Not Without Precedent: Populist White Evangelical Support for Trump

Hannah Dick

Rather than signaling the end times for a unified conservative religious movement, Trump’s election has given many white evangelicals the opportunity to be politically born again.

Photo CC BY 2.0 by Jamelle Bouie

In 1980, Jerry Falwell mobilized his evangelical Christian Political Action Committee, the Moral Majority, to support the election of a movie star, Ronald Reagan, over a fellow evangelical, Jimmy Carter. On November 8, 2016, 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, mobilized in part by Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr.[1] It was the highest evangelical margin for a Republican candidate since 2004, and exit polls suggest that the voting populace is reflective of broader demographics in America where evangelicals continue to make up 25% of the population. However, major news outlets failed to adequately cover Trump’s courtship of this enormous voting bloc, contributing to the narrative of shock in response to his win. Rather than treating evangelical support for Trump as exceptional, I read it as historically embedded in a racialized, populist politics of the American religious right. In this essay I briefly look at coverage of white evangelicals in mainstream news outlets during the election cycle.

The same refrain is repeated in nearly every story covering the evangelical vote, casting doubt on a strong or unified voting bloc in November: as a thrice-married, non-churchgoing Presbyterian, avowed sinner and lewd public figure, Donald Trump presents a moral contradiction for values voters.

One media narrative around religion in this campaign was that it was not a significant factor in shaping voting behavior – at least not Christianity, which has been much more visible in previous campaign cycles. Compared with the rhetoric of Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and even Mitt Romney, Trump’s sloganeering does not gesture towards a publicly visible evangelical audience. In March of 2016 CNN religion editor Daniel Burke declared Super Tuesday a death knell for the religious right as Trump made significant gains over more obviously religious candidates like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. However, Trump’s campaign recognized early on the significance of courting the evangelical vote, and last June ‘the Donald’ professed to be born again. The Washington Post embedded the conversion news within an opinion piece about the Trump campaign’s firing of Corey Lewandowski. Kathleen Parker explained that the two events were parallel strategic decisions. The New York Times deferred to the authority of conservative leader James Dobson in asking the question, “A Born-Again Donald Trump? Believe It, Evangelical Leader Says.” Reporters Trip Gabriel and Michael Luo note in the piece that in the process of interviewing Mr. Dobson, he “conceded that Mr. Trump did not exactly fit the typical mold of an evangelical.” The frame that accompanied Trump’s courtship of the evangelical vote underscored the contradiction between a religious voting bloc and an immoral, decadent, and vitriolic political figure. This established a media frame emphasizing the impossibility of a unified evangelical vote for Trump. The same refrain is repeated in nearly every story covering the evangelical vote, casting doubt on a strong or unified voting bloc in November: as a thrice-married, non-churchgoing Presbyterian, avowed sinner and lewd public figure, Donald Trump presents a moral contradiction for values voters.

By the fall of 2016 mainstream news outlets verified that Trump would cause an irreconcilable schism within evangelical communities. New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein published an article on October 17th with the headline, “Donald Trump Reveals Evangelical Rifts That Could Shape Politics for Years.” Her November 11th headline reveals something of an about-face: “Religious Right Believes Donald Trump Will Deliver on His Promises.” In the week before the election both the New Yorker and NPR’s All Things Considered ran stories on Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention who spoke out forcefully against evangelical support for Trump. Reports that Liberty University was divided over Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of the GOP candidate further advanced the narrative of schism. CNN reported on Trump’s evangelical courtship during the primaries but their coverage of the white evangelical vote was eclipsed by Trump’s bluster once he secured the GOP nomination.[2]

Trump’s rhetoric is not religious. He is the first president-elect in three decades to fail to conclude his speeches with “God Bless America” (a phrase invented by Richard Nixon but popularized by Reagan in order to appease his evangelical supporters). However, focus on the contradiction between Trump’s moral character and a religious voting bloc obscures the strategic political alliance between the religious right and GOP candidates since the 1970s. Evangelical support for Trump is neither exceptional, nor without historical precedent.

