Sarah Posner: Trump, Carson, and the Religious Right in 2016

October 27, 2015

This week Josh Zepps chats about the 2016 Republican presidential primaries with journalist Sarah Posner, a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and the author of Gods Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. She is an expert in the political machinations of the religious right in the United States.

The current GOP field has Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson and the newly Bible-loving Donald Trump battling for the top spot in polls, despite their theological differences with the Evangelical base of the party. Posner explores what’s behind the appeal of these two unlikely front-runners, compares their very different demeanors, and weighs on such topics as the influence of Pope Francis and the prospects for atheist political candidates.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, October 27, 2015. 

On Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Sarah Posner is an investigative journalist, author and expert on the intersection of religion and politics. She’s a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and she’s written for The Atlantic, CNN, Politico, The Washington Post, The Nation Salon, many other outlets. Her book is God’s Profits, Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters. And I thought she’d be well worth hearing from in light of the circus that is the Republican presidential primary these days. Sarah, thanks for being on point of inquiry. What do you make to begin with of the of the Donald Trump phenomenon in light of how important evangelical Christianity has been in Republican primaries in the past? Are you perplexed by the success of Donald Trump? 

Yes, I have found it very surprising. Throughout the campaign, since he started to rise in the polls over the summer, because Trump is clearly not a religious person. He hasn’t. He’s tried to pretend that he’s a religious person. You know, at the Values Voter Summit, he waved a Bible around. He claimed that the Bible was his favorite book. But he really exhibits no other evidence of actually knowing what’s inside the Bible. So this is something that’s important to evangelicals. 

But is it I mean, if it’s important to evangelicals, then why are they being so gullible about it when they ask when interview is ask Donald Trump about. About the Bible is it’s terrific. It’s the most fantastic book that was ever written. I’m not going to talk about what bits I like. Are they falling for that or are they just giving him a pass on it because they don’t actually care? 

I think. Well, I think there are a couple of things that are going on. I think that they are giving him a pass because he is the type of candidate that they would otherwise look for. He says it like it is. He’s a Washington, D.C. outsider. All of those sort of hackneyed things that you’ve heard about Trump, the evangelicals who like him, like those things about him. Now, let me be clear, not all evangelicals like him. I think that was evident from the straw poll at the Values Voter Summit, where he did poorly. And I think it’s also evident in new polls that are coming out of Iowa, where a huge part of the Iowa caucus goers, Republican caucus goers, are white evangelicals. He has really his support there has really declined. And the person who has picked up his support. How is Ben Carson? 

And Ben Carson is somebody who has been known for decades to evangelicals. Evangelicals have been reading his books, particularly his book Gifted Hands, which is basically a memoir which is filled with professions of his faith and how his faith helped him get through difficult times in his life and to come out of poverty in the inner city and succeed and become a famous neurosurgeon. Evangelicals are well familiar with this book. It was published by an evangelical press. A lot of evangelicals have read it. It’s been in Christian bookstores for, you know, since the 1990s when it first came out. And so even though Ben Carson doesn’t actually share their denominational faith, he’s a Seventh Day Adventist. He long has spoken their language in that way in the sense that the way he talks about their faith is familiar about his faith, is familiar to them. And this sort of thing that they like. So I think that Trump is getting nervous about that, because what you’re seeing now is Trump is going after Carson and actually going after him for his faith, for his Seventh Day Adventist faith. And so we’ll see if. Yeah, I don’t think that that’s going to turn things around for Trump. I think that the decline that he’s seeing in Iowa might start to migrate elsewhere. 

Let’s talk about about Carson for a second, because I’m I’m less interested in the in the narrow specifics of the short term horse race and more interested in a handlin what this all tells us about. What about religiosity in America and the fact that Carson is an acclaimed neuroscientist and is held up as being this sort of beacon of reason among evangelicals and yet can simultaneously hold beliefs like the idea that the Earth is only the universe is only 6000 years old. And that evolution is untrue. What do you make of that kind of cognitive dissonance, or is it just that he’s. You don’t have to be a good, good scientific thinker in order to be a neurosurgeon. 

I think that you’re probably right about that. I mean, I think that he probably understood the science that he needed to understand to become a great neurosurgeon. And then politics inflected his views of so many other things. So when you look at his belief system about, say, evolution or about gun control or about almost anything about, you know, Obamacare, about abortion, you can find a. Political link for that in the ideology of the the far right in the United States. 

