Evangelicalism and Politics
JOHN FEA, LAURA GIFFORD, R. MARIE GRIFFITH, AND LERONE A. MARTIN
In 2016 Donald J. Trump won the presidential election with overwhelming Christian evangelical support. Commentators and pundits have struggled to explain how a president who seems to scorn traditional Christian values—as evident in his rumored affairs, his divorces, and his alleged sexual assaults and harassment—has garnered the devotion of a majority of evangelicals. The American Historian asked four historians of religion and politics for their analysis of evangelicals’ affinity for Trump and of their commitment to the conservative movement more broadly.
1. Recently, historians have produced a “cottage industry” by writing extensively about the Religious Right and the role of evangelicals in mobilizing the Republican party of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. What critical turns and animating factors led to evangelicals’ enlistment in the modern Republican Right? When, in your estimation, did evangelicalism transform itself into such a potent political movement?
Evangelicalism has been a significant force in American politics since at least the nineteenth century. However, the direction of this political force, as well as the media and scholarly attention it receives, has ebbed and flowed. In recent history, several critical turns and factors have led the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals to move towards the modern Republican party. One factor in this shift was the modern civil rights era and the black freedom struggle. The Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision outlawed the segregation of public schools. In turn, a number of white evangelical communities opened private schools as a way to oppose school desegregation, framing their hostility to Brown v. Board as an expression of religious freedom rather than a defense of racial segregation. Elementary and secondary schools such as Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian School and colleges such as Bob Jones University became known as “segregation academies.” In the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, the IRS threatened to revoke the tax-exempt status of these segregation academies unless they ceased their discriminatory admissions. This, coupled with President Johnson’s Great Society programs and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, further altered the terrain of America’s legalized racial hierarchy. In all, school desegregation and busing, the outlawing of legalized racial discrimination and the threat it posed for white evangelical schools, the increased federal dollars for social welfare problems, and the sharp increase in black voters (largely for the Democratic party) changed America’s legalized racial structure. The federal government, white evangelical leaders such as Reverend Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich argued, was not only invading local autonomy, but was turning its back against whites and favoring African Americans and Latinos. The world, it seemed, was turning upside down.
Richard Nixon capitalized on this resentment. The 1960 Democratic presidential nomination of Catholic John F. Kennedy and the 1964 Republican nomination and endorsement of Barry Goldwater and his anti-civil rights platform had already intensified white southern evangelical interests in the Republican party. Coupled with anger over America’s changing legal racial structure, the south was prime for the taking. Nixon then employed a “southern strategy,” a campaign which harnessed this umbrage of white evangelicals specifically and whites more broadly who had formerly voted for the Democratic party. In this new world, the keys to political success, argued Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips in 1966, was to bring together the largest number of white ethnic prejudices into one party without fragmenting the existing coalition. “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South,” Phillips noted, “the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become republicans.” However, Phillips warned, extreme racist language had to be avoided, especially when courting white converts outside the Deep South. “When you are after political converts, start with the less extreme and wait for the extremists to come into line when their alternatives collapse.” Winning Republican converts in the Sun Belt as well as the Midwest, then, required a tempered conservatism. They employed a language of morality and decency, law and order, normalcy, family values, and self-reliance: discourse white evangelicals understood as explicitly evangelical religious values. As the Democratic party came to be identified as the party of big government and minorities of color, white evangelicals began the process of almost exclusively identifying with the modern Republican party.
The political mobilization of white evangelicals—and we are mostly talking about “white” evangelicals when talking about the Religious Right—was decades in the making. About a generation ago, historians assumed that fundamentalists went “underground” after the Scopes trial (1925), but several important reassessments published around the 1990s made clear that this was not the case. Issues pertaining to gender roles and the sexual behavior of women have been potent mobilizing forces for a very long time, for Catholics as well as evangelicals, going back to the birth control movement and other controversies in the first half of the twentieth century. Opposition to sex education in the 1960s was a salient force in politicizing many folks, as well as creating collaborations across Catholic-evangelical divides; by the late 1970s, of course, abortion and homosexuality were highly effective issues that mobilized many Catholics and evangelicals. So opposition to feminism, broadly, has been a force to be reckoned with for decades, culminating in the real success, starting with Reagan’s election, of organizations such as the Concerned Women for America, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and more. Race, of course, has also been a galvanizing issue in many ways, and historians have analyzed the creation of “segregation academies” after public school systems were forced to racially integrate. But the strongest force mobilizing conservative evangelicals in politics seems to me to be antipathy to feminism, broadly conceived.
