- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2016

The possibility of a post-Nov. 8 cloud darkening American life reaches beyond the Republican schism over Donald Trump.

The seething mutual anger between born-again Christian leaders who back Mr. Trump for president and those who oppose him calls into question the survival of religious conservatism as a political force within the Republican Party.

Russell Moore, a former Democratic congressional staffer and president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has attacked Mr. Trump for his “reckless, demagogic rhetoric” about Muslims.

“We cannot complain that Muslims refuse to denounce extremist rhetoric of the jihadists if we do not denounce @realDonaldTrump!” tweeted Dave Miller, pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa.

Other big guns of the Bible brigades fired right back, with Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. formally endorsing Mr. Trump and showing up to cheer him on at his convention nomination in Cleveland in July. Mr. Falwell called Mr. Trump “a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.”

The Rev. Franklin Graham, while not endorsing Mr. Trump, made clear that opposing his election would do irreparable harm to Christianity in America.

“The crude comments made by Donald J. Trump more than 11 years ago cannot be defended,” Mr. Graham, son of the legendary Billy Graham, said in a Facebook post. “But the godless progressive agenda of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton likewise cannot be defended.”

And evangelical author Joel Rosenberg might embody both sides of the dispute in one person. Having tweeted that Mr. Trump “poses a mortal threat to conservatism & democracy,” he reversed himself over the weekend and said he would vote for Mr. Trump.

But a mood of mutual recrimination seems likely to prevail regardless of the Nov. 8 winner, as some pro-Trump evangelicals think the internecine warfare is undermining the GOP.

“The ‘Never Trump‘ effort has hurt Evangelical turnout,” Pastors and Pews founder David Lane said in an email. “If the election turns out to be close, and Trump loses, it probably will cost Speaker Ryan his job.”

The Christian traditionalists, who compose about 30 percent of the U.S. electorate, failed to come through in sufficient numbers to elect Republicans John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

A third consecutive presidential-election failure would threaten their clout and credibility with a GOP establishment that has never quite been one with them but has made extensive concessions because of the Religious Right’s perceived might at the polls.

The idea that Republicans can’t win national elections without evangelical support has taken hold since the likes of Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich led the way in turning legions of apolitical charismatics, Catholics and born-again Protestants into party infiltrators and, in many ways, captors of the GOP establishment.

They were credited with helping elect Ronald Reagan twice (religious broadcaster Ben Armstrong once said he heard Reagan aver himself to be a “born-again Christian”), George H.W. Bush once (he converted from pro-choice to pro-life for the 1988 election) and George W. Bush twice (he proclaimed himself born-again).

In Ohio, a crucial state for both major candidates, a Christian leader sees sunshine where others see darkness.

“Yes, some see bitterness, but I see healthy discussion and respect for different opinions,” said Phil Burres, president of Citizens for Community Values of Ohio.

Mr. Burres doesn’t see as likely the kind of erosion of evangelical support that worries Mr. Lane.

“The polling data shows we’re in the 90th percentile of Christians voting for Trump,” Mr. Burres said. “Yes, there are people who have issue with him, but I was deeply involved in the Romney campaign in Ohio, and there was more concern among evangelicals about him than with Trump now. The grass roots of evangelicals are on fire.”

Mr. Romney is a Mormon, which some born-again Protestants regard as a cult.

Former Iowa GOP Chairman Kayne Robinson sees the evangelical vote as “more energized than in the past two elections,” mainly because of concern about Supreme Court justices and the “horrible image of Hillary Clinton, and appreciate that Trump will fight, and the feeling that Trump will not wimp out.”

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