On 16 June 2015, little over three years ago, Donald Trump formally announced his candidacy to the Oval Office. As he made his way through the primaries and caucuses, clinching the Republican nomination from Ted Cruz and picking evangelical Governor Mike Pence to be his running mate, the media started to pick up on something. Something that since 2008 had been largely overlooked, and which in this context even sounded outdated if not absurd. At a time when study after study pointed to the creeping secularisation of America, religion still seemed to matter.
As white Christians came out in droves in support of Trump’s campaign, it became increasingly clear that the future POTUS could mobilise a key Republican electoral constituency. With ever-closer ties to the alt-right, Mike Pence as his Vice President, and a few ‘Merry Christmases’, Trump had placed his bets on the religious right. The rest, as they say, is history. In fact, exit polls suggest he eventually won 81% of the white evangelical vote, the most of any Republican presidential candidate this century (yes, more than George Bush, John McCain and even Mitt Romney). Amidst signs of ongoing evangelical support for the administration, there is one question on many people’s minds: How can a president with such a deeply unreligious and unconservative life have so many religious conservatives backing him?
To understand how we got to this confusing moment in American politics, just over a year ago I decided to research the history of the religious right. The existence of an organised, powerful and Republican-affiliated white evangelical electoral bloc dates primarily from the role of Jerry Falwell Sr and the Moral Majority in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election. However, in this short time, religious conservatives have evolved into a powerful force for illiberalism – nowhere more so than in the domain of sexual rights. With the HIV/AIDS epidemic that followed on the heels of Reagan’s inauguration, the 1980s and 90s became a watershed era in the growth of a highly aggressive religious-conservative campaign against gay rights. While this has been well-established by historians, my research investigated the lesser-known fact that during their efforts to criminalise same-sex relations, religious-right activists and organisations produced a series of radical discourses. These included conspiracy theories to delegitimise existing laws; allegations of what we would today call ’fake news‘ to discredit gay activists; and even appeals to pseudo-scientific ‘evidence’ to pathologise homosexuality itself. While in many ways these belong to a different world – a fanatical movement whose activity peaked in the mid-1990s – so common are these rhetorical devices in our current political environment that I think they tell us something about how we got here.
The case-study I focused on in my undergraduate dissertation illustrates my point well. And it concerns nothing short of the curious afterlife of Dr Alfred Kinsey. The first part of this story is strictly historical. Kinsey had been an acclaimed sexologist, who in 1948 published his research findings in the bestselling Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Written on the basis of years spent interviewing thousands of people (then an unprecedented feat), Kinsey’s book caused enormous scandal by concluding that same-sex relations were neither ‘rare’ nor ‘unnatural’: ‘nearly half (46%) of the population engages in both heterosexual and homosexual activities … in the course of their adult lives’. As it happens, Kinsey’s data and conclusions were soon revealed to have been seriously flawed, while he himself died of a heart ailment in 1956. However, neither of these stopped his rise to fame. The crux of his argument – that non-heteronormative encounters were far more widespread in American society than had previously been recognised – contributed to the mounting pressure to decriminalise same-sex intercourse, which by the end of the 1970s was already well under way.
Kinsey was presented as the figurehead of an arrogant, liberal elite, which disdained the lives and sensibilities of ‘common folk’.
Undoubtedly because of his fame and perceived influence, over the course of the 1980s – just as the Christian right was growing as an organised political force in America – religious-conservative activists begun to propagate a series of conspiracy theories about Kinsey, many of which are still in circulation on alt-right online platforms today (for example here and here). They alleged that Kinsey had deliberately exaggerated the prevalence of same-sex relations in America, because he disapproved of heterosexuality, hated religion, or was a communist; that Kinsey’s research team had included Nazi doctors, paedophiles and criminals; and that he was singularly responsible for the HIV/AIDS epidemic that struck America in the 1980s. Kinsey was framed as a charlatan whose attempt to normalise sexual variance had run the country into the ground. He was presented as the figurehead of an arrogant, liberal elite, which disdained the lives and sensibilities of ‘common folk’. And both most dangerously and most absurdly, it was alleged that Kinsey’s work undergirded the power of a covert and nefarious ‘homosexual lobby’, which was supposedly responsible not only for battling abstinence-until-marriage public sex education, but also decriminalising same-sex relations. Kinsey, it seemed, could be found everywhere.
When I first came across these accusations I found them so ridiculous that I dismissed them. I was meant to be studying political science – what did this have to do with anything? Over time, however, I realised that these allegations had formed the casus belli for a concerted political campaign against gay rights during the 1990s. These deeply homophobic stories were endorsed and propagated by several of the major religious-conservative organisations that now back the Trump administration – organisations like the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Focus on the Family. The campaign against Kinsey, at its height, even listed among its endorsees the 51 Republican Congressmen who in 1995 sponsored a bill to force the distribution of ‘Kinseyan’ and ‘derivative’ material to be prefaced by a declaration that it was ‘unethical and tainted’ – a shorthand for blacklisting any scientific challenge to the heteronormative status quo. Most appropriately of all, the geographical epicentre of this campaign was Indiana: not only the home state of Kinsey himself, but also of future Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump taught himself a language that many of his evangelical voters have been both hearing and speaking for decades.
So, how can a president with such a deeply unreligious and unconservative life have so many religious conservatives backing him? As it stands, some have argued that Trump’s relationship to the Christian right should be understood in mainly transactional terms. Others have gone further, highlighting deep ideological alliances, clear in his pandering to white supremacists, and even Trump’s own longstanding 'religious roots'. Without negating the significance of these explanations, my own research suggests something deeper is at play. For one thing, reading through decades of internal documents, campaign pamphlets and articles, I was struck by the relative absence of ‘religion-talk’ in religious-conservative activist rhetoric. This is not to say that faith-based discourses are peripheral to the religious right. As I have argued elsewhere, one can find many references to theology in the sermons of preachers like Jerry Falwell Sr, Billy Graham and Pat Robertson. However, looking to the rhetorical devices I have been talking about – such as the conspiracy theories around Alfred Kinsey – shows us that religious-conservative politics has also long had a secular face: it has for decades been concerned (albeit in its own paranoid manner) with the history and goings-on of this world. Yet this secular tendency has also been populist, in Cas Mudde’s sense of having a worldview that divides society ‘into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”’ – in the frenzy around Alfred Kinsey, the ‘common folk’ and the ‘homosexual lobby’. It is here that the parallels with Trump should become apparent: ‘Lobbyists and special interests’; ‘Drain the swamp’; ‘Fake-News Media’. How can an unreligious and unconservative president have so many religious conservatives backing him? In part, it’s because Trump taught himself a language that many of his evangelical voters have been both hearing and speaking for decades. In one sense, then, to ask what it took to make them flock to his campaign is to put the cart before the horse.
The current political climate has shattered any Obama-era beliefs that sexual liberalism is a political axiom of today’s America. Appealing to his white evangelical base, Trump has moved to ban transgender persons from the military, uphold workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and slash funding to humanitarian efforts against HIV/AIDS. The implication of my research is that as we think of how to defend and expand our regime of sexual rights, we may be wrong to merely ward off the supposedly religion-infused illiberalism of the past. This may have seemed to be the solution for liberals under Obama, for whom the memory of George Bush Jr was fresh. Rather, if populist sexual illiberalism is what the political right is increasingly turning to, we must respond by confronting the secular discourses that continue to threaten our rights, both now and in the future.
This artice is based on Alexandre Paturel's undergraduate dissertation, 'Science, sexuality and the state: Alfred Kinsey and American religious conservative politics', the 2018 joint winner of POLIS's John Dunn Prize for the best dissertation.