One element that is often under-represented in recent scholarship on the Religious Right is the lively and often fractious debate in many Christian denominations on issues including biblical inerrancy, the role of women in the church, and ecumenism through the 1960s and 1970s. These conflicts were part of a larger collection of debates about the role of the church in society (Engel v. Vitale, for example) and concern about adolescent rebellion, the emergence of second-wave feminism, and other developments. In some cases, these conflicts generated schisms that produced more ideologically homogeneous and polarized denominations. Denominational conservatives found common cause with like-minded evangelicals from outside more rigorous denominational traditions.
Racial concerns constituted another critical factor in generating an evangelical public simultaneously more shielded from the mainstream and more adept at generating political momentum. The emergence of private “Christian” schools in the South to counter desegregation ordinances, for example, contributed to the development of a Christian subculture conditioned to view itself as preserving Christian fundamentals from a hostile secular society. Not all evangelicals who joined and shared this emerging subculture did so for racially motivated reasons, but we cannot elide race from the origin story. New adherents helped bring issues ranging from concerns about law and order to abortion and the role of women in society into the movement. This subculture generated its own stable of media, organizational affiliations, and lobbying efforts to both disseminate political views and influence public policy.
While I recognize the significance of groups, institutions, and structures, however, my work as a historian has also led me to conclude that the actions of individuals may exert transformative sway in mobilizing, validating, and energizing movement forces. For example, I would argue that the significance of Jerry Falwell’s come-to-politics moment in 1979, when he declared he had been wrong to abstain from politics and instead jumped in with the both-feet maneuver of creating the Moral Majority, cannot be understated. A trusted leader—a man of God—stamped political activism with his reputational imprimatur. While evangelical politics did not start in 1979, Falwell’s move and the Moral Majority’s unapologetic activism were vital in establishing evangelicals as an enduring political force.
For much of the twentieth century, evangelicals leaned Republican. For example, during the 1950s, as Princeton historian Kevin Kruse has shown, white evangelicals gravitated toward the civil religion of Dwight Eisenhower and the postwar religious revival. During the 1960s, Richard Nixon used Billy Graham to help him win over white evangelicals. But it was not until the late 1970s and 1980s that white conservative evangelicalism became fused with the GOP. The result of this merger is what we call the “Christian” or “Religious” Right today. This political movement was born out of fear that the removal of prayer and Bible reading in schools, the growing diversity following the Immigration Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act), the intrusion of government (“big government”) into segregated Christian academies in the South, and the legalization of abortion were undermining America’s uniquely Christian identity. The leaders of the Christian Right believed the best way to “reclaim” or “restore” this identity was by gaining control of all three branches of government. Jimmy Carter, a self-proclaimed “born-again Christian,” was not championing these issues to the degree that many evangelical conservatives wished. As a result, white evangelicals gravitated to Ronald Reagan, a man who seemed to understand evangelical concerns, or was, at the very least, willing to placate evangelicals.
2. Considering the longer history of evangelical politics, were there forces of change—both within evangelicalism itself, as well as in American culture and politics writ large—that politically stirred evangelicals in the long lead-up to 2016 in unique and unprecedented ways? Stated another way, was 2016 a pivot in the life of modern evangelicalism and its political expressions and ambitions, or a continuation of existing—perhaps accelerating—trends within the movement?
Both-and. The 2016 election was certainly a continuation of existing anti-feminism; the hatred of Hillary Clinton goes back to 1992 and her perceived insult to traditional stay-at-home women (“Well, I guess I could have stayed home and baked cookies …”). There is a lot to say about this! On the other hand, I also think there was an acceleration of forces such as fear and anger toward both immigrants of color and citizens of color that appeared to mobilize conservative religious voters to an extraordinary degree. Scholars are still parsing this out, of course, and debating the politics of race in white evangelical voting patterns; but there’s no question that white working-class men in many communities have adopted a narrative of victimization in which they are being left behind and displaced by “outsiders” (people of color, immigrants, etc.). A large number of white women seem to support this view and identify with these men’s victimization; I suppose they find some measure of comfort in that narrative, even if it fuels their anger and paranoid fear of outsiders. So what journalists keep seeing locally and calling “economic anxiety” is deeply tied up with racist fears of who the culprits are. This is in no way limited to evangelicals, but many of those who are expressing this sense of victimization are evangelicals, hearing these narratives from pulpits like that of Robert Jeffress and other Trump supporters. The evangelical belief that one is “in but not of the world” and has thus willingly taken on the status of a visitor to this evil world lends itself pretty seamlessly to a sense of one’s own victimhood.
