CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the International Woman’s Year (IWY) conference took place in 1978. The conference took place in November 1977.
In recent weeks prominent evangelical leaders, including Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and Franklin Graham, have come to the defense of President Trump in light of new allegations that he had an affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels and paid her to remain quiet about it during the 2016 campaign. Graham cited the many years that have elapsed since the purported affair and argued that Trump is a “changed person.”
Perkins acknowledged that Christian conservatives have given Trump “a mulligan. You get a do-over here.”
Perkins’s remarks raise the broader question that has flummoxed observers for months: Why, dating to the 2016 election, have conservative evangelicals steadfastly supported a president whose crass, vulgar conduct and reported affairs seem to be the antithesis of what they’ve preached for decades?
Some evangelical voters genuinely like Trump, for the same reasons that his other supporters like him: He speaks his mind, he’ll build a wall, he’ll drain the swamp. And, importantly, he was not Hillary Clinton — a pro-choice Democrat who has been the subject of conservative ire for over two decades.
But, more significantly, Trump benefited from a political alliance 40 years in the making.
A look at the country’s largest lobbying organization for conservative women — the distinctly evangelical Concerned Women for America (CWA) — reveals that evangelical support for Trump is the byproduct of decades of political lessons that have taught evangelicals that only a firm alliance with the Republican Party can produce the legislative changes that can save America.
The prominent evangelical author Beverly LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America in 1979 to prove that “the feminists do not speak for all women in America.”
This was an important historical moment for conservative evangelicals like LaHaye. Although right-leaning Christians had been active in politics throughout the 20th century, the late 1970s saw the emergence of a newly cohesive and newly self-aware movement that would come to be known as the New Christian Right.
It was also during this period that conservative Christians and the Republican Party found one another.
The GOP had only recently established itself as the party of the right — thanks to the efforts of Richard Nixon to recruit conservative Southerners to the party. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act had loosened this population’s century-long allegiance to the Democratic Party, and Nixon’s appeal to a “silent majority” of voters captured the dissatisfaction that many white Americans felt about the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests and proliferating identity movements on the left.
By 1972, the GOP was on its way to becoming the party of the new social conservatism.
But it took longer for conservative evangelicals, as a group, to enter into this fold. In 1976 — a year that Newsweek declared the “year of the evangelical” — Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter’s presidential candidacy drew new national attention to this Christian subculture, and captured the support of nearly half of evangelicals who preferred one of their own to Republican Gerald Ford.
Very quickly, however, Carter disappointed conservative evangelical voters. In fact, the CWA forged its political identity opposing two major Carter-era programs: the International Woman’s Year (IWY) conference in 1977 and the White House Conference on Families (WHCF) in 1980. Initially supportive of the latter, CWA leaders recoiled when conference organizers accepted a definition of family that included single-parent households and (potentially) homosexual parents. For LaHaye, both events showcased the outsized influence that feminists wielded in the Democratic Party.
CWA’s shifting and ultimately disgruntled view of the Carter administration reflected the perspective of most New Christian Right organizations. It was also informed by a larger wariness within the movement about the government in general.
For conservative Protestants, a familiar mythologization of the nation’s past elevates the conservative tenet of small government to an almost religious precept. The story — told and retold in sermons, Sunday school materials and political literature — begins with Puritans’ intention to build an ideal Christian society, then speeds forward to a dual emphasis on the founding fathers’ religious devotion and their commitment to the principle of limited government. Whether implicit or explicit, the message is that small-government conservatism is divinely ordained.
Yet conservative Christians are — and traditionally have been — comfortable with government intervention in the service of promoting morality as they define it.
This was true of the first generation of fundamentalist Protestants in the early 20th century, who argued that Christians should get out of the business of politics, even as they lobbied for laws against the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools. It has also been true of the modern religious right as it has developed over the past four decades, centered on small-government conservatism — except when government action can help to protect or promote their own moral priorities.
CWA has exemplified this ambivalence about government. Organization leaders have repeatedly called for the dissolution of the Department of Education (for its promotion of sex education and its interference with Christian home-schoolers), in favor of an emphasis on “parents’ rights” to direct their own children’s education. At the same time, they have persistently petitioned the federal government to recriminalize abortion, to limit access to certain forms of birth control and to enact a strictly heterosexual definition of marriage into law.
Republican rhetoric since the 1980s has largely aligned with this mixed view of government, favoring more government regulation of morality and less government in other areas.
As CWA and organizations like it grew in scope and influence, the Republican Party increasingly courted the conservative evangelicals whom these groups represented. In return, these groups built relationships with Republican legislators. As CWA established itself within the Beltway during the 1980s and 1990s, it remained critical of bloated government but also became increasingly comfortable working with Republican legislators to enact its goals into law. When CWA promoted socially conservative candidates to their members, these candidates were nearly always Republican.
In light of this history and in light of the binary choice offered in American presidential elections, evangelical voters’ support for Trump should not be surprising.
Carter may have seemed like one of them in 1976, but his presidency clearly demonstrated that shared religious identity did not guarantee shared political priorities.
In many ways, Trump is the converse of Carter, and evangelical support for him is the logical endpoint of four decades of political lessons and Republican courtship of evangelical voters — promising that only they could deliver the policy changes that evangelicals see as essential.
Trump admits to having never felt the need to ask God for forgiveness. But Trump’s promise to “make America great again” matches evangelicals’ overarching sense that the United States is in an urgent state of moral decline, whether since the 1960s or even since the nation’s founding. His anti-politician politicking captures their ambivalence about a government that simultaneously seems amoral but also holds the power to regulate national morality. He has also enthusiastically promoted their key political priorities, including the appointment of conservative judges and robust support for Israel.
Most evangelical voters are aware of Trump’s moral failings. They also know that a two-party system rarely offers perfect choices. And they are products of four decades of political affiliation with the Republican Party. While Trump’s behavior might give evangelical voters pause, it is not enough to erase this history, or to convince these voters that they could ever find a home in the Democratic Party. Without understanding this context, evangelicals’ support for Trump may seem inexplicable. In light of it, their choice is hardly surprising at all.