So it’s almost like Ben Carson is comput was compartmentalized. He had his neurosurgeon practice and apparently he would go to work and he was very good at it. And then apparently in his spare time as a neurosurgeon, he read a lot of far right literature, maybe watch Fox News or listen to a lot of talk radio. Not sure exactly where he got all of this stuff. But if you’re familiar with the shall we call it the cannon of the American far right. You know, everything he says will be familiar to you. It’s not like he made up this comment that he made about Naziism and gun control. The comparison of abortion to slavery or to the Holocaust, which he has done, is also very common in American conservatism. So, yeah, it’s I don’t think that he sees it as a disconnect between scientific inquiry and. 

Well, I don’t think he sees that as a disconnect from his ability to be a scientist. 

Right. Well, although he’s not a scientist. Right. 

I mean, he is a doctor. He. Yeah. Yeah. Like I’m a surgeon. Right. And he’s a surgeon, too. 

So I think that, you know, to be to be a neurosurgeon, you really I mean, it’s a very it’s a very highly specific medical specialization. It’s not like you have to be an expert on evolution to become a neuroscientist. 

Well, this a neurosurgeon is part of the problem, which I think gets to an interesting question about the way that we train specialists in the medical field. I hadn’t really expected to go here. But why not? Why not? I was talking to to Richard Dawkins just to namedrop at Edison for the four inquiry event in Washington, D.C. last week, and was asking him about. About Ben Carson. And he was saying I took from him. I want to put words in his mouth. 

But, you know, in order to be a good neurosurgeon, all you really technically need is to be sort of a really good plumber of the human body. You don’t really need to actually have a grasp of science in order to be able to pull off a complicated operation where you’re linking particular neurons and cutting bits out of somebody’s head. But Dawkins was saying we really should rethink the way that we teach medicine because it’s very important for doctors to have an understanding of evolutionary biology so that they understand the underpinnings of what it is that they’re actually doing. And then just tinkering with the plumbing of an overall system they don’t understand. 

Well, actually, that’s ancient. That’s an interesting thought. I mean, obviously, evolutionary biology plays a role in how our brain works. Right. But I would disagree that that’s all that neurosurgeons do. I mean, I think that neurosurgeons also have to deal with their patients and their patients families and literally matters of life and death and a lot of end of life issues. So I don’t think that neurosurgeons are mere plumbers. I do think that there’s a lot more that goes into being a neurosurgeon than the actual surgery itself. And I would find it hard to believe that he would have gotten to the place that he was. 

As you know, at Johns Hopkins, if he hadn’t also been good at those other things. 

Now, that said, I think that one of the things that a lot of campaign trail reporters are finding when they talk to Carson supporters is that these supporters really like Carson’s calm demeanor. 

Carson’s calm demeanor masks often, I think some of the kind of wacky things he says because he’s saying something totally wacky, like, you know, linking gun control with Naziism. But he’s saying it in this kind of deadpan voice, almost. 

But I think that, like, what we’re seeing there is like he’s bringing a little bit of this very calm bedside manner to the campaign trail. But it’s a weird disconnect with the things that he’s actually saying. But I do. 

I can sort of see how this might have been part of his success as a doctor, his ability to deliver scary information about, you know, what’s going on with your loved one or something like that in this very sort of calm voice, which diminishes how scared you might feel by the information that he’s telling you. 

That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. But you’re right that he has such a great bedside manner, even when he’s not talking about those sorts of things. And I should just clarify that the the plumber analogy was mine and mine alone as an entree, as an entry point into the Dawkins conversation. I don’t know what to come across with the idea that Dawkins was saying that neuroscientists are plumbers. That condescension was. Be mine. 

But it’s interesting because I saw cousin on one of the Sunday news shows this weekend and he was saying, as you say, in that very calm, measured way, that in terms of abortion, if someone could come to him with a good reason why they should kill a child, he would be very happy to hear it. And Chuck Todd said, well, what about the life of the mother? And he said that is so vanishingly rare that it’s not even worth worrying about. And Chuck Todd said, what about incest? And he said, I don’t think that’s a good reason to kill a child. And if Trump had said it, it would have been said in such a bombastic way that it would have alienated everybody except the most reactionary arch conservatives. And the way he said it was so sort of welcoming, it was almost like. 

Sure, why not not kill a child? I wonder whether that’s sort of part of his appeal in the heartland. 

Well, it’s almost as if what’s happening here is Republicans had their summer of Trump’s bombast and now they are ready to dial it back. And instead of dialing it back to, say, Marco Rubio, they decided to dial it back to Ben Carson. But like I said, the weird thing I find about the way Carson delivers. 