Fear, the pursuit of power, and an approach to public policy built on an unhealthy dose of nostalgia have plagued evangelical politics for a long time. Since the 1970s, the Christian Right has followed a well-known political playbook. Its members want to elect the right president of the United States who will appoint the right Supreme Court justices who will then overturn decisions that the Christian Right believes have undermined the republic’s Christian foundations. In the past, this playbook was inseparable from the moral character of the candidate. In 2016, however, the Christian Right executed the playbook in support of a candidate known for his sexual escapades, nativism, deceit, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. This is a new development. The playbook survived despite the candidate. This is a testimony to the playbook’s power and the role that Christian Right leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberston played in reshaping American political culture.
Evangelical voters have struggled since the 1980s under conditions of institutional “capture”—in other words, as an increasingly reliable GOP voting bloc, their desires and policy preferences are routinely articulated during campaigns, but these policies often fail to gain much traction once candidates are in office. Ronald Reagan’s courting of the pro-life movement and subsequent failure to pass significant policy revisions stands as an example. Republicans recognize that maintaining the rhetoric of support for evangelical desires is more important than legislating policy that conforms to these desires—after all, where will evangelicals go? The Democratic party’s social positions, especially in the arena of sexual policy, render them anathema to many of these voters. While many Republican candidates are authentic evangelical conservatives with heartfelt commitments to the policies they proclaim from the stump, this voting bloc remains more effective in driving rhetoric than policy—a situation exacerbated by the presence of different ideological blocs within the GOP (economic conservatives who trend toward libertarianism, for example).
While Donald Trump’s candidacy offered challenges to this structure, ultimately his election and continuing support by evangelical conservatives demonstrates its enduring strength. Trump combines poor personal behavior (bullying, name-calling, infidelity) with rhetorical dedication to the policy preferences of evangelical voters. In other words, it doesn’t matter how reprehensible one behaves if one toes the rhetorical line. That Trump acts upon evangelicals’ desires on a scale at least equivalent to George W. Bush’s administration adds fuel to the fire of their support. Pro-Trump evangelicals are willing to forgive behavior that would get one kicked out of Sunday School if the leader of their party will articulate their policy priorities—and nominate conservative candidates to the Supreme Court.
What remains to be seen is whether evangelical support for Trump will cause them to “gain the whole world and lose [their] own soul” (Mark 8:36). Does pro-Trump fidelity compromise evangelicals’ witness? By condoning his behavior, do pro-Trump evangelicals destroy their own credibility? It remains to be determined how evangelicals’ strong support for Trump will play out in the future.
This is a question of continuity and change. The political expressions of modern white evangelicalism have shifted on a few issues, including foreign policy approaches to Russia. However, there are themes among modern white evangelicals today that harken back to yesteryear, including the utilization of the traditional jeremiad in religious and political discourse, belief in a worldwide religious conspiracy, abortion and sexuality, the courting of white supremacist ideas and support, and the overwhelming support of laisse faire/free market capitalism.
Reverends Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and a host of other evangelicals rose to prominence by using a traditional jeremiad to frame religion and politics. America was once a nation committed to God, they preached, but it experienced a marked moral and religious decline on account of a number of turning points including materialism, new sexual and gendered norms, and lack of religious commitment. The only solution, they argued, was to look to the past (whether real or imagined) as a concrete model, a practical checklist to guide the religious and political agenda of the future. America had to replicate past norms in order reclaim or revive its status as a godly nation with a transcendent global mission. The evangelical embrace of Presidents Reagan and Trump’s campaign slogan “[Let’s] Make America Great, Again,” revives this moral and rhetorical narrative of the traditional jeremiad. America was once great. However, it experienced a marked decline. Returning to the past is the only way to make America great again.
Closely related, Graham also preached a gospel of anti-communism. He preached that communism was more than just a political ideology. Rather, it was a religion of godlessness, a global conspiracy bent on conquering Christian America and thwarting the nation’s transcendent purpose. Only a religious revival of born-again Protestants and the expression of that new birth in the public sphere could save America and the world. Today, white evangelicals such as Reverend Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr., to name a few, have argued that Islam and Islamic law are the biggest threats to the nation. Our only hope, they argue, is to re-commit ourselves to their notion of Godliness and elect politicians who will fight against this “global conspiracy.”
Next, abortion specifically, and progressive gender and sexual politics more broadly, continue to galvanize white evangelicals. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, and the increased freedom it gave women over their own bodies and sexuality, emerged as one of the issues that motivated Falwell’s moral majority and Phyliss Schlafly’s Eagle Forum in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, it remains one of the top reasons white evangelical voters and organizations such as Ed McAteer’s Religious Roundtable, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Tim LaHaye’s Council for National Policy, and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America cite for their electoral and material support of President Trump, his administration, and his nominees for the Supreme Court.
