Democratic Party: a new home for family values?

SETH DOWLAND; Associate Professor of Religion; dowland@plu.edu

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Photo courtesy of plu.edu

Donald Trump’s calamitous October caused division among some of the most reliable Republican voters: conservative evangelical Christians. For forty years, they have been the backbone of a political movement known as the Christian Right.

As new discoveries about Trump’s record of misogyny and sexual abuse appeared last month, longstanding male leaders of the movement like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr. stood by Trump. But female evangelical leaders like Jen Hatmaker and Beth Moore — whose Twitter following exceeds the combined following of leading conservative figures including Dobson, Falwell, Ralph Reed and Eric Metaxas — expressed disgust with the Donald.

It’s not surprising that evangelical women — like their non-evangelical counterparts — are rejecting the GOP nominee. The Oct. 7 publication of a 2005 tape in which Trump bragged about kissing and groping women against their will has only increased the historic gender gap in this election. At evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, female students chose Clinton over Trump by a 52-22 margin, while male students went 32-31 for Trump. The defection of women who usually vote Republican may result in a historic 15-point difference in the presidential votes of men and women on Nov. 8.

What is surprising is the ways this election is reshaping the dominant political narrative among conservative evangelicals. For the last forty years, conservative evangelicals have trumpeted “family values,” opposing social movements that seem to threaten the sanctity of the traditional family.

While many evangelical women are still reluctant to back Clinton, they cannot fathom how a movement that emphasizes personal morality has thrown its support behind Trump.

This family values agenda has led conservative evangelicals to oppose feminism, abortion rights, same-sex marriage and transgender rights. The Republican Party adopted this platform, sealing an alliance with white evangelicals.

But Trump’s nomination has caused fissures within conservative evangelicalism. Evangelical women have pointed out the hypocrisy of their male counterparts, arguing that one cannot stand for family values while endorsing a thrice-married philanderer who stands accused of sexual assault by twelve women.

While many evangelical women are still reluctant to back Clinton, they cannot fathom how a movement that emphasizes personal morality has thrown its support behind Trump.

This division among conservative evangelicals presents an opportunity for the Democratic Party to emerge as the new home for family values. This summer, speakers at the Democratic National Convention sounded themes of hard work, personal morality and patriotism.

In an Oct. 13 speech, Michelle Obama gave voice to Democrats’ belief that their nominee represented family values far better than the GOP candidate. Obama said Hillary Clinton “is an outstanding mother” and a “loyal, loving wife.”

This characterization has not yet swayed most conservative white evangelicals to vote Democratic. Hillary Clinton, after all, horrified many of them when she declared in 1992, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”

That comment set off a firestorm of criticism among defenders of the traditional family and forever tagged Clinton as an elite feminist who was out of touch with American women.

But with Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, the Democrats have a chance to make inroads into the family values coalition. A more diverse electorate is ready to embrace new, more fluid understandings of family. The growing power of women in conservative evangelicalism has made Trump’s misogyny and sexual past a crippling liability.

And Hillary Clinton is making a closing argument that she — not the Republican nominee — embodies loyalty, hard work, public service and family values.

Seth Dowland is author of “Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). 🅼

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