans in the Senate, the House, and governor’s mansions are opponents of abortion than ever before. No Republican who supports legal abortion has won any state’s presidential primary since 1996.
Trump’s presidential campaign confirmed the strength of social conservatism among Republicans. He had a history of liberal positions on many issues, and during the campaign he was willing to depart from the party’s previous orthodoxies on issues such as trade and entitlements. His core supporters during the primaries did not tend to be religious conservatives. Yet Trump came out against abortion, same-sex marriage, and federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and for conservative judges. Those weren’t among the issues on which he thought he could buck the party line.
While social conservatism is at an apex among Republicans, outside the party it is a different story. Same-sex marriage continues to grow more popular. As recently as 2010, there were more opponents than supporters. The latest Gallup poll, from 2017, had a nearly two-to-one majority in favor of it. The legalization of marijuana has followed a similar trajectory.
Some measures of public opinion on abortion showed a movement against abortion from roughly 1995 through 2010. But that trend seems to have reversed more recently. The Knights of Columbus have commissioned polls for several years from the Marist Institute on questions related to abortion. In 2012, 63 percent of those polled told Marist they considered abortion “morally wrong” while 35 percent said it was “morally acceptable.” By this January, the margin had nearly halved (yielding a 56–41 percent majority for “morally wrong”).
Surveys on religious affiliation paint a grimmer picture for religious conservatives. The number of Americans who consider themselves Christian is falling. Large-sample polling for ABC News and the Washington Post found that 72 percent of Americans are Christians, down from 83 percent in 2003. White Evangelical Christians, the core of the religious-conservative movement and a mainstay of the Republican party, are in particularly sharp decline: They fell from 21 to 13 percent of the population over the same time period. People with no religious affiliation, meanwhile, rose from 12 to 21 percent. Other research suggests that what is driving these trends is that people with weak religious affiliations are drifting into avowed unbelief. The number of people who report that they attend church weekly and pray regularly is holding steady.
How are social conservatives managing to drive Republican policymaking while shrinking as a social force? The trend toward political polarization, and President Trump’s own unpopularity relative to most of his predecessors, has helped them. Trump has, perhaps shrewdly, tended nearly exclusively to his political base. If George W. Bush had done something to bring his approval rating to 43 percent during his first term, his aides would have considered it a political crisis. In the Trump White House, 43 percent means the president is having a good week. How socially conservative policies will play with middle-of-the-road voters is thus less of a constraint for Trump than it was for previous Republican presidents.
Such policies also have a lower political downside for Trump than for his predecessors. Liberals have generally reacted to those policies by portraying Republicans as theocratic zealots. Trump is invulnerable to that line of attack, since nobody thinks he genuinely cares about social conservatism. For that reason, and because of the frenetic pace of political news these days, Trump’s move against Planned Parenthood will likely be a smaller controversy than it would have been had, say, President Mike Pence made it.
The social Right’s strength inside and weakness outside the party may also be linked. Social conservatives’ sense that they are more and more becoming an embattled and shrinking minority has bound them more tightly to the Republican party and to Trump. Now self-defense is more of an imperative than trying to change the culture. Social conservatives see that Democrats are prepared to narrow the religious liberty of social conservatives, with the support of much of the public, and many of them therefore conclude that they have to stand with Trump, whatever their reservations about him, to protect themselves.
Decades of alliance with the Republican party have habituated social conservatives to defending its politicians from criticism, and to dismissing the people who offer most of that criticism. The feeling of being besieged and in decline may also make some social conservatives, especially older ones, more inclined to defensiveness. The intense support that social conservatives, and especially white Evangelicals, are giving Trump and Republicans has heightened their importance within the Republican coalition.
Thus the waning of social conservatism in the country may have contributed to its waxing inside the GOP. At the same time, the alliance between social conservatives and Republicans may have contributed to the public’s turn away from the former. Over the years, several studies have suggested that one reason many people have quit thinking of themselves as Christians is that they dislike the religious Right and associate Christianity with it.
Their reasons for disliking it doubtless vary. Many of them passionately believe that abortion should be legal and same-sex marriage legally recognized. Others may think that religious conservatives are in some more general sense narrow-minded, self-righteous, and intolerant, or that they are hypocrites who overlook the moral teachings of Christianity when they are politically inconvenient; or think it’s unseemly for one party to appear to claim religion as its own; or just dislike the dominant style of religious conservatism. Whatever the process of thought and emotion, many millions of Americans appear to have decided that Christianity means being like the Falwells, and they want no part of it.
The Trump presidency could reinforce the sentiments that have driven many Americans away from social conservatism and from Christianity. Many people wonder whether opposition to abortion is just a cover for disrespecting women, or whether Christian conservatives have one set of moral standards for their powerful allies and another for everyone else, or whether racial bigotry repels them as it should. Elements of Trump’s biography and platform will tend to confirm the skeptics’ worst suspicions — especially when the main message they hear from prominent social conservatives with respect to him is not “We are pleased with many of the things he has done even though we have serious concerns about him” or “We prefer him to Hillary Clinton” but “We embrace Trump as a great president, and we’ll defend him whenever he is criticized.”
Supporting Trump over Clinton was a natural and defensible choice for social conservatives. He has proven a more reliable ally in office than many of them expected. They may yet pay a high price for that support, and their posture toward him is raising it higher.