You know, he has that sort of very calm, almost sleepy delivery, but he uses that when he’s saying these really fringy things. And so it’s almost I don’t know, like I just I it’s in a way, I think that his audience, part of his audience is used to hearing those things so they don’t need to hear it in a bombast delivered in a bombastic way. 

And maybe they’re feeling like, oh, maybe Trump is a little bit too brash and maybe we want somebody else representing our interests who’s not so brash. And here’s Ben Carson then. Yeah, his his delivery is a lot better than Trump’s. I don’t know. It’s very interesting, though. 

Yeah. I find it fascinating that where you mentioned that he’s a Seventh Day Adventist and I hadn’t actually realized until I read your piece on religion dispatches that he was. What does that mean in the context of Christianity? Is he seen as one of us? 

Well, he is. I mean, to me, you know, obviously it’s a Christian religion. 

And Seventh Day Adventist arose around the same period of time that Mormonism did in the mid 19th century in the United States. It’s an American religion, just like the Mormon faith is an American religion born in the United States. They have some beliefs that differ from mainline Protestantism and from evangelical isms. So I think that probably there are Protestants and evangelicals who would point out those differences, even if, you know, even if they weren’t going to criticize the Seventh Day Adventists, some from a sort of bigoted standpoint. 

But, you know, Seventh Day Adventists have had have experienced discrimination in the United States, just like Mormons have, because it was a new faith that grew out of the second Great Awakening. But on the other hand, it’s something that was probably interesting to center for inquiry listeners. It’s Seventh Day Adventists have a strong belief in religious freedom and the separation of church and state. And it’s Seventh Day Adventists who have played a very key role in some of the landmark Supreme Court decision on religious freedom. So the case, Sherbert versus Burner, the plaintiff in that case, Surber, was a Seventh Day Adventist Seventh Day Adventists. Their Sabbath, they Saturday, not Sunday. And that lawsuit was about whether the employer could make her work on Saturday. And she won that case. And that’s a huge case in the religious freedom jurisprudence. So Seventh Day Adventists have played at played a big role in that in that world in the United States. 

What do you make just getting back to Trump of the likelihood of Trump being able to sustain his popularity among evangelical voters, and if that then if we do see the sort of supposedly inevitable, according to political pundits, trump collapse, to what extent will that be attributable to evangelical voters feeling like he’s not one of them? 

I think it depends on the state. I think that if he loses Iowa, it will be because evangelicals of the time there’s such a big part of the Republican caucus growing constituency in New Hampshire. 

Evangelicals are not a big part of the electorate that the Republican electorate there. South Carolina is a different story, but it’s very different from Iowa. I mean, in the past several election cycles, the South Carolina evangelical vote has split among the candidates. I don’t know, like if if Trump loses South Carolina, how much that tells us. I mean, remember that the winners of the early primary states often do not become the nominee. You know, in twenty twelve, Santorum won Iowa and Newt Gingrich won South Carolina. So they still have a long way to go after those initial primary states. And then there’s a bunch of states where the evangelical vote does not matter as much. So I don’t know that we’d be able to pin Trump decline exclusively on him losing favor with evangelical voters. 

And one thing that’s interesting about Trump as a phenomenon and about the Tea Party and also I guess about New Hampshire as they as the first primary state, is this conflict between the religious base of the Republican Party and I guess the newly ascendant Tea Party base that although it nods a lot to Christianity, is actually more of sort of a reactionary libertarian movement, which resonates well in states like New Hampshire, live free or die and not necessarily so well in the in the deeply evangelical parts of the South. Can you sort of unpack that for us? Because even as I say that, I realize that there are bastions of the Tea Party in the racist religious parts of the South, but that’s not what the Tea Party Republicans actually tend to be pushing for the most. 

Well, there is a lot of crossover between people who identify with the Tea Party and people who identify as evangelical. You will find a lot of people who with a foot in both of those camps. And there is actually depending, you know, like the Tea Party is kind of a sprawling movement from the standpoint that it does draw people from the more libertarian strand of conservatism. But it’s definitely also draws people from the religious right. And I think that people underestimate the extent to which the religious right is a movement that is opposed to government and opposed to government doing things. 

I think people tend to think of the religious right as this movement that opposes same sex marriage and abortion and have devoted most of their resources to opposing those those two things. But it’s also very much rooted in the idea that the government plays too big a role in our life, which I know seems contradictory because they want the government to play a role in banning abortion and same sex marriage. 

But on other matters, they think that the government is too big plays too big a role, should be smaller, should have very limited, and should have a very limited role in regulating business and even in regulating, say, you know, levying taxes and so forth. I mean, this is why the whole IRS, quote unquote, scandal resonated not only with the Tea Party, but also with the religious right. 

