White evangelicals voted 84 percent for Richard Nixon in 1972 and 80 percent for Donald Trump in 2016. And many of the leaders stood by Nixon as scandals swirled around him, just as they have with Trump.
The late evangelist Billy Graham was the public face of that support for Nixon, insisting on the eve of the Watergate impeachment inquiry that “mistakes and blunders have been made,” some involving “moral and ethical questions,” but that he had “no proof that the president did anything illegal, and I would have no ecclesiastical power over him to do anything about it if I did have proof.” Now the public faces of support for Trump include Graham’s son Franklin and the rest of the clique that Messiah College historian John Fea calls the “court evangelicals.”
Eventually, though, some evangelicals found an off-ramp from their love of Nixon. They didn’t react all at once to an evidentiary smoking gun, and they did not yield to outside pressure. Instead, they slowly heeded voices within their movement. It was a noteworthy, if fleeting, example of what they claim as a tenet of their faith: repentance.
While Graham enjoyed private chats in the Nixon White House and urged his fellow citizens to rally around the flag at Honor America Day, another prominent evangelical, then-Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), warned that a bad graft between religion and politics was turning gangrenous. “We would always rather hide our wounds than heal them,” he said at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in Chicago in May 1973. “It is always more comfortable to believe in the symbols of righteousness than to acknowledge the reality of evil. This is especially true in our national political life. And we have become adroit at manipulating religious impulses in our land to sanctify this political life.”
People in power, such as Hatfield, had to work even harder to resist such craven impulses. He noted: “When we are given a position of leadership, it becomes almost second nature to avoid admitting that we may be wrong. Confession becomes equated with weakness. The urge toward self-vindication becomes enormous, almost overpowering. A politician faces this temptation in a very special way, for somehow it has become a political maxim never to admit that one is wrong. Now, that may be wise politics. But it’s terrible Christianity.” These sentiments earned Hatfield a place on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” and a concerned letter from Graham, according to the book “Lonely Walk.”
As revelations about the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup accumulated in 1973 and 1974, many evangelicals vacillated between Hatfield’s warnings and Graham’s reassurances. At first, only Hatfield’s allies in the small but vocal evangelical left sounded the alarm. Hatfield’s speech echoed the rhetoric of his friend Jim Wallis, who regularly hit these ominous notes in his radical magazine, the Post-American (later renamed Sojourners). Then, the far-from-radical magazine Eternity chimed in, as columnist Joseph Bayly wrote: “Whether we like it or not, a major problem we face as evangelical Christians today is the identification in the popular mind of the religious position we represent with the Nixon administration and its actions. We are ‘middle America,’ the group sector that gave President Nixon his ‘mandate.’ We are the war party, the white backlash (if not racist) party, the Watergate scandal party.”
Finally, the more staid Christianity Today — the magazine founded by Billy Graham — came around. It had printed Hatfield’s speech in June 1973, but also Graham’s “mistakes and blunders” comments several months later. Appearing reluctant, in June 1974, an editorial argued for Nixon’s impeachment. Authors acknowledged that “evangelicals can point to some in their ranks whose private or public conduct is disgraceful, perhaps even worse than that displayed by the Watergate participants.” Ten years later, Graham told the magazine: “I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God.” He said he had learned his lesson. And near the end of his life, he said: “I also would have steered clear of politics.”
American National Election Studies showed that rank-and-file evangelicals turned against Nixon as well. Evangelicals gave him a “warmth” rating of 65 out of 100 degrees in 1968, in line with the national average, but their rating dropped to 40 degrees in 1974 — a chilly number on the scale used by the survey, although slightly higher than the national average. When Bayly scolded his readers for having unwisely joined a “cult of the Presidency,” they seemed to agree with him.
Watergate prompted an about-face in evangelical attitudes toward government. An Eternity editorial, cited with approval by Christianity Today, considered Nixon’s downfall “a jolting reminder that no man, no party, no administration can give us assurance of righteousness in government.” But the hard-won wariness passed. Many evangelicals became even more gung-ho about “God’s Own Party” with President Ronald Reagan in 1980 than they had been with Nixon in 1972, in part because the Moral Majority had sprung up in the interim to preach that very message. Instead of following the call to shun civil religion, evangelicals helped to build a Religious Right that tipped the scales toward Trump.
Still, there had been a moment of reckoning, when white evangelicals numbered themselves among the transgressors. Using their own language of sin and confession, they repented. They exited from the broad road to destruction through a narrow, uncomfortable gate.
Some evangelical leaders are again calling out disgraceful conduct in Washington and in their own ranks. Wallis, still at Sojourners, has been vociferous in denouncing the “evangelist of white nationalism” in the Oval Office. Eternity ceased publication in the 1980s, but relative newcomer Relevant keeps a sharply skeptical eye on the administration. In the first years of Trump’s presidency, Christianity Today was, in historian Fea’s estimation, “milquetoast” in its approach to Trump until new CEO Timothy Dalrymple declared in a July editorial that Trump’s “latest in a long line of comments demeaning immigrants and minorities” demanded a response. “White Christians have a long and lamentable history of silence (or worse) when people of color are under attack,” he said. But the time had come to declare: “We are not captive to political party. We are accountable to a higher authority. We expect better of our leaders, and we stand in the foxholes with our brothers and sisters when they are taking fire.”
It remains a political maxim never to admit that one is wrong. Hatfield was correct that it’s wise politics to stay the course, as a majority of white evangelicals are doing. But for a tradition that values repentance, a word that means “turning around,” there is another path. If white evangelicals found it once, there’s a chance, however slim, that they could find it again. Bad politics can be very good Christianity.
Anja-Maria Bassimir is a scholar at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies in Mainz, Germany.
Elesha J. Coffman is an assistant professor of history at Baylor University.