White evangelical groups have also continued to engage white supremacist ideas and support. White evangelists and religious leaders such as Gerald L.K. Smith, Frank Norris, Elizabeth Dilling, W.A. Criswell, Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and Bob Jones, to name a few, endorsed and flirted with racist ideals and rhetoric including anti-miscegenation, endorsements for legal segregation, and opposition to civil and human rights protests. Smith went further, founding the American First party embracing pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic sentiments. Their opposition to civil rights, they argued, was rooted in the belief that racial desegregation was a communist plot at best, a demonic evil and unnatural undertaking at worst. Either way, permitting such things would topple the country’s Christian foundations. Today, some white evangelicals have shied away from endorsing anti-Semitism and the idea that desegregation is a communist plot. However, prominent white male evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell Jr. and the elected officials they support, such as Attorney General Jefferson Sessions and President Trump continue to lobby explicit and thinly veiled arguments concerning how the very presence and growth of “ethnic” or religious others, especially Islam, possesses the potential to destroy America’s (white) Christian foundation. Moreover, President Trump passively accepted the endorsements of known white supremacist organizations and officials. This cadre of modern white evangelicals and the constituencies they represent continually disavow racism and its place in modern society in favor of “colorblindness.” However, their religious and policy positions and decisions consistently privilege white male heterosexual subjects while marginalizing others.
Finally, big business. White evangelical business men of the 1930s, such as R. G. LeTourneau and Herbert J. Taylor, opposed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and its governmental interventions into business in favor of a gospel of free market fundamentalism. These white businessmen merged their faith with corporate capitalism by integrating evangelicalism into their manufacturing and managerial roles and donated large sums of money to evangelical organizations. Moreover, they pushed and encouraged clergy to preach that individual salvation and free enterprise went hand in hand, while higher taxes, government regulation, and the “collectivism” of labor movements were the handmaidens of sin. Today, many white evangelicals champion a similar merging of evangelical faith and big business. One outstanding example is the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby. In addition to supporting evangelical organizations and schools such as Oral Roberts University and Liberty University, the family was at the forefront of the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision. The Green family claimed that their white evangelical faith forbad them from complying with the “interventionism” of federal regulations requiring that employer provided health insurance cover contraception. The court ruled in their favor, stating that Hobby Lobby and other “closely held” companies can choose to be exempt from certain laws that violate their religious freedom. In light of continued beliefs in a global religious conspiracy, debates about abortion, the persistence of white supremacist ideology, and the influence of “Godly Businessmen,” the 2016 election of Donald Trump—a businessman with no previous experience in political office—can be seen as revealing, more than causing, the (re)-acceleration of a number of existing trends within the white evangelical community.
3. We know the extent to which Donald Trump has redefined leadership in the Republican party and the political system. But to what degree has generational shifts in evangelical leadership also been responsible for—or a contributing factor to—the rise of evangelical Trumpism and the Trump moment? Have such pronounced shifts occurred before?
One important distinction between current evangelical leaders and their forebears is that, while figures such as Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell Sr. navigated the developing world of the Religious Right, contemporary leaders often have come of age in a subculture in which evangelical conservatism has already been “captured” by the GOP. While Franklin Graham became involved in mission work during the 1970s, for example, and was elected president of Samaritan’s Purse in 1979, he did not lead his first evangelistic event until 1989—well after the Christian Right first aligned its interests with the Republican Party. Jerry Falwell Jr. was still a teenager when his father formed the Moral Majority.
We have seen occasions when evangelical leaders have opted to align themselves with specific political leaders. Billy Graham’s relationship with Richard Nixon is an especially fascinating example, because the fallout from that relationship post-Watergate damaged Graham’s reputation and convinced him to follow an apolitical path in the future. Given his full-throated support for Donald Trump, Franklin Graham clearly did not take a similar lesson from his father’s experiences. Whether and how evangelical leaders’ relationships with Trump will play out in the future remains open for debate.
