The rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries brought with it quite a few surprises for political pundits. The support the real estate mogul and reality TV star has drawn from white evangelical voters seems to have particularly flummoxed the experts. On the face of it, the affinity seems improbable. Why would religious-right voters with an interest in biblical values support a vulgar, twice-divorced, thrice-married billionaire with no understanding of the sacraments, who discerns no need for confession and who says he’s a Presbyterian but claims membership at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, a congregation affiliated with the Reformed Church in America?
Peter Wehner, an evangelical, attributes Trump’s popularity to evangelicals’ sense of powerlessness, while Michael Cromartie of the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center thinks that support for Trump represents a setback from what he characterizes as the more elevated tone of religious-right leaders in recent years. Jeff Sharlet suggests that Trump resembles a prosperity preacher.
These analyses, however, miss a crucial point: The religious right was never about the advancement of biblical values. The modern, politically conservative evangelical movement we know is a movement rooted in the perpetuation of racial segregation, and its affiliation with the hard-right fringes of the conservative movement in the late 1970s produced a mutant form of evangelicalism inconsistent with the best traditions of evangelicalism itself. Since then, evangelicals have embraced increasingly secular positions divorced from any biblical grounding, and supporting Donald Trump represents the logical conclusion of that tragic aberration.
Evangelicals in the 19th century marched in the vanguard of social-reform movements aimed at improving the lot of those on the margins of society. They worked for the abolition of slavery and for equal rights for women, including voting rights. They supported public education as a way of advancing the prospects of those less fortunate, and by the late 1800s, many evangelicals condemned the excesses of predatory capitalists and supported the rights of workers to organize.
After the Scopes Trial of 1925, though, evangelicals turned inward. Some responded to the incendiary rhetoric of demagogic preachers such as Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler and Carl McIntire, but most remained resolutely apolitical. Many even refused to vote; others did vote but were not politically organized. Many white evangelicals tilted toward the right in the 1950s and 1960s – nascent Cold War fears of godless communism and Billy Graham’s public friendship with Richard Nixon doubtlessly contributed – but a counter-movement of progressive evangelicals arose in the late 1960s in opposition to the Vietnam War and in favor of racial reconciliation and women’s equality. Their signature document, the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, was drafted in November 1973, and many evangelicals relished the opportunity to vote for one of their own, Jimmy Carter, in 1976.
Leaders of the religious right have labored long and hard to persuade Americans that their movement began in opposition to the Roe v. Wade abortion decision of 1973. The claim that abortion motivated the emergence of the religious right utterly collapses beneath historical scrutiny. Conservative activist Paul Weyrich, architect of the religious right, emphatically denied that opposition to abortion played any role, a view echoed by Grover Norquist and Ed Dobson, one of Falwell’s acolytes in the Moral Majority. “I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority,” Dobson recalled in 1990, “and I frankly do not remember abortion being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”
The real catalyst for the formation of the religious right was the attempt to defend against Internal Revenue Service attempts to rescind the tax exemption of racially segregated institutions, especially Bob Jones University and Jerry Falwell’s segregated Liberty Christian Academy in the 1970s. Their anger at the federal government for challenging their tax status drove them into the waiting arms of activists like Weyrich, who understood the electoral potential of evangelical voters. “What caused the movement to surface was the federal government’s moves against Christian schools,” Weyrich said. Norquist concurred, blaming “the Carter administration’s attack on Christian schools.” Conservative commentator Richard Viguerie recalled that the IRS actions “kicked a sleeping dog” and “ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.”
In the run-up to the 1980 presidential election, Falwell, Weyrich and others argued that the “godly” choice was not Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher and evangelical, but a divorced and remarried Hollywood actor who, as governor of California, had signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the country. Falwell nevertheless declared that Ronald Reagan “seemed to represent all the political positions we held dear.”