I wonder how much the how much this is going to shape for the 2016 election at all. Religious considerations. And actually, let’s take this in a slightly different direction, because I think the more interesting preface to that is the point that you raised earlier about about the religious objections to same sex marriage. 

There’s a religious freedom movement, which is a way of, I guess, cloaking opposition to same sex marriage among in the in the basis of principle, having a deeply held religious belief. It usually tends to be phrased as. Which means that, you know, the bakers shouldn’t have to sell a wedding cake to a gay wedding and the florist shouldn’t have to supply flowers and so on. What do you make of that push to frame what many regard as being sort of a discomfort with gay rights under the rubric of a principled stand for religious freedom? 

Well, I think that conservatives have taken the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was something that was intended to protect religious minorities from, you know, like the situation with the Seventh Day Adventists. 

I mean, that’s the sort of thing that that report was intended to fix after the Supreme Court held that, you know, in the Smith vs. Employment Commission case, it was not envisioned as a way for people to raise religious objections to other people’s civil rights. Right. I mean, this was not the the peyote smoking case had to do with the person smoking the peyote. It did not impact the third party. In the case of conservative Christians objecting to participating in in any way to with same sex wedding ceremonies, whether it’s issuing a license or, you know, baking a cake or what have you or taking photographs, you know, reefer was not intended to go in that direction. And it’s very troubling because obviously the Hobby Lobby case took referrer in a direction where it didn’t matter whether what the impact on the third party was, meaning that it didn’t matter if the employer had the sincerely held religious belief about the contraception. It didn’t matter what the negative impact would be on the women seeking the insurance coverage and not being able to get her contraception. 

So, you know, it’s been a combination of litigating this in the court of public opinion and also litigating it in the courts and achieving these victories on the river front. And I think that that’s probably not that I don’t know if the courts are going to go as far in the LGBT rights and in the same sex marriage arena. But that’s kind of how we got there. 

There are a couple of interesting movements in religion which I think are worth paying attention to, which I’d love to get your thoughts on. One is the ascent of Pope Francis as the the world’s head Catholic and his constant emphasis on the teachings of Jesus and the gist of the Bible, I suppose you might say, as opposed to the the text of of of rules and of judgment. 

And then the other is the possibility of evangelical Americans becoming more aligned with the environmental movement and being won over about on climate change. This is something that’s sort of happening at the margins with a sense of custodianship for the planet, might make them unlikely allies with progressives and carve them off from the Coke Brothers Tea Party wing of of of the religious right. Do you have any thoughts about those two movement movements and religiosity and conservative America? 

Well, I think that Pope Francis is a figure where everyone sees what they want to see in him. So but, you know, in reality, Pope Francis is just being a Catholic. 

So he’s being a Catholic in opposing LGBT rights and opposing abortion. But he’s also being a Catholic and giving a hug to his gay friend. And he’s also being a Catholic in expressing his support for stewardship of the environment. 

Right. But I mean, Sarah, the reason the reason why progressives are so interested in him is because we’ve only previously seen one side of Catholicism. Right, from pontiffs. I mean, it’s traditionally been the finger wagging judgment about gays without the hugging of the gay friend, right? 

Well, I mean, that that has really just been since John Paul the second you know, there really haven’t been very many. 

So John Paul Issaka and Benedict took the church in this conservative direction and this focus on the sexuality issues when a lot of people see Francis as turning back to prior iteration of Catholicism, where those things were not the preeminent issues. 

But they also went preeminent social cultural issues. Right. I mean, there was no gay movement prior to John Paul’s. 

Right. But they. 

Well, you know, it was very nascent, but it definitely wasn’t really an issue in the church. But, you know, it had been an issue for the American religious right. You know, in the 70s. 

So, you know, in any case, to get to your other question, I do think that that’s the evangelical climate. Caring for the Earth and caring for the creation care, I think is what they call it. And being interested in in halting climate change and addressing climate change, I think that’s a minority among evangelicals. And I think that you will find a minority of evangelicals on issues like supporting same sex marriage. Maybe a handful of them supporting gun control, maybe a handful of them supporting action on climate change. Evangelicals, white evangelicals are one of the most homogenous religious groups in the United States. So, yes, you can. Peel away some at the margins for some of these more progressive issues. But they’re definitely a minority. Does that mean that they’re not a worthy partner with other progressive groups on these issues? Of course, you know. Of course they are. But I wouldn’t expect that to trigger any major changes in evangelicalism writ large. 

