Religion and Right-Wing Politics: How Evangelicals Reshaped Elections

In the early 1970s, many evangelical Christians weren’t active in politics. Within a few years they had reshaped American politics for a generation.

By Clyde Haberman
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When he campaigned for president in 1976, Jimmy Carter often invoked the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his admonition that “the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.” That sort of faith-inflected speech from a major national politician was new to most voters. So was the candidate himself, a former Georgia governor who taught Sunday school and described himself as born again, an obscure term for many millions of Americans.

Mr. Carter managed, narrowly, to win that first post-Watergate national election. As president, he put liberal aspects of his Baptist tradition front and center, whether appealing for racial equality, lamenting economic disparity or making human rights concerns integral to American foreign policy. What he did not win were the hearts and minds of his white co-religionists.

A new movement of white evangelicalism awakened during his presidency, one that was socially conservative and hostile to his agenda and to him personally. In 1980, Mr. Carter lost the White House to the Republican Ronald Reagan, who had support from two-thirds of white evangelical voters. They liked Mr. Reagan's staunch anti-Communism and his calls for limited government, so much so that they closed their eyes to aspects of his character — twice-married, alienated from his children, almost never attended church — that flew counter to much of what they considered elements of an upright life.

Coincidentally or not, one year earlier a powerful conservative force had come into being: Moral Majority, founded by the televangelist Jerry Falwell and hostile to abortion rights and homosexuality. This installment of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries about major news stories of the past that have a lasting impact, examines the rise and the legacy of Mr. Falwell, who before his death in 2007 yoked his movement to rightist politicians and helped shape their stance on major matters.

American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so. “For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party,” Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, told Retro Report. In Mr. Reagan they had a president who shared their distaste for modern whirls of social change. His endorsement of them was a clarion call. “It was, like, come up out of the catacombs — you know, you don't have to be silent anymore,” the conservative columnist Cal Thomas said.

They are certainly far from silent in rallying behind the present president, Donald Trump, whose personal traits make him a thoroughly implausible vessel for evangelical aspirations: thrice-married, credibly accused of multiple extramarital affairs, given to vulgar speech. He has talked of grabbing women by the genitals, demeaned immigrants from poor countries and said, in defiance of a central Christian tenet, that he has never seen reason to ask God for forgiveness.

Yet white evangelical support for Mr. Trump exceeded 80 percent in the 2016 election; he did better even than George W. Bush, who was outspoken about his rebirth through Jesus. Important evangelical figures like Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, practically swoon. “I believe he’s president of the United States for a reason,” Mr. Graham has said of Mr. Trump. “I think God put him there.”

The infatuation appalls some others on the religious right, among them Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for Mr. Bush who was reared in an evangelical family. In an Atlantic magazine article this spring, Mr. Gerson criticized the likes of Mr. Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. for having provided “religious cover for moral squalor.” A comparably dark assessment was offered by Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian clergyman who wrote in The New Yorker last December, “ ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ ”

All the same, Mr. Trump’s us-versus-them pugnacity is well-received by white evangelicals. He shares, and augments, their fear that the country they know is slipping away — if not already lost, what with upheavals like legalized same-sex marriage, acceptance of gay and transgender rights, and the ascension of religious and racial minorities. Those evangelicals, Mr. Gerson wrote, have proved susceptible to “a message of resentful, declinist populism.” In other words, to Mr. Trump’s message.

Thus far, he has delivered for them in significant ways. His two appointments to the Supreme Court signal a desire to chip away at Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion. Breaking with decades of precedent, he shifted the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a move long sought by both Israeli leaders and American evangelicals.

This president seems indifferent at best to social programs long woven into the nation’s cultural fabric but scorned by the religiously orthodox. “Our giveaway programs, our welfarism at home and abroad,” the elder Falwell once sermonized, “is developing a breed of bums and derelicts who wouldn’t work in a pie shop eating the holes out of doughnuts.” One can easily imagine Mr. Trump giving a similar speech.

Will white evangelicals continue to influence the national discourse so powerfully? Perhaps. But the demographic tide would seem to work against them. They are getting older, with a median age of 55. Statistics from the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington show that they now account for 15 percent of the population, down from 23 percent a dozen years ago.

A younger cohort of evangelical Protestants is increasingly black and Latino. Ethnicity aside, they resemble other young Americans in not automatically sharing their elders’ hostility to same-sex marriage, abortion or gay and transgender rights. They are more likely to believe that nurturing the newborn is at least as important as protecting the unborn, and that their self-description as pro-life includes desiring affordable health care for everyone.

In barn-red Texas, some white evangelical women have had it with unquestioned fealty to Republicans. Galvanizing them are Trump administration actions like separating immigrant children from their parents at the southern border, a policy they deem anti-Christian. “I care as much about babies at the border as I do about babies in the womb,” Tess Clarke of Dallas told a New York Times reporter.

For voters who feel as she does, it is a matter of establishing justice. And that, Reinhold Niebuhr might have reminded them were he still living, remains politics’ sad duty.

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.