The rise of the US evangelical right

(Photo: iStock/ChristinLola)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses." (NRSV) That "cloud" has continued to grow in size since then. In this monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events, over the past 2000 years, that have helped make up this "cloud." People and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

Evangelical Christian churches in the US are a very important feature of American life and have had a great influence on the world evangelical community. They make up a large part of the Christian population of the US as well as the overall population. More on that later, because the situation is fluid.

Their impact on culture, communities and individual lives is difficult to exaggerate. However, it is their involvement with politics which has increasingly gained attention. Their close association with the Republican Party is well known but their support for Donald Trump has become a defining feature since 2016.

In 2016, it is generally accepted that about 81% of white US evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Some analysis of the data argues for it being 78% but the figures are comparable. The proportion voting for him in 2020 was similar to the higher figure. This support of white evangelicals (and it is necessary to add that racial clarifier) for the Republican Party, in its current Trump-MAGA form, has become one of the norms of modern US politics. There is every sign that 2024 will be comparable with previous patterns of voting.

In the January Iowa Caucuses 53% of white evangelical Christians backed Trump, 27% DeSantis, and just 13% Haley. Given that DeSantis had tried to pitch his appeal to the Trump-base, this means that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump or a Trump-like candidate. The exit poll for South Carolina's Republican presidential primary in February revealed that Trump won about three-quarters of the vote among white evangelicals. In contrast, other Republican voters in the state were more closely divided between Trump and Haley. The ideological voting pattern, so clear in 2016 and 2020, looks set to continue.

Whatever one thinks about that – and opinions sharply differ – it is a political and cultural phenomenon of great importance. But what is its history? How has the US 'evangelical right' emerged as such a political force? And why is it so supportive of Donald Trump and MAGA?

The history of the 'evangelical right' in the US

Right-leaning evangelical Protestants have been involved in politics for much of the twentieth century and their activities are not simply a modern phenomenon, although it is during the past thirty-five years that they have come to increasing prominence. As far back as the 1940s, '50s and '60s, anxieties about the perceived threat of communism and changing patterns of social behaviour caused many with this outlook to gravitate towards the Republican Party as a way of defending what they would have described as the 'Protestant-based moral order.'

During the 1960s the mood-music of the US changed (literally and figuratively) as it did across much of the Western world. Permissive sexual behaviour and pressure to liberalise abortion laws caused US evangelicals and Roman Catholics (previously regarded with hostility) to cooperate in key policy areas. The Supreme Court decision to make abortion a constitutionally protected right in the 1973 'Roe v. Wade' ruling was a major accelerator in the rise of the evangelical right in the 1970s.

At the same time, a long-term change occurred within the Democratic Party. For generations, so-called 'Dixiecrats' in the southern states (especially in the Deep South) had combined both Protestant ideology and socially conservative agendas, including about black civil rights. During the 1960s this southern Democrat section of voters shifted ground. Fear of the counter-culture emerging across the US, as well as opposition to the civil rights movement among southern blacks, caused the 'Dixiecrats' to move towards the Republican Party.

During the 1960s, this intra-Democrat division deepened and was exacerbated by the Democratic Party's increasing identification with a 'pro-choice' position regarding abortion. As a result, socially conservative 'Dixiecrats' (and other more conservative Democrats too) joined the Republican Party in increasing numbers as the 1960s progressed. Many of these self-identified as 'evangelicals,' including many Southern Baptists. A seismic shift was occurring within US politics. The boundaries of the political plate tectonics underlying these changes can clearly be traced in the US political scene of the twenty-first century.

To those unhappy with the trajectory of American society, the state was regarded as a major source of problems. It was, after all, the US Supreme Court that had banned official (although not private) prayer and Bible readings in the state schools ('Engel v. Vitale', 1962), had made abortion a constitutional right ('Roe v. Wade', 1973), and had gone on to regulate government involvement in private Christian academies ('Lemon v. Kurtzman',' 1971). The situation seemed clear: government had to be brought into line with the ideas of evangelical Americans.

At the same time, evangelicals felt that they were under siege from culture and the media. In short, a culture war had begun and evangelicals prepared to fight to defend their values as never before.

These changes meant that an increasing polarisation was occurring in which evangelicals identified with a raft of political issues (opposition to abortion and non-traditional sexual behaviour and federal 'interference') that were associated with the Republican Party. Many – though not all – of these evangelicals were white, especially in the southern states.

On the other hand, a more complex group of Christians (including both more socially liberal ones and more politically interventionist ones such as some black evangelicals) lined up behind the Democratic Party. The Democrats were becoming increasingly associated with a pro-choice position on abortion, equal rights for minorities (including what would then have been termed the gay community), and non-traditional social values. The religious and party-political battle-lines, familiar in 2024, were being drawn.

The evangelical right rallied in support of Republican Ronald Regan. In response, the 1980 Republican Party platform adopted a number of policies that were in line with demands from right-leaning evangelicals. These included dropping support for the Equal Rights Amendment (designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all US citizens regardless of gender) and supporting a restoration of school prayer (largely banned from the public elementary, middle, and high school system by a number of Supreme Court decisions since 1962 and still in force).

