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Many white evangelicals stand by Trump because they are more white than evangelical

They have gone from being obsessed with the personal lives of politicians to, basically, not giving a damn.

What has happened to members of the “Moral Majority”? You remember them, right? The conservative evangelicals who helped deliver victories for “born again” Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W Bush and pushed for the impeachment of the philandering Democrat Bill Clinton? How come these “values voters” seem to have lost all their, ahem, values?

Consider the results of two surveys conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). In 2011, fewer than one in three white evangelical Protestants said an elected official could behave ethically in their public life, if they had committed moral transgressions in their private life.

Yet just five years later, in 2016, more than seven in ten white evangelical Protestants said a politician’s personal morality did not matter to them.

“No group has shifted their position [on this issue] more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants,” observed the PRRI. “Today fewer than half (49 per cent) of white evangelical Protestants say it is very important that a candidate have strong religious beliefs, while nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) expressed this view in 2011.”

US evangelicals have gone from being obsessed with the personal lives of politicians to, basically, not giving a damn. Why? Donald Trump. Evangelicals lined up behind the former reality TV star in their tens of millions. These were not reluctant supporters, opting for the lesser of two evils. They were hardcore fans who cheered at campaign rallies and whose pastors offered full-throated endorsements of Trump.

In January 2016, prominent evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr compared Trump to Christ, claiming the billionaire property tycoon lived “a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught”. “You inspire us all,” televangelist Pat Robertson told Trump in February 2016. Franklin Graham, son of renowned evangelist Billy Graham, even suggested that “it was the hand of God” that helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

We can agree to disagree on whether it was the hand of God – or even the hand of Vladimir Putin – that put Trump in the White House but what is beyond doubt is that evangelicals played a major role in his unexpected victory. Eight in ten white evangelical Protestants voted for Trump in 2016. It was a truly remarkable feat: according to a study by Pew, “Trump’s 65-percentage-point margin of victory among voters in this group… matched or exceeded the victory margins of George W Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.”

To call Trump, as a recent Reuters report did, “an unlikely torchbearer for conservative Christians” is an understatement. How is it not anything other than brazen hypocrisy for evangelicals to spend decades demanding politicians live chaste and virtuous lives but then vote en masse for a thrice-married, twice-divorced adulterer and former casino owner who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault?

How can evangelicals justify accusing Barack Obama, a practising Christian who sang hymns in church, of being a secret Muslim while lavishing praise on his successor, who once admitted to never having asked God for forgiveness for anything?

Remember: Trump once claimed the Bible was his favourite book – but couldn’t name any verses from it. He even referred to the Holy Communion as a time “when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker.” So why, then, did evangelicals pull the lever for Trump and why, crucially, do they continue to back him today?

First, don’t discount their opportunism. Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, Franklin Graham was refreshingly blunt: “It’s not about her emails. It’s not about his bad language. It’s about the Supreme Court… and who do you trust to appoint judges that are going to be in favour of Christian liberty?” Trump has not only appointed Neil Gorsuch, an ultra-conservative, pro-life Episcopalian judge, to the Supreme Court but also signed an executive order reinstating the so-called Mexico City Policy, which bars federal funds from going to international NGOs that perform or “promote” abortions. The former pro-choice donor to the Democratic Party is now giving conservative evangelicals exactly what they want.

Second, don’t discount their partisanship. The vast majority of evangelicals have long identified as Republicans and the vast majority of Republicans voted for Trump on party lines. Polarisation in the United States is at an all-time high and party affiliation was one of the best predictors of support for Trump in 2016.

Third, don’t discount the race factor. Only 35 per cent of non-white evangelicals voted for Trump compared to 59 per cent of non-white evangelicals who voted for Clinton. Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical pastor and former spiritual adviser to Barack Obama, told me earlier this year that “black evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals… did not vote for Donald Trump. White evangelicals did… because they were more white than evangelical.”

Despite all this, it would be both unfair to tar all evangelicals with the orange brush of Trumpism. Some, such as Russell Moore, one of America’s most influential evangelicals and a leading figure within the Southern Baptist Convention, have been #NeverTrump from the very beginning.

In a speech ahead of the election, Moore slammed his fellow evangelical leaders who he said had elevated politics above faith and had “waved away some of the most repugnant aspects of immorality” to back their preferred presidential candidate.

“The Religious Right,” Moore warned, “turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.