Evangelical Americans constitute one of the largest voting blocs in the United States. They number about 74 million, or about 22.5 percent1 of a population of close to 330 million Americans.2 Unlike other religious groups and denominations, they do not have a single hierarchical authority, but divide into a bewildering array of thousands of churches and denominations.3 This makes evangelicals virtually impossible to define for electoral purposes, for both Republicans and Democrats. Furthermore, many of them are greatly influenced, not by their own church or denomination, but by charismatic televangelists, or one of the myriads of parachurch organizations like Promise Keepers, the Moral majority, Focus on the Family, Youth for Christ, and many others.
One reason for this loose identity is that, more than any other Christian group, evangelicals use a literal interpretation of scriptural passages from the Bible, as their sole source of authority, in religious as well as secular matters. They believe that any individual can read the scriptures and discern God’s purpose for his or her life without intervention from any ecclesiastical authority. This belief led not only to the existence of many churches and denominations, but also to their vulnerability to charismatic speakers, and glib politicians who would quote one or two verses of scriptures, sometimes out of context, and mobilize them around a particular position as being God-ordained.
Original Skepticism about Politics
Historically, Evangelicals were very skeptical about politics and politicians generally, and tended to shy away from political involvement. They emphasized personal piety and salvation of souls and mistrusted politicians instinctively. They valued Jesus’ teaching that his kingdom is “not of this world”4 and felt comfortable with a separation of church and state that would leave them alone to pursue their lives with minimum interference from the government, which they mistrusted.
This traditional position, however, was eroded, if not totally abandoned around the time of the election of President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), when talk of the “Moral Majority”5 convinced many of them that rather than avoid political involvement, their Christian duty was to ensure the election of ‘God-fearing men’ who would ensure a proper ethical Christian government. This initially involved looking to the ethical persona of a candidate; one who was divorced, or involved in sexual infidelity would likely not get their vote. Quickly, however, this political involvement morphed into focus on a number of cultural issues that became more important than the ethical behavior of the candidate; including abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and the visible secularization of American society which appeared to banish religion from public life. In a real sense, many evangelicals felt that the world they knew was being lost to a culture of secularism, with foreigners, liberals, and urban national elites taking control of American life and institutions. This resulted in courts enforcing new morays in race relations, education, and other areas of life. Taking prayer out of public schools and prohibiting public exercise of religion, and even replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Seasons’ Greetings” was seen as a direct threat to their world view. This was combined with what was seen as media ridicule and contempt for their values and lifestyle.
The Coming into Politics
In a dramatic shift, evangelicals started wielding their political electoral muscle, lining up behind politicians who may not necessarily share their evangelical beliefs, but who supported their ‘values’ and political agenda. This meant they lined up often on the side of narrow, conservative, nativist, xenophobic issues that were quickly manipulated by right wing pundits and radio talk-show hosts, as well as Christian television stations, and finally the Fox News Network. Rarely acknowledged was also an unspoken agenda combining racism and xenophobia that fueled their positions.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016, with the help of a very large majority of evangelicals, seems to bring to a head a number of political trends among them that have been documented by history professor John Fea in his book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 2018). The first of these trends is the politics of fear. Evangelicals were increasingly afraid of foreigners, liberals, secularists, Catholics, and Muslims. Politicians who stoked these fears and used dog whistles to communicate to evangelicals that they understood these fears and shared their concerns did well with the group. No one managed to do this as well as Trump who advocated a Muslim ban, spoke of invasions by immigrants from Latin America, and promised a wall to stem the flow of illegal immigrants whom he accused of being murderers and rapists, or “bad hombres.”6 His xenophobic and anti-immigrant statements even extended to existing legal immigrants, as he sought to end the immigration lottery, complained of family reunion (called it chain immigration), and undermined already agreed upon bipartisan efforts to reform the immigration system and to provide a path to citizenship for those who came to this country at a young age.
A second clear trend noted by Fea is the politics of power. Starting with the Moral Majority, a new idea took hold amongst evangelicals. Instead of shunning power and seeking to witness to it from the outside, they now saw great value in approaching, influencing, and eventually capturing the centers of power and directing them towards a “Christian” agenda. According to those who followed this reasoning, the country was falling into the hands of secularists, supported by a liberal media and courts that disdained and ridiculed their faith, and sought to use the power of government to restrict their freedoms and to install anti-religious policies. The ‘liberal elites,’ the national media, and the courts were all seen as conspiring to heap disdain upon evangelicals and their way of life and thinking. National laws that were federally imposed––and court-directed––targeting segregation (and thereby challenging racism) were viewed as part of this process. Roe v. Wade, the 1974 US Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion and striking down state laws that prohibited or restricted the procedure, is a frequent target for evangelical pro-life activists. Increasing liberalization on issues of homosexuality like authorizing gay marriage was yet another pet peeve. Enforcement of Civil Rights legislation that restricted racist practices also fueled this discontent. Evangelicals feel their way of life is under attack.
To fight these abominations, as they deem them to be, evangelicals felt they could no longer remain aloof from politics, but needed to be close to the centers of power. They wanted to get conservative judges appointed, capture congressional seats, governorships, and eventually the White House, and exert real temporal power, rather than witness to it and critique it from the outside. Trump not only gave a listening ear to evangelicals, inviting them to his inauguration, and other events, but through his Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, evangelicals felt that they had full access to him, and a seat at the table. His appointment of two conservative Supreme Court justices and scores of federal judges was touted as his contribution to their agenda.
