Donald Trump is not a member of the Christian Right. He’s obviously on the Right, and I know he says he’s a Christian: in fact, he likes to tell crowds of fans that his own memoir is only his second favourite book, since first place must go – he declares with a pious gesture – to the Bible.
But when asked to name his favourite Bible verse during his first Presidential campaign in 2015, he came up blank. “The Bible means a lot to me,” he dithered, “but I don’t want to get into specifics.” He was similarly evasive when asked if he had ever paid for an abortion. Although the twice-divorced Trump describes himself as a non-denominational Christian (formerly a Presbyterian), he does not seem to belong to a church in Washington and he only occasionally attends church services. Most Americans do not regard him as Christian.
To date, Trump has depended on the support of white evangelical voters, who have mostly backed him. But this political relationship has always been highly transactional: Trump gave them the Supreme Court nominees necessary to overturn Roe v. Wade; they gave him their votes.
And that arrangement may well be collapsing. In September, Trump attacked his chief Republican rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for his state’s six-week abortion ban – a ban enabled only by the fall of Roe. “It’s a terrible thing and a terrible mistake” said Trump, to the fury of Pro-Life groups, some of whom are now refusing to endorse him.
Will he get away with this loss of support from the Christian Right? Incredibly, he might. That’s because Trump is representative of an important phenomenon in America, and indeed elsewhere around the world: the rise of a post-Christian Right who don’t much care about the issue of abortion.
Christianity has been declining for a long time in the Western world. When Matthew Arnold wrote of the “long withdrawing roar”of the “Sea of Faith”, he was responding to the first signs of a fall in British church attendance that began in the mid-nineteenth century and has never let up. This process of secularisation was not as early nor as sudden in the United States, but it has happened nonetheless.
The best predictor of religiosity among Americans is not voting intention, but age. Older Democrats are more religious than are young Republicans. The Bible Belt still exists as a political force, but its influence is waning as the most pious American generation ages and dies. The generation coming up are not nearly as religious as their grandparents, a fact that can be seen most clearly in attitudes towards abortion, which acts as a reliable proxy for attitudes towards Christianity per se.
The vehemence of the Christian opposition to abortion is unusual among world religions, and was highly subversive when Christianity emerged in the Roman Empire of the first century, a culture in which both infanticide and abortion were routinely practised. Early Christians set themselves against paganism by rescuing abandoned babies from rubbish heaps and raising them in the church. That concern for the plight of unwanted babies – including unborn babies – has persisted for two millennia.
To legalise abortion, therefore – particularly late-stage abortion – is to explicitly reject the Christian tradition. Which is exactly what young Americans seem to be doing: 74 per cent of 18-29 year olds support legalisation in most or all circumstances, compared with 54 per cent of those aged 65 and older. The “long withdrawing roar” is growing louder.
To be clear, most Americans – and indeed most Britons – still prefer a compromise: to permit abortion in the first trimester, and later only in exceptional cases. More extreme positions are held only by highly-politicised minorities on both the Right and Left. But while the influence of the former is in decline, the fervour of the latter is only growing stronger.
The overturning of Roe has harmed the Republicans’ electoral prospects. Not only because the pro-life vote is shrinking over time, but also because the introduction of restrictive new laws in states like Florida has served to energise a small but highly organised group of voters: pro-choice Leftists, mostly women, who care deeply about the issue of abortion, and are willing to put a lot of time and effort into defeating pro-life candidates.
The same political phenomenon can be seen elsewhere in the world. In Poland, for instance, the 2021 near-total ban on abortion proved to be highly unpopular with the public, galvanising the pro-choice lobby and contributing to the fall of the Law and Justice (PiS) government last month. Again, a generational gap in religiosity is at play: only 23 per cent of 18-24-year-old Poles describe themselves as practising Catholics, compared with 69 per cent in 1992.
Trump’s great talent is an ability to correctly intuit the public mood. If he is turning against the Pro-Life position, that suggests that his base may well be turning against it too. Trump was America’s first post-Christian Republican President. The way things are headed, he will not be the last.