Reagan, albeit with extensive coaching, was able to persuade conservative evangelicals that he was one of their own. Capitalizing on Cold War-era anxiety surrounding atheistic communism abroad probably helped his case, and brought his interests relatively close to those of evangelicals. But in aligning themselves with the far-right precincts of the Republican Party, evangelicals defaulted on the teachings of Jesus – welcome the stranger, blessed are the peacemakers, care for “the least of these” – as well as on the noble legacy of evangelical activism, which invariably took up the cause of those on the margins of society. In the ensuing decades, evangelicals became the most reliable constituency of the Republican Party, much the way that labor unions once sustained the Democratic Party. During Reagan’s administration and the George H.W. Bush administration, prominent evangelicals were installed in important state positions – Robert J. Billings, a founder of the Moral Majority, worked six years in the Department of Education thanks to Reagan. Bush made his own slew of evangelical appointments, and for a while, the alliance between the religious right and the Republican Party must have seemed quite agreeable to both groups.
But the price of evangelicals’ betrayal of their biblical commitments was fearsome. When Reagan rejigged the tax codes to favor the wealthy, most evangelicals fell silent, despite the biblical warnings against the corruptions of wealth and injunctions to care for the indigent. When George W. Bush launched two vanity wars that would not meet even the barest criteria for just warfare, criteria honed by Christian thinkers over centuries, evangelicals, with rare exceptions, registered no objections and even cheered the invasions. When I was writing “Thy Kingdom Come” during the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency, I searched in vain for a single religious-right organization willing to condemn the use of torture.
Today, evangelical contributions to the political landscape are more removed from biblical principles than ever, with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, boasting of his evangelical support. Polls show that Trump drew the support of 36 percent of evangelicals during the primaries and 49 percent in the Florida primary – despite the presence of more traditionally evangelical candidates in the race. Some evangelical leaders have so far refused to support him, but he has won the endorsement of Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, and Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. Unfortunately, evangelicals’ support for Trump is not an aberration in an otherwise strong record but the culmination of a long decline that began in the late 1970s.
Consider, for instance, the matter of race. Despite evangelicals’ commendable efforts to oppose slavery in the 19th century, the scourge of racism reared its ugly head in the defense of segregated institutions, which provided the catalyst for the formation of the religious right. Jerry Falwell publicly referred to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “civil wrongs,” a striking contrast to evangelical support for abolition in the nineteenth century. For evangelicals still clinging to racist ideas, Trump is an obvious choice: His racially and ethnically charged rhetoric has included assaults on everyone from Latinos to Muslims. Likewise, Trump, along with Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and other Republicans, has condemned and even ridiculed those agitating for racial justice. The billionaire criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) for allowing Black Lives Matter protesters to commandeer one of his campaign events, and suggested that a Black Lives Matter protester at one of his own rallies should be “roughed up.” Although lacking almost any trace of detectable faith, Trump has tapped into latent evangelical racism.
In my view, there are several other areas in which evangelicals have been able to accept Trump only because they have long abandoned their biblical commitments. Trump promises to build a huge wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deport millions of illegal immigrants – this despite biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger and treat the foreigner as one of your own. Likewise, although the prophet Malachi condemns “those who defraud laborers of their wages,” Trump declared last November that American wages are too high, and although he has gestured at approving of an increase in the minimum wage, he recently confirmed that he wouldn’t bother with the matter himself as president. Even on abortion, the issue that the religious right claims as its signature concern, Trump has been (to say the least) inconsistent. In 1999 he declared that he was “strongly for choice.” Now he claims that he opposes abortion but seems out of sync with the pro-life movement, incurring backlash in March when he said, contrary to the position of most pro-life organizations, that women who have abortions should be punished. In another feat of waffling, Trump quickly retracted his statement. What he really believes is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that abortion is not a priority for him.
On the face of it, evangelical support for Trump is confounding. But a majority of evangelicals surrendered their prophetic voice decades ago, first with their support for Ronald Reagan and then by climbing into bed with the Republican Party. In a word, they secularized, trading their fidelity to the Bible and their own heritage of social activism for what amounted to a mess of pottage, the illusion of political influence. Rather than echoing the biblical cries for justice and peace and equality, they settled for the claptrap of hard-right political orthodoxy and thereby became just another interest group, a political entity susceptible to the panderings of politicians.