One key difference in our contemporary context is the prevalence of highly segmented, ideologically specific media that allow people of specific political persuasions to unite across geographic space. While polarized media is nothing new—nineteenth century newspapers, for example, were stridently partisan—our capacity to segment ourselves on a national scale does represent a newer development. To the degree conservative evangelicals can remain in “echo chambers,” they may not receive—or be receptive to—criticism of the younger Graham. Exposure by the “mainstream media,” for example, may mean little to someone who trusts Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Perhaps the differences between Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr. and Jerry Falwell Jr. is one place to examine the generational shifts within white evangelicalism. Reverend Jerry Falwell Sr., an ordained Baptist minister, was a major figure in the making of modern white evangelicalism and the moral majority. He led Liberty University from its founding. Like Reverend Billy Graham, he attempted to bring a segment of white evangelicals from the sawdust trail to the respectful halls of power. However, Jerry Falwell Jr., the current president of Liberty University, has become an influential leader in white evangelical circles despite the fact that he embodies a different kind (or degree) of leadership than his father. First, ordination. Falwell Jr. is not an ordained minister, yet he has become a spokesmen of the Christian right. He has an undergraduate degree in religion and a law degree. Formerly, ministers were the major mouthpieces of the Christian right, while lawyers played the background. Falwell Jr. represents a new trend, with lawyers out in front. Second, Falwell publicly eschews the respectability his father sought. He boasts about being a “redneck” and having never played golf. Moreover, contrary to his father, he is not concerned with the public displays of professionalism, decorum, and piety of elected officials. Despite Trump’s multiple marriages, admitted extra-marital affairs, payoffs to his dalliances, admitted sexually harassment, and multiple accusations of the same, Falwell Jr. claims that “evangelicals have found their dream president” in Trump. In fact, he has issued calls to true Christians to elect more leaders like Donald Trump, lest the forces of fascism destroy the country. “Conservatives [and] Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys,’” he tweeted. “They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like [Donald Trump] at every level of government [because] the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps [and] many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!” In addition, Falwell Jr. welcomes the influence Fox News and other conservative talk radio host have upon white evangelicals. Whether as a monologue or a feedback loop, these media outlets exact as much (perhaps more) power upon white evangelicals and their political commitments as ordained clergy. Tellingly, Falwell Jr. has dubbed Liberty University “the Fox News of academia.” Unsurprisingly, some white leaders and students of previous generations have felt compelled to speak out against Falwell Jr. and his leadership, especially his support of the President Trump. Most notably, Mark DeMoss, a former aide to Jerry Falwell Sr. and the chairman of Liberty’s Board of Trustees’ executive committee, resigned from the committee as well as the board. Following Falwell Jr.’s support of Trump and advocacy for white evangelicals to do the same, DeMoss left stating that the Trump campaign and Falwell Jr.’s support of the same were antithetical to the values for which Falwell Sr. and Liberty stood. This clash of ordination, piety, leadership, and influence is, perhaps, a microcosm of a broader generational divide and shift within white evangelical circles.
Generational shifts are certainly very important here. Take the Southern Baptist Convention: the generation that spawned leaders such as Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, masterminds of the “conservative resurgence” in that religious body (or what some would instead call the “fundamentalist takeover”), is now elderly. They are still fighting feminism tooth-and-nail, even as Patterson, Pressler, and others of their ilk have been caught up in #MeToo scandals on charges of sexual harassment, assault, and other misconduct. Younger generations are much more horrified by the misogynistic attitudes of their predecessors, and many of them are quite focused on social justice issues, from climate change to immigration reform to structural racism. The generations do seem to be united in a common opposition to abortion, but I would not be at all surprised if many in the younger generations were more willing to seek compromise on that issue than were their forefathers. There is a lot more to say about this, but yes, there has been significant generational change in American evangelicalism, and I think we could see some real shifts as the younger cohorts take charge. I don’t mean to paint an overly rosy picture here, as there are obviously plenty of Trump supporters among younger people too; but my point is that there are real differences in the priorities of the younger generations of evangelicals, and that’s bound to have a concrete effect.
The average Trump voter was 57 years old in 2016. Most of the evangelical leaders who support him came of age politically during the ascendancy of the Christian Right. In other words, these evangelicals came to believe that the pursuit of political power was the only correct way to engage public life or act as a witness to the Christian gospel in the world. Thoughtful Christians such as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, Washington University law professor John Inazu, and the Dutch Reformed thinkers who congregate at schools such as Calvin College, have all offered alternative approaches to evangelical political engagement that have not focused on the pursuit of power. Rank-and-file evangelicals have largely ignored these approaches. This is yet another testimony to the power of the Christian Right playbook.
4. Social “culture war” issues usually loom large in historical treatments of the evangelical Right. Yet the success of Trump and the America First agenda has also drawn to the forefront other heated and divisive issues—concern with immigration, race, masculinity (misogyny), tariffs and economic protections, etc.—that historians have not usually or singularly focused on when unpacking evangelical politics over the longue duree. Going forward, how should—how must—historians of evangelicalism thread these issues into our histories of its political mobilization? Into the history of evangelicalism?
