Why do evangelical Christians stand so strongly by Donald Trump? We did the research | Opinion

Donald Trump recently announced the “God Bless the USA Bible,” which puts the Old and New testaments inside the same binding as the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Trump is a man defined by material wealth. He has credible charges of adultery and sexual assault, and five children from three wives. He is rarely seen in church and routinely avoids questions about the Bible he’s selling. Trump polls well with church-attending Christians. Evangelicals form the core of his base. How does the former president elicit respect from the most conservative of Christians?

Instead of a clash of values, our research shows that Trump’s support among the religious right demonstrates the principle of cognitive consistency. People are strongly motivated by consistency — we want to think well of our friends and are disturbed by the victories of our rivals. The misbehavior of musicians affects our love of their music. Athletes who flee from car accidents make it harder to root for their team.

The desire for consistency shapes the way we perceive the world. Vegetarians come to think that meat tastes bad because it comes from animals. Weightlifters come to enjoy muscle pain because means progress. Commuting cyclists believe that fluorescent yellow looks good on them.

It is this consistency motivation that leads people to see connections between emotional attitudes. We expect our favorite actors to share our politics. We think good-looking people are intelligent and that attractive packaging indicates a quality product. These connections are based on matched feelings rather than rational thought, but they feel sensible and correct.

As psychologists, we have been researching how emotional connections arise. We recruited committed Christians online and asked them how positively they felt about Trump and how positively they felt about their Christian faith. The people who felt most strongly about their faith and positively about Trump felt the two were connected — they said that Trump had promoted Christianity at home and abroad, that Trump was a man of faith and especially that Christianity had been made stronger by Trump’s presidency. Because they loved both Trump and Christianity, they come to see them as belonging together.

If one is committed to both conservative politics and evangelical Christian faith, we must discover a way to reconcile the two. Conservative Christians have come to see the former president as a heavenly conduit, that Donald Trump is God’s earthly instrument. But more liberal Christians did not see Trump as Christian. Consistency led them to disconnect their beloved religion from politics.

Bush, Cheney, 9/11 and Saddam Hussein

We’ve seen this kind of emotion-based connection in politics before. One way the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney administration promoted the invasion of Iraq in 2003 following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was by connecting them to the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. The president and vice president routinely mentioned Saddam and the terror attacks in the same breath. They took pains to present Saddam as a terrible person, implementer of torture and possessor of weapons of mass destruction. (There was no need to convince Americans that 9/11 was a terrible thing.)

In an experiment at the University of Kansas, we had people think of how bad Saddam was and how bad 9/11 was in quick succession. The emotional connection of dreadful things substituted for the complete lack of actual connection between Iraq and the 9/11 terrorists, and increased support for the invasion of Iraq. The same strategy seemed to work for the Bush-Cheney administration. Strongly-matched feelings form relationships.

These connections are not limited to conservatives. People who love organic food often believe it is more nutritious, despite the negligible evidence that it is nutritionally superior. Powerful emotions manufacture links — they’re sensible, but they are not rational.

Emotions are powerful, and they sell products, candidates and ideas. Our research didn’t invent new techniques, but it does highlight how irrational connections can emerge in ways that confound those who don’t share the emotions. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and love can bring togetherness in the most peculiar of matches.

Christian Crandall is a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. He co-authored this with Samuel Arnold, a graduate student in social psychology at the University of Kansas.