The rise of the 'evangelical right' in American politics and why it matters

The recent scenes of protesters holding placards with 'Jesus saves' while they stormed the US Capitol, have shocked and disgusted many Christians around the world. Historian Martyn Whittock analyses the rise of the 'evangelical right' in America and asks: has Christianity become corrupted by politics? 

On 20 January 2021, the presidency of Donald Trump will come to an end with the inauguration of Joe Biden. It has been a turbulent journey since the election on 3 November. Along the way we have seen the apparent result change, as early voting ballots and postal ballots were added to the total; Trump resisting the emerging result and setting up his alternative narrative of a “stolen” election; Republican leaders displaying a noticeable reluctance to challenge this version of events and risk antagonising their supporter base; and then the final realisation that no amount of litigation and denial could overturn Biden’s victory. 

It has been an extraordinary and rocky road towards the peaceful transfer of power, and along that road, Christian faith has reflected the polarisation of America. White US evangelicals, in particular, have played a major role in the events of 2020, building on their previous headline-grabbing actions when, in 2016, 81 per cent of them helped put Trump in power in the first place. 

The influence of faith 

The dedication to Trump among members of the ‘evangelical right 'has scarcely wavered since 2016. White evangelicals again voted overwhelmingly for him in 2020 (polls vary between 77 per cent and more than 81 per cent – comparable with 2016 figures). In contrast, a large majority of black evangelicals voted for Biden. Overall, 87 per cent of black Americans cast their vote for the Democrat. Catholics were split fairly evenly, but white Catholics tended towards Trump and Hispanic Catholics towards Biden (although Trump increased his share of Latino votes). Most voters identifying as ‘other faiths’ voted for Biden. 

The religious racial divide is as stark as the deeply divided vote: Biden winning, but with no widespread rejection of the Trump presidency, for all its controversies and huge Covid-19 mortality. In this, the continued importance of the ‘evangelical right’ in US politics is clear. 

The origins of the 'evangelical right'  

As far back as the 1940s and 50s, anxieties in the US about challenges to Christian influence, the perceived threat of communism and changing patterns of social behaviour, caused many Protestants to gravitate towards the Republican Party, and in this we see the origins of the ‘evangelical right’. In 1954 the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in a pushback against atheistic communism during the Cold War. The phrase also carries the subtext that US capitalism and ‘the American way’ are heaven-blessed.  

This has created a peculiarly US evangelical agenda, mixing traditional Christian concerns (regarding sexual behaviour, family, abortion) with concerns rooted in decidedly right-wing preoccupations (from low taxation to antipathy towards federal influence, including on healthcare, gun control and climate change). It is this that makes US evangelicalism distinct. Since the 1960s it has built bridges to Catholicism (once vehemently opposed) regarding common socially conservative concerns. 

To those unhappy with the trajectory of American society, government has been seen as a major source of problems. It was the Supreme Court that banned official public prayers in state schools (‘Engel v Vitale’, 1962), regulated government involvement in private Christian academies (‘Lemon v Kurtzman’,1971), and legalised first-trimester abortions (‘Roe v Wade’, 1973). The situation for some Christians seemed clear: government should be brought back into line with evangelicalism.  

At the same time – since the late 1960s and especially in the 1970s – evangelicals felt they were under siege. Then (and still) they felt that traditional Christian values were being overlooked, or caricatured, in the media. Furthermore, they felt (and still feel) that the school system drives a secular agenda. At the same time, the growth in LGBTQ rights challenged traditional views of marriage and ‘acceptable’ sexual behaviour. Also, particular interpretations of scripture underpinned deeply rooted (almost unquestioning) support for Israel. In short, a culture war began and the evangelical right prepared to fight to defend its values as never before. 

During the 1980s and 90s, evangelicals launched a determined campaign to influence the Republican Party in defence of what they considered ‘traditional American Christian values’. Although they proved highly successful in the promotion of politicians favourable to the evangelical cause, there was often a perceived mismatch between promises made and policies delivered. This occurred under Reagan and even under George W Bush, with his impeccable personal evangelical credentials. Frustration mounted. 

Then, in 2008, Barack Obama happened. The election of a young, intelligent, telegenic and highly articulate social progressive (committed to proactive federal government initiatives) was a sharp reversal of all that the evangelical right had been working on for more than 20 years. The Obama presidency (2009-17) was seen as an existential threat. Then the possibility of political success for a socially progressive female Washington insider, in the form of Hillary Clinton, caused an upsurge of evangelical activism unparalleled in US history. 

The Trump factor 

It was this that led to 81 per cent of white evangelicals voting for Trump in 2016 (more than 33 million votes). It was a marriage of mutual convenience in which Trump promised everything on the evangelical agenda: Supreme Court nominations, the promise of rolling back abortion rights and support for Israel. Evangelicals reciprocated with intense support for a man whose personal and political morality – which many feel is at odds with Christian values – was set aside, in order to win what they perceived as a battle for the soul of America. 