I recently published a book, Moral Combat, that argues strongly for greater attention to misogyny and its intersections with racism in our histories of religion and American politics. All along the way, right-wing political leaders have converted people to their cause by weaponizing fear; and more often than not, that fear has been directed at women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. Christian leaders, both evangelical and Catholic, rely heavily on deep theological structures of gender hierarchy for maintaining order within their ranks; and I believe evangelicals and Catholics may be particularly susceptible to this weaponized fear for that very reason. Women coming to power upend the way the world is supposed to work, at least in the conservative churches where they are not allowed to occupy positions of highest leadership, and there may be something especially unsettling—for conservative religious women and men alike—about watching a woman such as Hillary Clinton come close to the highest leadership position in the United States, the presidency. In any case, yes, all of these factors are critically important and in many ways inseparable from one another. It is a very tall order to braid them all together, particularly in a long history of evangelicalism and politics that covers an extensive span of time; but the history is incomplete without any one of these factors present.
As most historians of American evangelicals are aware, we cannot tell the story of this religious group without exploring its connections to the issues you describe. For example, fear that white Christian America is eroding has led evangelical conservatives to support Trump’s border wall and Muslim bans. Fear leads evangelicals to remain silent when Trump separated immigrant children from their parents or claims that there were “good people on both sides” at Charlottesville in August 2017. As Christian nationalists, many white evangelicals believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation—a “city upon hill” that has a special role to play in God’s plan for the ages. Evangelicals thus believe that the federal government should do everything it can to protect the economic interests of this chosen nation. For many white conservative evangelicals, a strong economy is a sign of God’s blessing on the United States.
I’m not sure that issues including immigration, race, masculinity, and the economy can be differentiated from social “culture wars.” All these issues represent a cultural divide that becomes “weaponized” very quickly. Immigration debates become a referendum on both crime and American culture. Are we a nation of immigrants that welcomes diversity, or is a core “Americanism” under threat from foreigners unwilling to assimilate? As I mentioned earlier, race has been pivotal in the formation of a quasi-evangelical political identity. Masculinity and misogyny, again, correlates to concerns about “American” values. Complementarian religious practice translates easily into arguments about the “proper” roles and characteristics of men and women. Concerns about the economy link to both immigration and to concerns about social status that often have gendered implications: if an “honest workingman” can no longer mine coal or build cars for a living, what is America coming to?
I would argue that many scholars, from Daniel K. Williams to Jefferson Cowie and Laura Kalman, have already engaged these issues, but I do agree that incorporating them into our histories of both political mobilization and evangelicalism remains vital. Perhaps more important is our capacity as historians to contribute to public policy conversations in ways that subvert the “culture war” dimensions of these issues. Yes, economic protectionism plays into stereotypes about gender and immigration—but we must also trace the history of blue-collar struggle in ways that illustrate where public policy has failed these citizens. By constructing fuller pictures of our recent history, and then sharing them with policy leaders and the electorate, we might generate more productive conversations about how we recognize the worth of all people, including those who feel abandoned by structural changes in the economy.
One way scholars of white evangelicalism can move the field forward is to simply name power in their narratives. That is, point out that the story of white evangelicals in American is just that: a history largely of white heterosexual men and women. Naming it as such strips this evangelical story of the power of normativity, or as the story. Some scholarly narratives of white evangelicalism fail to name whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality as the social constructs and lived realities that shape their historical actors and the narratives they draft about them. These constructs are simply positioned as the norm. Race, for example, is only mentioned or analyzed when people of color show up in the narratives. Similarly, gender functions as a synecdoche for women. Both contribute to the idea that only people of color and women are racialized or gendered subjects. Whiteness and maleness then are the normative center. Simply put, to paraphrase Marla Frederick, scholars writing about white and male religious subjects in the history of evangelicalism often express little concern about needing to specify that they are referencing white evangelicals. Too often white evangelical religious practice by default has been categorized as evangelicalism writ large, while the study of other non-white evangelicals sits solely under the category of “black” religious studies or “Latin@” religious studies. Accordingly, whiteness and maleness in the study of evangelicalism has operated as a normative category. This proclivity precludes us from not only seeing other forms of evangelicalism in American history as equally authentic, but also hinders our ability to see how religion and race/gender et al. are constitutive. Moreover, when scholars fail to offer such specificity, power and privilege can easily become mystified, something divinely orchestrated, or accomplished by the gods, not human action. In naming this phenomenon with such precision, scholars of white evangelicalism will invite us to see that the merging of the faith and conservative politics were not inevitable or brought to us by divine power, but rather occurred because of the decisions and actions of particular people at particular times with real consequences.