Can I glean from your comments about about the current pope that you think that the progressive fawning over him is a little bit overblown and that we because I mean, I often also say that, yeah, he’s great within the context of a batshit crazy religion that’s deeply conservative. He’s as good as you’re can get. He’s better than, you know, one of his right hand man, Cardinal George Pell, who is deeply, deeply, deeply homophobic and has no understanding of science and is totally misogynistic. But still, if you are a Brooklyn hipster and you meet someone who believes what the pope believes at a party, you’re probably not going to regard him as being enlightened. 

Well, I think I think that there’s a tendency among progressives to enjoy and revel in a religious figure who says or does things that aren’t of the religious right. And so when they see this new Catholic leader who is said, you know, issues an entire encyclical about the environment or talks about the evils of capitalism, then they get a little overexcited, I think, because you know, Pope Francis. Yes, I do think it’s a good thing that he’s talking about those things. I’m not trying to denigrate that. But on the other hand, Pope Francis has no policymaking role. Does anyone even remember what he said in his speech to Congress and is apparently having any impact on the members, decided what he would say in a speech? 

You know, so so the idea that he was going to come and give the speech to Congress and everybody was suddenly going to love each other and get along. Well, we can see what’s been happening over the past couple of weeks since John Boehner decided to retire. That that obviously isn’t the case. And so, yes, like he says, nice things, but that doesn’t mean that he’s going to change the world. He’s really speaking to Catholics to reclaim some of the traditional views and ideas of Catholicism. So all of these things that he’s saying, he’s reached back very deeply into Catholic tradition and speak to a tradition that a lot of Catholics think was lost during John Paul Paul’s second’s papacy and during Benedict’s papacy, and particularly in this conservative strand of American Catholicism, which is very focused on like free market economics and so forth. But, you know, he’s I just don’t think he’s that radical. He’s Catholic. 

And so if American progressives are suddenly going to take their cues from Catholicism, I find that really surprising because I thought that American progressivism was, you know, not focused on the use of one particular faith, that it was like sort of multiphase, that people of no religious belief and that it was rooted in public policy and science and so forth. 

So it’s just kind of humorous to me that, you know, when people get so, so overexcited about Pope Francis that I don’t have anything against Pope Francis. Well, I did say that. 

I just I do think it’s one of those areas where where we’ve become so resigned, where we’ve become so convinced that Catholics have to be synonymous with with homophobia and superstitious backward thinking. And the idea that if you say this, the Latin words over a cracker, it’s going to bodily turn into the flesh of someone who lived 2000 years ago, that when we hear someone come along and by we I just mean broadly the left, someone come along and make some kind of sense and say that the overarching impetus should be to love one another. And progress is going to. Oh, okay. Maybe I could sort of vaguely get on board with someone who believed that. But it is interesting. It sort of raises the final question, which I’d like to get your thoughts on. 

Well, I think progress is also need to understand better our religious leaders in the United States of many different faiths who’ve been advocating for all the things that are the quote unquote, good things that that Pope Francis has been advocating for. 

And so, you know, if you think that Pope Francis just came along and made some of this stuff up, you’ve been putting your head in the sand. 

But they’re not in big positions of power, are they? I mean, most what the most of the Christian American Christians who we see are evangelists who are preaching hatred and raking in lots of money on television. 

Yes. And that’s that’s just an ongoing issue with how religion gets reported and seen because of this this distinction or this disparity between people who use, say, televangelism as a platform. And people who use their little tiny church or synagogue or mosque as a platform. 

Yeah. Absolutely. 

So finally, you know, I’m thinking about the presidential race more generally and about the fact that there is not a single member of Congress who claims to be an atheist. 

Certainly no presidential candidate that I’m aware of has claimed to be an atheist. 

Do you see a time in the not too distant future where public opinion has swayed to a sufficient extent that it is possible for? I mean, look, either every single person in Congress is delusional, religious, or some of them are lying and neither way. 

That’s a good thing. Do you see it changing? 

I don’t unfortunately, I just think that this religiosity that has been baked into our politics for so long. I mean, it literally has been baked into our politics for so long. It’s very hard to shed. Pete Stark was an atheist. I think you could have an atheist congressional candidate from a very liberal district and people would be fine with it. But I think for a statewide office or certainly national office, I think we have a long way to go before people are accepting of that. I think it’s terrible. I think it’s a terrible thing. 

But I just people many, many Americans are still very suspicious of people who don’t believe in God. 

Sarah Posner, on that depressing note. Thank you, Larry. Thank you. I enjoyed it. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.