His policy on immigration struck a chord too, since polling reveals that 59 per cent of white evangelicals see immigrants as threatening their cultural and ethnic identity. This is a view shared by only 30 per cent of all other religious Americans and 31 per cent of the country generally.  

Even the Covid-19 pandemic had little effect on support for Trump. There was a slight dip in evangelical support over the summer of 2020, as Covid deaths and the unrest associated with police killings of black Americans shook the USA, but by the autumn it returned to previous levels.  

For a group traditionally suspicious of government, the necessary Covid-19 restrictions were often seen as unwelcome state interference. In the same way, the shutting of churches during the pandemic was easy to present as state restrictions on religious freedom. In this way political individualism (a feature of the politics of the right) could become fused with an evangelical outlook, such that the wearing of masks was seen as a sign of acceptance of state power. This occurred alongside a fear of economic decline as a result of lockdown, which further resonated with a group whose religious beliefs have long been associated with support for American free enterprise. 

As for the Black Lives Matter movement, it had little lasting impact on a community where 70 per cent of white evangelicals continue to see the killing of unarmed black people by police as isolated incidents, rather than a product of systemic racism. In the same way, only 25 per cent of white evangelicals have felt that Trump’s behaviour encouraged the activities of white supremacist groups. 

The Biden effect 

What does the Biden victory tell us about the impact of faith on US politics? While Biden may have been unable to fundamentally shake the solid wall of white evangelical support for Trump, there have been cracks in that wall and, elsewhere, the Biden victory was more significant still. 

As a middle-of-the-road Catholic, with a well-publicised personal faith, there is evidence that he won the support of a small number of evangelicals who were shocked at the behaviour of Trump over the past four years. But this should not be overstated, because the evangelical right has proved remarkably resistant to any attempts to woo members away from their traditional support for the Republican Party. This is despite the radicalisation of the party that has occurred under Trump. Infact, many evangelicals have been energised by that radicalisation, even as it has shocked fellow Americans. 

Where Biden was more successful was among Catholics. Catholic voters accounted for 22 per cent of the electorate in 2020, but were particularly important in ‘Rust Belt’ battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Here, Biden hung onto votes that Hillary Clinton had lost in 2016 and this helped secure him victory. Among Hispanic Catholics across the nation (a growing demographic), Biden won 67 percent of their votes. 

These demographic changes may signpost the way things will develop in the future. While Trump's support base of white evangelicals held fairly firm, when one factors in black and Hispanic evangelicals, he received just over half of the overall evangelical votes, with Biden close behind him. Whites are not the only evangelicals – and their numbers are declining. 

A similar demographic signpost to future voting behaviour involves those with no religious identity at all. This group went from 15 percent of the electorate in 2016 to 21 per cent in 2020. The Democrats did significantly better with this group and this is likely to continue if white evangelical Christians double down and become increasingly seen as representing a rigid, right-wing outlook. 

Looking to the future 

Biden is a centrist politician who has made it clear he wants to unify the fractured US and appeal to a wide range of citizens. This includes those who are part of the divided community of Christian faith. He will have his work cut out, but at least he speaks the language of consensus, which is a start. His challenge will be reaching out to socially conservative Americans without alienating the more progressive members of his own party. This polarisation has been exacerbated during the Trump years and will not be easily bridged.  

In this task he is assisted by his sincere Christian faith. The task is demanding, however, because theology and political partisanship have become so intermingled and so bitter. The challenge to Christians is to identify areas of common ground rooted in biblical principles, while learning to respectfully discuss differences in love. 

In the aftermath of Trump’s defeat, a well-known US evangelical confided to me, in an off-the-record assessment, that a majority of evangelicals believe in Trump’s narrative of a “stolen” election; a minority are resigned to a Biden presidency, but will keep fighting to change abortion law; a smaller minority are relieved at Trump's defeat; and huge numbers of young evangelicals are leaving their highly politicised spiritual communities. Clearly, for US evangelicals the turbulence is far from over. 

The words of Jesus – “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) – remind us that faith should have a completely different flavour to politics. In responding to this description of the kingdom, Christians face the same dilemma they have faced for centuries: how to be radical influencers of society without being drawn into the moral compromises so often associated with power politics, defence of the status quo and narrow political partisanship. Will 2021 turnout to be another year of upheaval and unrest in America, or will the soon-to-be President Biden manage to unite a fractured USA? Only time will tell... 

Martyn Whittock is a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England and an evangelical. As a historian, he has a particular interest in the interaction between faith and politics. He has recently explored the theme of the interconnection between history and contemporary events in Trump and the Puritans: How the Evangelical Religious Right Put Donald Trump in the White House (co-author James Roberts), which was published by Biteback in 2020.

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