Since the 1920s American evangelicals have alternately participated in and retreated from the public sphere, depending on the perceived warmth of the cultural climate towards evangelical precepts. Even though the 1925 Scopes trial was a legislative “win” for evangelicals trying to keep evolution out of public schools, it was quickly met with broad public backlash. Following the trial many evangelicals retreated into the private sphere, only reemerging under Falwell’s Moral Majority. Conventional narratives around the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s suggest that it entered the public sphere in order to lobby against legal abortion. However, as Randall Balmer points out, it was not until six years after Roe v. Wade (1973) that the Moral Majority was mobilized, and then it was in reaction to the IRS pulling tax exemptions from Christian schools that continued to practice segregation.[3]

The tax issue was one reason that many white evangelicals backed Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election over Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. Even though Reagan’s support of abortion rights was ambiguous, Carter’s administration took the blame for the IRS decision. Balmer penned an Op-Ed in the LA Times in March of 2016 explaining evangelical support for Trump:

There is a kind of tragic irony in the religious right’s embrace of Trump. A movement that began with the defense of racial segregation in the late 1970s now finds itself in bed with a vulgar demagogue who initially refused to renounce the support of the nation’s most notorious white supremacist.

At the very least, Trump’s alliances with white supremacy have not alienated him from a white evangelical support base. Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric also appeals to a posture of victimization that the Christian right has assumed in the context of increasing religious freedoms for religious minorities in this country, but also in reaction to increasing federal rights for women and queer communities. Trump’s unpredictability, his intense patriarchalism, and even his anti-traditionalism all render him a charismatic leader in Weber’s[4] sense of the term. As such, Trump inhabits a culturally familiar role for some evangelicals who have acutely felt the loss of the culture wars.

Beginning under Reagan’s administration, the American political sphere became increasingly polarized over moral and cultural issues, including gay rights, abortion, and religion in schools. Pat Buchanan described a nation at war in his speech at the 1992 Republican Convention:

There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side.

The election of Bill Clinton was seen as a distinct loss in the war over the moral center of America. Under the Obama administration many evangelicals have felt further persecuted by expanded rights for LGBTQ communities.

In this vein, Hillary Clinton is culturally anathema for white evangelicals; they see her as a symbol for increasing (minority) religious freedoms, women’s rights, and the attack on patriarchal family structure. As one white evangelical explained,

Christians voted for Donald Trump because they felt that the threat a de facto third Obama term posed to Christian communities was an existential one.

The attacks on Christians from the highest levels of government have been relentless now for nearly a decade. Obama wants to force Christian churches and schools to accept the most radical and most recent version of gender ideology, and he is willing to issue executive decrees on the issue to force the less enlightened to get in line.

The white evangelical vote for Trump – and against Clinton – must be understood in the context of perceived declining rights for evangelicals who once held a privileged position in the American political sphere.

The white evangelical vote for Trump – and against Clinton – must be understood in the context of perceived declining rights for evangelicals who once held a privileged position in the American political sphere.[5] Trump’s populist message spoke directly to a white evangelical population increasingly receptive to anti-establishment messaging. There is a distinct affiliation between the populist evangelical message and Trump’s post-politics rhetoric.[6]

News media obliged the privatization of evangelical sentiment, and followed the lead of the two major party campaigns in not talking about religion. This obscured Trump’s evangelical courtship, however, ultimately obfuscating the political power of the religious right. Since the election there have been a number of stories about the white evangelical voting bloc in news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Reporters are trying to make sense of a singular white evangelical voting bloc after having advanced the narrative of a fractured religious right. To be sure, not all evangelicals are white and not all evangelicals voted for Trump – or against Clinton. Indeed, there are numerous ways of defining and delimiting the concept of “evangelical” in the first place. However, to pretend that religious identity has little bearing on political preference, or that other identity markers like race, gender, and class supersede religious affiliation, is dangerous and misleading. The recent executive order on religious liberty, while significantly toned down from a draft leaked in early February, still indicates that the administration is invested in upholding the specific political aims of the religious right. The order removes tax penalties for religious organizations seeking a broader role in politics, including endorsing candidates or supporting them with donations. Rather than signaling the end times for a unified conservative religious movement, Trump’s election has given many white evangelicals the opportunity to be politically born again.


Hannah Dick is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.


References and Footnotes

  1. Falwell Jr. said that he was offered the position of Secretary of Education in Trump’s cabinet, which he declined.
  2. Burke, Daniel. “7 Types of Evangelicals -- and How They’ll Affect 2016.” CNN. N.p., 2 Mar. 2016. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
  3. Balmer, Randall. Evangelicalism in America. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016. Print; God in the White House: A History. Zondervan, 2008. Print.
  4. Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Trans. A. M Henderson and Talcott Parsons. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947. Print.
  5. Sehat, David. The Myth of American Religious Freedom. Oxford; New York  N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
  6. Mouffe, Chantal. “The ‘End of Politics’ and the Challenge of Right-Wing Populism.” Populism and the Mirror of Democracy. Ed. Francisco Panizza. Verso, 2005. 50–71. Print.