Thomas S. Kidd—
From Eisenhower to Romney, white evangelical voters had supported Republican candidates who seemed to model personal dignity and respect for religion, even if they did not have evangelical bona fides. At times Republican evangelicals have been credulous about Republican candidates, especially Richard Nixon. But 2016 found white evangelicals in a different mode. The profane Trump gloried in a personal history that openly contradicted evangelical standards of sexual behavior and marital fidelity, and based much of his campaign on tough national policy against immigrants from Central America and the Muslim world. His 1990 appearance on the cover of Playboy was illustrative of his personal traits, yet self-identifying white evangelical voters maintained their obeisance to the GOP.
How did the white evangelical alliance with Trump come to pass? Mostly it repeated evangelicals’ near-automatic performance in elections since 1952: the majority of white evangelical voters have supported the GOP candidate, whoever he might be. Yes, Trump broke the mold of conventional Republican nominees by openly bragging about his history of marital infidelity and other immoral behavior. But he also showed enough attention to evangelical and Pentecostal leaders to convince them, as leaders from Eisenhower to Reagan had convinced them, that he took them seriously. Trump had once described himself as “very pro-choice,” but like Mitt Romney, Trump professed to have changed his mind about abortion and become pro-life. Abortion is the single most important issue to many white evangelical voters. The first years of Trump’s presidency gave backers little reason to doubt his commitment to the pro-life cause, especially when he nominated Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (Because of the conventional unwillingness of nominees to comment on prospective cases, it remained unclear whether either Gorsuch or Kavanaugh would actually vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.) Evangelicals already knew what they would get from the staunchly pro-choice Hillary Clinton, who supported women’s freedom to get even late-term abortions. Although such procedures are rare, the issue of late-term abortions has often become a test question for whether Democratic candidates would consider any restrictions on abortion rights. For many white evangelicals, there was no question about what to do on Election Day 2016, whatever their level of dissatisfaction with Trump.
In the Republican primaries, there also was a dispersion of evangelical support, as had occurred in previous election cycles. While some, like Jeffress and Falwell Jr., were early Trump endorsers, some Moral Majority–era stalwarts such as James Dobson and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council endorsed Texas senator Ted Cruz. Florida senator Marco Rubio’s religion and pro-life advisory boards included evangelical and Pentecostal figures such as Saddleback Church’s Rick Warren, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference’s Samuel Rodriguez, Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler. (I was also a member of Rubio’s religious liberty advisory board.) But white and Republican-leaning Hispanic evangelicals failed to coalesce around a single candidate, aiding Trump’s improbable emergence from a large field of GOP contenders.
The fact that many women and people of color regarded Trump as a misogynist and racist gave some white evangelicals pause. A conspicuous, if small, evangelical #NeverTrump movement emerged, but that movement gained traction mostly among evangelicals who do not have much access to insider Republican circles and Fox News. #NeverTrump appears not to have made much impact among politically engaged, white evangelical laypeople. In the end, #NeverTrump advocacy was not enough to significantly reduce overall evangelical votes for Trump.
This was a grievous disappointment to many traditionalist Christians, especially women and people of color. It generated memories of white evangelical passivity in the eras of lynching and civil rights. Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., wrote after the election at The Gospel Coalition website that evangelical Trump voters had “abandoned public solidarity with groups who considered Mr. Trump an existential threat to them. I’m speaking here of the many groups who expressed reservation regarding Mr. Trump’s racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, isolationism, and nativism. People with those concerns came from a lot of groups in the country, including African-American Christians, many themselves evangelicals. . . . That voting decision will likely put a deep chill on efforts at reconciliation. . . . Coming back from that may be difficult.”
From Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis by Thomas S. Kidd. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Thomas S. Kidd is the James Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. His books include Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father and American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths.