Despite his big loss in Wisconsin on April 5, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is still slated to win several upcoming state primaries. As one of the most confounding candidates in any American presidential election cycle, his political rise begs the question of why he is so popular with evangelical Christians and what their support means for religion's role in politics.
Many theories abound. Politico's Stephen Prothero hypothesizes that evangelical Christianity has largely become a de facto arm of the Republican Party through decades of mutual support, the fruits of the Religious Right's efforts to smash down the walls between church and state.
Daniel Miller of the University of Southern California's Religion Dispatches offers another view: that individuals are not one-note identities and construct ideologies along a complex social axis. Thus, many evangelicals may be induced to support Donald Trump over, say, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, because even though they are evangelical Christians, they are also staunchly-conservative Republicans and may believe Trump is the better candidate to defend their interests as conservative Republicans and as evangelical Christians.
Miller's analysis makes sense, and more importantly, it points to a trend among evangelical Republicans: Even if these individuals are not any less Christian or conservative than they were eight years ago, the direct influence of religion on American elections is decreasing.
We don't even need to look to Trump to see this among the general electorate: President Barack Obama is a Christian, yet his religion has arguably played a minimal role in how he has governed and how he is perceived by the public. After all, there are still many people who question his religious affiliation altogether.
In the case of Trump, Eduardo Porter of The New York Times points out that the billionaire is perceived as being less religious than Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The image of an austere, disciplined Presbyterian businessman who takes his religion seriously confronts the reality of a celebrity who has been married three times, talks about the size of his penis during a national debate, and changes his position on abortion five times in three days.
What Trump has really done to curry support among evangelicals is to appeal to the poor economic situation that many working class communities around the United States find themselves in and harnessing these people's anger to target trade deals and foreign countries -- Mexico and China in particular -- while leaving Cruz to try to gain support with his blatant and repeated appeals to his supporters' religion (even though he insists he is not running to be "pastor-in-chief").
In other words, while Cruz is using the old Republican playbook and treating religion and country as equally important in appealing to the sensibilities of his supporters, Trump has been going on a more overtly-nationalistic route and has downplayed the religion side (except when he feels like he needs to).
As a younger, more diverse and less religious group of voters comes of age, the major political parties will be increasingly forced to change with them. As easy as it is to criticize him, Trump has shown the Republicans one path forward in the future; Cruz represents the past.