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How Evangelicals Learned to Stop Worrying...
...and love the culture wars.
White evangelicals have been a coveted constituency in American politics ever since they congealed into a movement in the 1970s. Comprising about a quarter of the electorate, they have voted for Republican presidential candidates at rates of roughly 80% in recent elections. That level of support makes them crucial in Republican primaries, where they provide nearly half of the available votes. Republican candidates who lack significant evangelical backing have no chance of winning the party's nomination.
Some of the standard strategies for winning evangelical votes have persisted over the last four decades. Most notably, every Republican nominee from Ronald Reagan forward has promised to appoint judges and justices who will make favorable rulings, especially on abortion. Although some of the justices appointed by Reagan and George H. W. Bush proved disappointing on that score, George W. Bush and Donald Trump succeeded in delivering their evangelical supporters a Supreme Court majority to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022.
Certain Republicans have also been able to court evangelicals through personal identification. On the campaign trail, George W. Bush frequently described his conversion experience that transformed him into a responsible adult. Bush could therefore be considered “one of us” by evangelicals active in their churches. The next two nominees—John McCain and Mitt Romney—were not so strongly linked to evangelical traditions, but both had the advantage of scandal-free personal lives. Evangelicals could easily view McCain and Romney as upstanding individuals with the character and temperament to serve as president.
But in recent years, Republicans have adopted new campaign approaches in response to changes within the evangelical community. One such change is the pronounced decline in attendance at worship services. Whereas the evangelical movement was formerly grounded almost entirely in churches and para-church organizations, many of today’s evangelicals are disconnected from organized religion. According to recent estimates, more than 40% of self-identified evangelicals attend worship services once a year or less. For them, the evangelical label is more of a political than a religious affiliation.
It was Donald Trump who, in 2016, figured out how to attract this growing subset of evangelicals. He did this by addressing sentiments that are strongest among people who rarely attend church but nevertheless consider themselves Christians. His theme of “Make America Great Again” invited comparisons to earlier times when America was less religiously (and racially) diverse. By proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the country, and pledging to fight back against the supposed “War on Christmas,” he tapped into longstanding beliefs that America has been and should remain a Christian nation. The messaging paid off during the Republican primaries when evangelicals disconnected from churches proved to be one of his most reliable demographic blocs.
Trump performed far less well among the evangelicals who regularly fill the pews. Initially, at least, Trump’s personal morality put a ceiling on the extent to which they could support him. During his three decades in the public eye as a real estate developer, casino owner, and television personality, Trump had demonstrated the opposite of Christian virtues through his adultery, braggadocio, incivility, and shady business practices. Prominent evangelical figures such as Russell Moore pointed to those moral failings as reasons why they backed other candidates during the primaries.
The calculus changed, however, once Trump secured the nomination. In a two-party system, the choices for churchgoing evangelicals were limited in the general election. Conceivably they could have stayed home, opted for a third party, or—gasp—voted for Hilary Clinton. Doing any of those would have meant forgoing the opportunity to promote their desired policies, including through those all-important Supreme Court appointments. This was a step too far. In 2016 these evangelicals broke decisively for Trump.
Still, embracing the self-acknowledged hedonist from New York required some mental gymnastics, which took the form of a rapid shift in beliefs about the morality required of political leaders. Before Trump entered politics, evangelicals were the religious group most likely to say in surveys that a politician must behave morally to govern effectively. After Trump won the nomination, evangelicals became less likely than other religious groups to demand morality from politicians.
This flip-flopping, in turn, created the need for a justification. Influential evangelical thinkers and writers soon developed one: namely, God works his will through flawed political leaders that ordinary people should embrace as instruments of divine purpose. Any Bible-believing evangelical knows about the Old Testament theme of God raising up rulers who will accomplish his aims. In perhaps the most prominent example, God picked David—a liar and adulterer—to be the Israelites' king, and the Israelites played their divine role by rallying around him. The parallel to Trump’s candidacy and then presidency was obvious.
Although he did not create this belief, Trump leaned into it. On one occasion, he referred to himself as the “chosen one” as he glanced toward the sky. Trump’s first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, similarly invoked the apostle Paul’s statements that God personally installs the government and its leaders. Trump’s presidency thus introduced a new way for Republican politicians to appeal to evangelicals.
But the Republican Party is already moving beyond Trump. One of his likely opponents for the 2024 nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, is developing his own novel approach to courting evangelical voters. Lacking Trump’s baggage in the moral domain, DeSantis can make his personal life one of his selling points in the primary. With his military service, stable marriage and family, and absence of scandal, DeSantis can cut a similar profile to predecessors such as McCain and Romney.
At the same time, smart politicians like DeSantis don’t leave money on the table. DeSantis has also adopted Trump’s “chosen one” theme for himself, as was apparent in a campaign ad he released just four days before his 2022 reelection as Florida’s governor. The ad opens with footage of DeSantis set against an authoritative voice proclaiming, “And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.” It continues in that vein for nearly two minutes while referencing DeSantis's character, family, and background. Nobody could miss the message that DeSantis is God’s choice to fulfill divine aims.
DeSantis can still seek support from evangelicals purely on policy grounds. To those who see America as a Christian nation, he can point to his strong protect-the-border stance that included sending asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard. To those worried about Hollywood corrupting the country’s values, he can credibly claim to have fought Disney over its tax status in his home state. To those concerned about what is taught in public schools, he can tout Florida’s laws that ban Critical Race Theory and restrict teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity.
There is only one potential knock on DeSantis’s ability to consolidate evangelical votes: his status as a Catholic. The Republican Party has never nominated a Catholic for president. But luckily for DeSantis, the political differences between conservative Catholics and evangelicals are far smaller today than they were a few decades ago. Although he lacks a conversion experience that would allow him to follow in the footsteps of George W. Bush, DeSantis nevertheless offers an attractive combination of personal attributes, policy positions, and governing experience.
Of course, DeSantis faces a long road to a prospective nomination. Trump has jumped into the race already, and he commands loyalty from the party’s base. Possible rivals such as Glenn Youngkin, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo could catch fire. Still, DeSantis has passed one important test of any plausible Republican nominee: figure out how to win evangelical votes. By packaging old and new strategies, he, rather than Trump, might well provide the model future historians will be writing about.
Mark Alan Smith is a professor of political science and an adjunct professor of comparative religion and communication at the University of Washington. He is the author of Right from Wrong: Why Religion Fails and Reason Succeeds.
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