A brief history of White Evangelical Support of Conservative Politics; a multi-part essay

Talking to my friends, the word of the day is confusion. We are confused about how our parents could support Trumpism, confused about the rightness of our own beliefs, and confused about how to reconcile our desire to honor our elders while disagreeing with them so strongly. “We” are white evangelicals in our 30s, kids of the late 80s and early 90s, raised on DC Talk and Left Behind books. We went to church on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, and any other time the door was open. We were raised by God-fearing parents who taught us right from wrong, who lectured us about character, and who valued kindness, empathy, and grace. At least we thought they did. Over the last 4.5 years, we’ve looked behind the curtain and it is nearly impossible for us to reconcile what we have seen, how could our godly, Jesus-loving parents support the actions, words, and policies of a man like Donald Trump. The same white evangelicals who lamented the character of Bill Clinton are now giving Trump a pass because of political expediency. In this article, I am going to show a comparison of white evangelical support of both Presidents, how the character of each candidate coincides despite white evangelical belief, and reveal the depth of impact that my generation experienced through the witness of our parents and the subsequent confusion we experience today.

I was 14 years old when the Clinton-Lewinsky affair came to light but that is not my first memory of the Clinton years. My earliest memory was being 8 years old, standing in line at elementary school, and arguing with someone about how horrible Clinton was because he was a democrat. Influenced by my parent's disdain for the Democratic Party even prior to Clinton’s public moral failure, my passion was only incensed by his moral failure. At the time of the affair, evangelical moral outrage was at an all-time high, evangelicals could not imagine having a President of such low morals, what would happen to ‘their’ country? In 1998 James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, penned a letter, “What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying.”[1] Dobson goes on to say that the rationalization for supporting the president is simply “because the economy is strong.”[2] Dobson laments the state of the country and the disregard for morality that is plaguing the country, he even goes so far to say that if any other man was accused by numerous women of having been groped or abused, that the man should be fired. But then, Dobson makes a rather strange but revealing admission regarding the confirmation hearing of Clarence Thomas. “How can we forget the excruciating confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas in the U.S. Senate? Even if Anita Hill’s accusations had been accurate, the worst possible interpretation of Thomas’ behavior was that he “talked dirty” to her.”[3] As if turning on a dime, Dobson was willing to condemn Clinton or any other person accused of sexual assault, but not Clarence Thomas, not someone of his own political persuasion. And there we have the rub; a scandal is only a scandal when it is someone you disagree with.

Dobson’s moral outrage at Clinton’s indiscretions was well-founded. He was right to bemoan the acceptance of immoral behavior, sexual sin, and lying simply because the country was doing well economically. Mammon had become god, the love of money, the greed of success, and the desire for political power blinded many Americans and led to an unconscionable acceptance of Clinton’s behavior. But why was Thomas given a pass? If, as Dobson had argued, accusations were good enough for dismissal in the workplace, what is different here? The answer is the pursuit of political power to achieve evangelical goals regardless of the means.

But this is not what I was told as a teenage Christian. The nuances of political power were of no concern to me and the average white evangelical in the late 90s. Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and numerous others told us that our way of life was under attack and that we must mobilize to save our families, Clinton’s indiscretions were just another piece of evidence pointing toward the immoral godless society that the Democrats intended for us. Robertson went as far as to say that Bill Clinton had “debauched, debased, and defamed’ the presidency and that “our national trust has been deeply wounded.”[4] But when it comes to Trump’s remarks Robertson dismissed them as “macho talk.”

All of this was happening against the backdrop of the Brownsville Revival, a years-long revival meeting that was highlighted by mass repentance from believers and non-believers alike. White evangelicals were coming into their own, having finally mobilized into broad coalitions like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, the plan was to use their combined political power for the good of the nation. To make, or in the minds of many, to return America to its Christian roots. White Evangelicals were all caught up in the fervor; desperate to have a country that looked and acted Christian and this meant expecting more from their leaders, themselves, and the companies they did business with. For years, evangelicals boycotted Disney due to their support of gay rights. Influenced by populist Evangelical leaders and televangelists, evangelicals were learning their collective power and using their voices to hold leaders and corporations to account but only when it applied to the other side of the political spectrum.

The double standard of Evangelical outrage has largely been applied along partisan political lines with Evangelicals overwhelmingly supporting republican candidates since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s staunch anti-communist views and his calls for a limited government so resonated with evangelicals that they ignored Reagan’s previous marriage, his alienation from his own children, and that he almost never attended church, elements that were often elevated as critical for an upright life.[5] In the case of Reagan, white Evangelicals rallied around anti-communism and limited government and in 2016 they rallied over an existential return to America’s former greatness. This time they were willing to overlook multiple marriages, bragging about sexual exploits and affairs, greed coupled with pride, and a candidate who lied with alarming brashness. For evangelicals the desire to return to a utopian past in a world they now feared was under attack was a motivator worthy of God using someone like Donald Trump. This desire to return to a previous America has permeated Trump’s campaign and the Evangelical consciousness, but to what world are they hoping to return? To find out, we need to take a closer look at the Civil Rights movement and the establishment of the Moral Majority.

Stay tuned for my next post that dives into the founding of the Moral Majority and to find out more about the America white evangelicals hope to experience again.

[1] James Dobson, September 1998, http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/clinton/character.html.

[2] Dobson.

[3] Dobson.

[4] Thomas B. Edsall, “Resignation ‘Too Easy,’ Robertson Tells Christian Coalition.,” Washington Post, September 19, 1998, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/stories/coalition091998.htm.

[5] Clyde Haberman, “Religion and Right-Wing Politics: How Evangelicals Reshaped Elections,” The New York Times, October 28, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/us/religion-politics-evangelicals.html.