Finally, the politics of nostalgia. Evangelicals were convinced that they needed to return to a (largely fictitious) past where they and their values were in command of American society. Liberals and secularists were viewed as utterly hostile to the culture they had built and the worldview they embraced, and they yearned to restore that world. References by the former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to some evangelicals as “deplorables”7 who only cared about their bibles and guns were seen by evangelicals as proof of this attitude, requiring a restorative change. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” completely played into this yearning nostalgically for a hypothetical past that was more to the liking of evangelicals.
To be sure, Trump had to overcome a lot of resistance to be acceptable to evangelicals, for whom he was not a natural candidate. He clearly was not an evangelical himself, and is clearly woefully ignorant about the Bible, (his favorite Biblical text, when asked by a reporter, was “an eye for an eye”8– a text Jesus specifically repudiated). In addition, his personal character and behavior seemed to be the antithesis of Christian values: he is arrogant, sexually immoral, vain, untruthful, and devoid of any sense of public service or sacrifice. Yet, for some evangelicals, his very brashness, and ‘unchristian’ attitude, lent him the swagger needed to be their champion in the cultural wars. They reasoned that precisely because he was rich and corrupt, and knew all the tricks, he could maneuver ‘the swamp’ (political Washington DC) better than a genuine Christian, like Vice President Pence.9 For example, his ability to deliver on the promise of moving the US embassy to Israel to Jerusalem was touted in his favor as a brash non-politician who would do what is necessary and not be bound by the political correctness of the hated establishment. Indeed, as the presidential election campaign of 2016 proceeded, he managed to overcome much of the initial reluctance of evangelicals who ended up supporting him overwhelmingly. This support was not lost on him, and he continued to court this group as part of his base even as he lost much support from independents and moderates through the years of his presidency.
Prospects for 2020
As the elections of 2020 draw near, it is instructive to note that while Trump’s support among evangelicals seems to be solid and unchanged, there are three elements that indicate that this support among evangelicals may not be as strong as it was in 2016.
First is the position of non-white evangelicals, including Latinos and African Americans. These two groups were quite shocked at his anti-immigrant and racist positions,10 and while they were lukewarm in their support for Democrats in 2016, it is likely that they will vote in much greater numbers to keep Trump out of the White House in 2020. Voter suppression moves by Republicans, including insistence on voter identification and creating obstacles to voting by minorities, indicate that Trump and the Republican Party generally see the danger of non-whites, even among evangelicals, voting against the incumbent president.
A second group of Evangelicals are the young. Already many studies show that young evangelicals are not happy at all with their parents’ voting patterns on a number of issues, which Trump champions.11 Many of these young people either leave the church entirely or are ready to vote contrary to the voting patterns of their parents. They are not happy with Trump’s conservative position on the environment, on immigrants, on race, and even on the Israel/Palestine issue. They are also uncomfortable with his position on women.
The third group are conservative evangelicals who are genuinely appalled by his irreligious and unethical behavior, and who cannot stomach his policies for ethical reasons. Jim Wallis, from Sojourners magazine recently published a book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus (Sojourners, 2019). Over 500,000 have downloaded a podcast by him challenging in strong terms Trump’s policies as anti-Christ. While still a minority among evangelicals , this group seems to have captured the moral high ground and can significantly reduce the support Trump has among evangelicals in 2020.
Finally, Trump’s own impulsive actions may in the end hurt him as well. After his decision to allow the latest Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria that is considered by many as a betrayal of the Kurds there, some of his evangelical supporters openly challenged him. Pat Robertson declared that he may lose his “mandate from heaven” and his position as “God’s anointed one.”12 The scandals around his personal use of his presidential powers––revealed, for example, in the so-called Ukrainegate that is the trigger for an impeachment investigation by the Democrats in the House of Representatives––are slowly eroding his support among his base. While indications are that a hard core of white evangelicals will still support him in 2020 no matter what he does, this group is shrinking, and evangelicals who refuse to support him in 2020, may well constitute the margin which will deny him a second term.
1 Ryan Burge, “Evangelicals Show No Decline, Despite Trump and Nones,” Christianity Today, 21/3/2019 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/342dBvY).
2 N.A., “United States Population,” Worldometer, n.d., (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/2MLOWGy).
3 “About NAE,” National Association of Evangelicals, n.d., (accessed 24/2/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/2p1N2bM).
4 See Michael Gerson, “Are these evangelicals ready to topple the idol of politics?” The Washington Post, 19/4/2018 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://wapo.st/2N84OlD).
5 Clyde Haberman, “Religion and Right-Wing Politics” How Evangelicals Reshaped Elections,” The New York Times, 28/10/2018 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2N8O6Ct).
6 Carolina Moreno, “Here’s Why Trump’s ‘Bad Hombres’ Comment Was So Offensive,” Huffington Post, 20/10/2019 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/2JhRKsC).
7 Elizabeth Bruenig, “In God’s country,” The Washington Post, 14/8/2019 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://wapo.st/2NaVKfF).
8 Nolan Mccaskill, “Trump’s Favorite Bible Verse: An Eye for an Eye,” Politico, 14/4/2016 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://politi.co/2qFQLfn).
9 Bruenig, “In God’s country,” op. cit.
10 Thomas Kidd, “Evangelicals Will Feature Prominently in 2020. Here Is Who They Really Are,” Medium, 20/9/2019 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/366q2c3).
11 Jessica Taylor, “Generational Split Among Evangelicals Threatens Vote for Trump,” National Public Radio, 15/10/2019 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://n.pr/2PhYCu2).
12 Kim Bellware, “Trump ‘in danger of losing the mandate of heaven’ over his Syria decision, Pat Robertson warns,” The Washington Post, 8/10/2019 (accessed 24/10/2019 at https://wapo.st/363M4fB).