Between Francis and Trump, the religious right is going to keep losing
Neither (President?!) Trump nor Pope Francis is a liberal, despite what they or anyone else might say. Trump might have a quasi-liberal past, but he’s mostly a bigot misogynist racist with all sorts of pasts at this point, of which some, I assume, are good people. Francis is also no liberal, at least not on the social (read: sexual) issues that have generally mattered in the U.S. culture wars.
Yet what’s striking about both Francis and Trump is how they’ve shifted attention away from the social issues that have traditionally been a key element of conservative politics. That move has been happening for a while, especially for the cultural right. Well before the Supreme Court supported the right to gay marriage, an increasing amount of theologically conservative Christians distinguished themselves from the preceding generations’ politics. These are folks of various religions who like Francis not because he’s a cultural liberal (he’s not!) but because he emphasizes economic and environmental justice rather than the sexual issues that have animated the American religious right. The change in focus makes Francis attractive to both religious and non-religious who think poverty and climate change are also “moral issues.”
It’s harder to explain Trump’s attraction. Cruz didn’t do great, but he did a lot better than people thought he would: clearly the culture wars aren’t over. There’s also pretty clear evidence that the more you go to church the less you like Trump, so those conservative Christians who support him tend to be “Christian-ish,” with their religion functioning as a badge of ethnic and cultural identity rather than as a marker of religious devotion. It’s an interesting connection to early modern Europeans’ separation of themselves from other races by their being “Christian,” and yet another indication that Trump’s win is a lot about the deep-seated racism still very much at play in American cultural life. There’s sexism there too, and all sorts of other forms of resentment motivating the kind of welfare hoarding Trump is pitching to disaffected whites. It’s noteworthy these folks are voting out of economic and racial resentment rather than the traditional concerns of social conservatism. (It’s of course the case that social conservatism, like everything else in United States politics, is racialized, though it’s striking how unsubtle, and even unnecessary, that link is for Trump.)
Both Francis and Trump ostensibly agree with social conservatives, but they’ve compelled many of them to change their emphases to issues that have nothing to do with their typical concerns. Of course, Francis fans are probably not the same people as Trump fans, and in some ways that’s the point: the culture wars just keep getting cut in different ways. Some warriors, like Rod Dreher, have suggested just giving up, retreating into like-minded communities until the Dark Ages are done. Others remain in for the long haul, but Trump’s win is even worse news for them than Obergefell. This isn’t a defeat at the hands of a too-powerful, out-of-touch bunch of judges. This is the voters who once composed “the moral majority.” After the shifts towards economic and environmental justice from Francis and his ilk, alongside the moves towards unapologetic ethnic nationalism from Trumpites, there’s not even a moral plurality left.
The culture war is still going strong. The religious right, however, is not.