5. To what degree are evangelicals who counted themselves as part of the 19% of non-Trump voters—and, for that matter, those among the purported 81% of Trump supporters—now revisiting the history of their faith tradition and community? Has 2016 triggered a new historical consciousness in evangelicalism? Or is evangelicalism trapped in a post-truth dispensation, fully committed to its own alternative readings of America’s past, present, and future?
I am sorry to say that we have made little headway in convincing my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply about the relationship between faith and politics and the links between Christianity and American identity. Well-funded pseudo-historians such as David Barton and Eric Metaxas continue to have success in selling evangelicals a faulty view of American history. In my view, the dubious historical claim that America was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation undergirds the entire Christian Right, pro-Trump agenda. Evangelicals continue to gaze nostalgically into a past that is never coming back and, in the case of America’s supposedly “Christian roots,” may have never existed in the first place. It will take a lot of work to turn the tide.
I have not interviewed any evangelicals since the 2016 election, but I can’t imagine that the 19 percent wouldn’t be reckoning somehow with their history and their own deep differences with the 81 percent. Certainly a number of influential evangelical women—Jen Hatmaker and Beth Moore, for instance—have sharply distanced themselves from the religious supporters of Trump politics. I spoke with some evangelical Clinton supporters before the election, and they expressed a lot of sadness that so many in their church—the Trump supporters—seemed mostly to be voting for their own economic benefit while they feebly rolled their eyes at the racism, misogyny, and other moral failings Trump exhibited throughout the campaign. That’s the other thing to think about here: were evangelicals interested in voting for someone they believed would be good for the nation as a whole, or were they focused on their own taxes? I don’t think we know the complete answer to that yet, but I’d suspect we’d find a much stronger “me” emphasis among those evangelical voters than their Christian theology suggests should drive their moral worldview.
Both phenomena are occurring. There are a number of white evangelicals who are revisiting and even disavowing the term, while others are even more committed. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the previous three Republican administrations has ceased to call himself an “Evangelical republican,” while the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, a campus ministry for more than eighty years, has changed its name to the Princeton Christian Fellowship. According to Bill Boyce, the organization’s director, the organization is “interested in being people who are defined by our faith and by our faith commitments and not by any sort of political agenda.” Similarly, Michel Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and Reverend Tim Keller have both wrestled with the limits and possibilities of the label. Nevertheless, there are still some powerful voices such as Reverend Paula White, Reverend Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwel Jr., and others that have not only maintained their white evangelical bona fides, but have maintained that their brand of faith, that is white evangelicalism, is indeed synonymous with true Christianity. All other beliefs are misguided at best, damned at worst.
Both of these elements may be present. Among non-Trump–supporting evangelicals, I do see heightened attention to how evangelical support for the Republican Party may have resulted in the “capture” detailed above—and the capacity for 81 percent of fellow believers to support a candidate who explicitly breaks many tenets of their own moral code. I see some grounds for optimism as people of conservative religious faith begin to thoughtfully examine the dynamics of their witness in the public arena. I also see horror on the part of non-Trump evangelicals that non-Christians may see the current administration’s behavior—and evangelical Christian support for the administration—as an indictment that seriously damages evangelical credibility.
On the other hand, we have managed as a society to create such comprehensive echo chambers for sharing ideas and information that many pro-Trump evangelicals will continue to believe the narratives their faith leaders disseminate. Note, however, that this is a problem that transcends party and religiosity. Conservative evangelicals may in some cases be trapped in a “post-truth dispensation,” but the same could be said of many Americans identifying with many different ideological persuasions and communities. Liberals should hear conservative perspectives, and conservatives should hear liberal perspectives. We may not agree, nor do all sides of an argument always bear similar factual weight, but failure to listen across boundaries renders us all incapable of crafting workable solutions to policy issues.
6. Is “evangelical” a political or theological term, and what does the future of its usage by born-again devotees, and by students and scholars of the “movement,” hold?
I would categorize “evangelical” as a contested term, but context matters. In faith circles, mainline Christian denominations continue to hold onto the theological foundations of the term “evangelical.” After all, the root of the word, euangelion, simply means Good News—the Gospel proclamation of God’s love for all creation that lies at the root of Christian faith. Seeing “evangelical” in theological terms explains why a progressive denomination such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, keeps the “E” in “ELCA.”
In the context of the American political landscape, however, I suspect that for the foreseeable future “evangelical” is and will be a political term defining a specific type of Christian civil religion. Theological “evangelism” necessitates a political witness—after all, much of what Jesus of Nazareth taught had real political implications. Political “evangelism” in the American context indicates a partisan witness. Theological “evangelism” professes Good News that transcends nationality. Political “evangelism” prioritizes patriotism.
