You know the accused. They are not the usual suspects.
By now the assertion that evangelicalism died on November 8, 2016, should lie beyond the bounds of controversy. I needn’t belabor the point beyond stating the obvious: eighty-one percent of white evangelicals (the modifier “white” is important here), who for years had insisted that their political movement represented a defense of “family values,” cast their ballots for a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator and former casino operator who finds it impossible even to fake religious literacy.
Yes, many Americans—roughly a third of the population—still claim to be evangelicals, but that designation has been hollowed out by their support for a man whose fidelity to the Ten Commandments is, let’s say, equivocal. A majority of evangelicals retained their allegiance throughout the Trump presidency and beyond, despite the fact that, according to the Washington Post, Donald Trump made 30,573 false or misleading statements in the course of his four-year term—including the Big Lie that he actually won re-election in 2020.
What happened to that commandment about bearing false witness?
A catalog of Trump’s transgressions would (and, I’m sure, will) fill several books. But as a historian, I’m more interested in accounting for the death of evangelicalism. How did a tradition that once boasted a robust social agenda directed toward those Jesus called “the least of these,” lose its moral compass? Evangelicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries championed women’s rights and public education so that children of those less fortunate could become upwardly mobile. Although several southern theologians defended slavery, evangelicals in the North advocated for the abolition of slavery. Many were engaged in peace movements, and I’ve even found a nineteenth-century reference to an evangelical movement advocating gun control. Evangelicals were highly suspicious of capitalism; Charles Grandison Finney believed that a “Christian businessman” was an oxymoron because business necessarily elevated avarice over altruism.
Not all evangelical reform efforts were entirely commendable, especially in hindsight. Some initiatives smacked of paternalism, even colonialism; more than a few nativists were active in their ranks. But evangelicals set the social and political agenda for much of the nineteenth century, and the overall thrust of their efforts was generally directed toward those on the margins.
So, returning to the question at hand, how did we get from Finney or Jonathan Blanchard to Donald Trump? Who is responsible for the death of evangelicalism? Do we blame Trump himself, or was he the culmination of a longer process?
The slippery slope began long before Trump appeared on the scene.
A case can be made, as the recent American Experience documentary on PBS suggests, that Billy Graham played a not insignificant role in this process. Throughout his remarkable career, Graham was enamored of celebrity, especially that of politicians. He finagled an invitation to the Truman White House (an encounter that did not go well), but he latched on to Dwight Eisenhower and especially Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, who became a lifelong friend.
Publicly, Graham presented himself as politically neutral, but that was a ruse. While conducting research for God in the White House, I came across a letter from Graham to John F. Kennedy at the Kennedy Library. Dated August 10, 1960, Graham wrote to assure the Democratic presidential nominee that he, Graham, would not raise the “religious issue” during the campaign. Eight days later, Graham convened a gathering of American Protestant ministers in Montreux, Switzerland, to discuss how they might derail Kennedy’s election in November, and he wrote an endorsement of Nixon that Henry Luce, publisher of Time-Life, pulled at the last minute.
Twenty years later, Graham once again stealthily sought to influence the presidential election, working this time in opposition to a fellow evangelical, Jimmy Carter, then running for re-election. Graham convened a meeting of evangelical leaders in a hotel at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to discuss possible candidates to oppose Carter, a progressive evangelical who in many ways embodied the principles of nineteenth-century evangelicalism, especially on matters relating to women’s rights, the poor, and aversion to military engagement.
Following a vetting process that bordered on comical—when one of the preachers queried John Connally on “secular humanism,” the former Texas governor bellowed, “Well, I don’t know much about it, but it sounds good to me!”—the aborning Religious Right settled on a divorced and remarried former Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan.
Once again, subterfuge and sleight-of-hand figures into this narrative. The leaders of this new political movement labored mightily—and, until recently, successfully—to assert that they became politically active in opposition to what they characterized as the morally calamitous Roe v. Wade ruling of January 1973. The historical record, however, tells a different story. A conference of evangelical theologians in 1968 couldn’t determine whether abortion was morally wrong, but they allowed that it should be legal; two successive editors of Christianity Today issued similarly equivocal statements. In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention, not exactly a redoubt of liberalism, passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion, which the convention reaffirmed in 1974 and again in 1976. After the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and one of the most famous fundamentalists of the twentieth century, issued a statement applauding the Supreme Court decision. Jerry Falwell, by his own admission, did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 1978, more than five years after the Roe v. Wade decision.
What lay behind the formation of the Religious Right? The catalyst for this mobilization of politically conservative evangelicals, as confirmed by Paul Weyrich, architect of the movement, and many others, was a defense of racial segregation at evangelical institutions, including Bob Jones University and other so-called segregation academies. (Falwell had his own segregation academy in Lynchburg, Virginia.)
With the defense of segregation—racism—as the catalyst behind the Religious Right, the choice of Reagan, improbable on the face of it, makes perfect sense. Reagan, an FBI informer during the McCarthy era, entered California politics in 1964 to support the repeal of the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which sought to eliminate racial discrimination in the sale and rental of residential properties. He was an outspoken opponent of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As a political candidate, Reagan often used the racially fraught phrase “law and order,” and who can forget his vile caricature of mythical “welfare queens”? He opened his 1980 general election campaign in, of all places, Philadelphia, Mississippi, where, sixteen years earlier, the Ku Klux Klan had abducted and murdered three civil rights workers. Lest anyone miss Reagan’s intent, his speech included the traditional segregationist rallying cry, “states’ rights.”
Leaders of the Religious Right played along, and in the ensuing decades white evangelicals merged into the far-right precincts of the Republican Party. The 2016 election allowed leaders of the Religious Right finally to surrender the pretext that theirs was a movement devoted to “family values” as they circled back to the charter principle behind its formation, racism.
Sadly, tragically, the evangelical slippery slope from Reagan to Trump is littered with moral compromise on issues ranging from economics to the environment, from gender equality to race. George W. Bush’s disregard for just-war criteria, to take just one example, elicited nary a whimper from evangelical leaders, nor did Trump’s lies or his callous immigration policies.
So who killed evangelicalism?
Let’s bracket out the politicians themselves, who are, after all, politicians.
If we can’t single out one suspect, we can certainly point to accomplices aplenty: the founders of the Religious Right—Falwell, Weyrich, Robert Billings, James Robison, Tim LaHaye—as well as enablers along the way, including Pat Robertson and James Dobson. And we certainly must list Trump’s evangelical sycophants among the accomplices: Tony Perkins, Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham.
Regrettably, reaching back into history, we must include Franklin’s father as well.
Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College. His most recent book, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, will be released in August.