This accompanied calls by evangelical leaders, such as by the late Southern Baptist pastor, televangelist, and conservative activist Jerry Falwell Sr, to conservative (evangelical) Christians to get more involved in politics.

The power and influence of the evangelical right increased considerably during the presidency of Bush senior (George H.W.) between 1989 and 1993. The relationship did not always go well, though. He was regarded as too socially liberal and too associated with family planning.

In 1989, to ensure that any future Republican president was more in line with the evangelical agenda, prominent church leaders founded the 'Christian Coalition,' which spent the early 1990s building a widespread grassroots organisation which eventually claimed over one million members. From this base, they launched a massive infiltration of the Republican Party, such that by 1992 some 40% of the delegates to the Republican National Convention were evangelicals.

The determination of the evangelicals to dominate the party was exacerbated by the years of the Clinton presidency (1993–2001), with his perceived liberalism and by the charges of sexual improprieties levelled against him. The latter, it should be noted, was something that they set aside with ease in 2016 when it came to supporting the Trump campaign. But then things had changed since the late 1990s and the evangelical resurgence was in full swing by 2016, with a more aggressive and determined tone than ever before.

By 1994 the representation of members of the Christian Coalition at the Republican National Convention stood at over 50% of delegates. This was a position from which to dictate the direction of the party. This activism assisted in the election of George W. Bush in 2000. By that time, while the committed inner core of the political movement may have been no more than 200,000 US adults, those explicitly identifying themselves as broadly in line with their policies ranged from ten to fifteen million, while a broader group of sympathetic voters who might be mobilized over a specific issue (especially abortion or gun control) may have reached thirty-five million.

It has been estimated that, in 2000, George W Bush received 68% of the white evangelical vote. By 2004 that percentage had increased to 78%. However, Bush's mixing of pragmatism with evangelical idealism was a characteristic of his presidency and reminds us that even the most focused special interest group cannot entirely control the political agenda.

Then, in 2008, Barack Obama happened. The election of a young, intelligent, telegenic and highly articulate social progressive (committed to proactive federal government initiatives on a number of fronts) was a sharp reversal of all that the evangelical right had been working on for over twenty years. The Obama presidency (2009–17) was regarded as an existential threat. Reaction to this perceived threat galvanised support among right-leaning evangelicals.

A major feature of the modern US political landscape is the extraordinary turnout at the polls of highly motivated evangelicals. This has contributed to a political dialogue that is increasingly confrontational and combative (from both sides) and has become something of a battle for what is perceived as 'the soul of America.' The high levels of support for Donald Trump grew out of this situation. He is seen as delivering in areas of concern to conservative Christians and an alliance of mutual dependency has developed that has become detached from the usual moral requirements evangelicals have traditionally demanded of their candidate.

The nature of evangelical political activism in the US

US culture and politics are complex and modern evangelical activism there ranges from concerns that are common to many global evangelical communities (over such areas as secularisation, materialism, sexual behaviour, aspects of reproductive rights) and ones that are associated with US conservatism (such as opposition to gun control, opposition to federal health care and state involvement in society and the economy).

High levels of support for the State of Israel and opposition to combating climate change are in the mix too. There are also very high levels of support for ideas of American exceptionalism and nationalism; with pronounced tendencies towards isolationism in foreign affairs and suspicion of international bodies and restraints on US behaviour.

Race is also in the mix. Data from the 2020 Presidential Election indicates that, regarding non-white evangelicals, only 40% voted for Trump. This is in stark contrast to the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2020 (both stats coming from analysis by Eastern Illinois University and comparable to other studies of the data). So, it's more than evangelical faith alone driving the support for the Trump/MAGA phenomenon. This makes for very uncomfortable reading for those searching for simple ways of understanding US politics and faith-based activism.

Overall, there is a homogenous character to US evangelical political activism which is distinctive and different to the more complex situation regarding evangelical outlooks in the UK. In the latter, things are far more politically diverse and also generally inclined to support government action in state health care and climate change. The US situation is not just the application of evangelical outlooks to political issues. It looks similar...and then it doesn't. It is complex and peculiar to the US in significant ways.

The evangelical right in 2024

Whatever one concludes about the rights and wrongs of the high level of white evangelical support for Trump and the MAGA movement, its significance is undeniable and needs to be both recognised and understood. Rooted in history that stretches back over more than eighty years, the emergence of the evangelical right is of huge significance and reflects tectonic shifts in the culture of the US from the society of the Vietnam War to that of the culture wars today.

However, data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reveals that the number of white evangelicals has dropped from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020. Not only this, but the PRRI research reveals that these white evangelicals constitute the oldest age-profile of any identifiable group of religious Americans. This is likely to increase anxiety within this politically important demographic as its influence slowly decreases. In the turbulent politics of this year in the US this very distinctive faith-based input is likely to remain both highly influential and controversial.

Martyn Whittock is a historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. The author, or co-author, of fifty-six books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms and been interviewed on TV and radio news and discussion programmes exploring the interaction of faith and politics. His recent books include: Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021), The Story of the Cross (2021), Apocalyptic Politics (2022) and American Vikings: How the Norse Sailed into the Lands and Imaginations of America (2023). Exploration of the history and impact of the evangelical right in the USA was the subject of his co-written book Trump and the Puritans. How the Evangelical Religious Right Put Donald Trump in the White House (2020).