Sadly, non-Trump–supporting evangelicals of all persuasions—mainline, conservative, and otherwise—struggle to articulate a Christian witness among Americans disillusioned by the perceived hypocrisy of a population that doesn’t seem to be living out the euangelion. I would love to see students and scholars of political “evangelism” further refine their definitions of this constituency. Too often the academy falls into the trap of equating “Christian” with “political evangelical.” Such errors elide the true complexity of American religious belief.
It’s hard to make a credible case now for “evangelical” as anything but a political term. There are many, many church leaders and members now who are disavowing that identifier—even though they may have identified proudly as evangelical in the past—because they do not support Donald Trump and are profoundly dismayed and angered by those Christians who support his policies. I spoke at one such church in California recently and was really struck by the shock and dismay church members expressed toward their co-religionists for paying so little attention to Jesus’s actual words and actions as recorded in the New Testament. Really, these Christians were quite livid about this and very committed to a Christian practice focused on caring for the neediest in society. In every other way they look a lot like conservative evangelicals everywhere, down to the repetitive praise songs in their worship service; but because of the political implications, they have completely rejected the “evangelical” label they once wore. Scholars will have to develop some better terminology for distinguishing between these different groups of Christians who hold such radically different views about the values embedded in their religion. Analysis of the differences between the Trump-voting “evangelicals” and the Clinton (or Bernie Sanders)-supporting “progressive Christians” has really helped illuminate the fact that there are not just different types of Christianities in the United States today, there are actually polar opposite versions of Christianity that are warring against one another in the name of their faith. That’s been a long time in the making, and it’s both a religious and a political phenomenon that I think will be with us for a long time to come.
The word “evangelical” comes from a Greek word meaning literally “good news.” For centuries, Christians have thought about the “good news” in terms of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Evangelical” has always been a theological term. An “evangelical” believes that Jesus was born, died, rose from the grave, and will one day come again to judge the living and the dead. Ever since the rise of the Christian Right in the late 1970s, pundits and commentators have used the word “evangelical” to describe a voting bloc. In other words, “evangelicals” are just one more lobbying group. “Evangelical” is rarely used as a descriptive label by ordinary born-again Christians—men and women who believe in the inspiration of the Bible and the necessity of evangelism and activism. Very few of the churches’ political pundits described as “evangelical” use the term. I recently met with several dozen college students at what many would call an “evangelical” college and few of them use the label, preferring instead to call themselves just “Christians.”
For some scholars, the word “evangelical” has lost all meaning. Some would argue that the word is a cover for racism, patriarchy, and all kinds of Trumpism. Perhaps this is true. But scholars have been assuming that religious belief is really a guise for something else ever since Karl Marx declared that religion is the “opiate of the masses.” When we interpret “evangelism” to mean something other than a deeply held religious movement that provides its adherents with a sense of spiritual transcendence and enchantment in a natural and disenchanted world, we run the risk of undermining a generation or two of historical scholarship arguing that religious belief is a legitimate interpretive category, not a front for something else.
Evangelical is a theological and ecclesiology term with accompanying political commitments. Specifically, white evangelicalism, to paraphrase Steven P. Miller, is a faith perspective, identity, and worldview with significant sociopolitical implications. Today, as in the past, it continues to have an ecumenical draw, with adherents from the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, and host of other faith communities from the Reformed, Pentecostal, Holiness, charismatic, and nondenominational traditions. Moreover, it continues to boast a small but significant interfaith coalition of Jews, Catholics, and Mormons. Seen in this way, the term, its usages, and its political implications will continue to hold some degree of power and sway among followers, students, scholars, voters, political hopefuls, and the general public alike for the foreseeable future.
JOHN FEA teaches American history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. You can follow him @johnfea1. He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer
LAURA JANE GIFFORD is an independent historian of modern American political history. Her publications include The Center Cannot Hold: The 1960 Presidential Election and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (2009) and the co-edited volume (with Daniel K. Williams) The Right Side of the Sixties: Reexamining Conservatism’s Decade of Transformation(2012).
R. MARIE GRIFFITH is the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. She is a historian of religion in the U.S. specializing in gender and sexuality, and she is the author or editor of six books. Her latest is Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics(2017). She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
LERONE A. MARTIN is Associate Professor of Religion and Politics in the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in Saint Louis. Martin is the author of the award winning Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Making of Modern African American Religion (2014). In support of his research, Martin has received a number of nationally recognized fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, The American Council of Learned Societies, and The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. His commentary and writing have been featured in the New York Times, and the Boston Globe. He is currently writing a book on the relationship between religious broadcasting, the FBI, and national security in American history. The book will be published by Princeton University Press.