November 8, 2016, will be a day of reckoning for Evangelical Christians. On that day the American electorate will head to the polls and select the forty-fifth president of the United States. Arguably, no group will have more at stake in the results than Evangelicals. The outcome of this election will reveal whether the Evangelical foray into American politics over the past 40 years has successfully ensured the right of Christians to worship freely without government obstruction, or a noble effort that ultimately fails to protect Christians from government-imposed mistreatment.
Evangelicals have spent the past four decades engaging in efforts to make God and Scripture relevant in American politics. Their journey has scored many victories, but has yet to fulfill some important goals of the movement, notably the abolition of abortion. They also witnessed some devastating setbacks in recent times, particularly the legalization of same-sex marriage. Many in the movement regard the judicial branch of government, specifically the Supreme Court of the United States, as having delivered many of the defeats. With the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, the Court, as they see it, now has four adversaries and three advocates of Evangelicals, with Justice Kennedy being a swing vote. The Republican leadership in the Senate remains committed to ensuring that the selection of Scalia’s replacement will be consigned to the next president. If that next president is a Republican, then they expect that he will most likely appoint a justice whose opinions will support Evangelicals. However, if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins in November, either one will likely nominate a justice who will ally with Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan to obstruct and possibly reverse much of the legilative progress that Evangelicals have made in the past 40 years. Moreover, the next president might also have an opportunity to appoint additional justices to the Supreme Court. The appointment of liberal justices by Clinton or Sanders would leave the Evangelical community in a state of devastation from which it would be hard put to recover its momentum. In contrast, the appointment of conservative justices by a Republican president would surely enhance Evangelical efforts to protect the lives of the unborn, defend traditional family values, and ensure the rights of Christians to worship without government interference. This set of realities makes the 2016 presidential election a pivotal moment for Evangelical Christians.
How the Journey Began
Evangelical Christians began to engage actively in politics during the 1970s as a reaction to mandates from all three branches of government that they saw as contrary to Scripture, as well as a threat to religious liberty. The original intent was to mobilize a Christian response against the government’s increasing tendency to enact laws that impeded individuals from living in accordance with the Bible.
Evangelicals aligned themselves with the Republican Party, because of a common threat. The conservative wing of the Republican Party in the 1960s was a coalition of economic libertarians, states-rights advocates, and anti-communists. It did not include Evangelical Christians. However, Evangelicals shared the conservative movement’s disapproval of contemporary liberal society, which was even then exhibiting a willingness to challenge and even mock traditional moral values.1 This shared enmity towards liberalism, along with the Democratic Party’s shift to the left, directed Evangelicals to coalesce with the Republican Party.
Many Evangelical Christians had withdrawn from the mainstream culture and active political engagement after the Scopes monkey trial. It was an effort to inoculate themselves from the increasing moral corruption of secular society. They saw isolation as a way to preserve their values and beliefs. However, the wall of separation began to crumble in the 1970s, as a series of government initiatives infringed on the institutions used by Evangelical Christians to maintain their way of life.
The event that stirred many Evangelicals from their self-imposed isolation was a 1978 proposal by IRS commissioner Jerome Kurtz to require Christian schools to prove they were trying to integrate or lose their tax-exempt status.2 These new regulations incited Evangelicals into action. A total of 126,000 letters of protest were sent to the IRS, and many calls were made to Congress. Within a matter of weeks the IRS pulled the proposed regulation.
The IRS incident demonstrated the ability of Evangelicals to mobilize and to challenge government policy successfully. It also confirmed the fear among Evangelical Christians that their self-imposed isolation from secular culture could no longer protect them from that culture. Legal abortion affronted their values. Growing societal acceptance of gay lifestyles threatened their children. Christian schools, which enabled Evangelical Christians to pass along their values to the next generation, were now under attack from the government. The fact that a born-again Christian, President Jimmy Carter, headed that government added a note of betrayal to their anxieties.3 It was time for Evangelicals to act.
Evangelical Christians embarked on a mission to register voters and elect lawmakers who would enact policies that respected their views. In 1990 Pat Robertson told the audience at a Christian Coalition convention that his goal was to elect a pro-family Congress by 1994 and a pro-family president by 2000.4 The first objective was accomplished in 1994, when the Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Then in 2000, Evangelicals helped George W. Bush win the White House.
Recipe for Success
The 2004 presidential election serves as an example of how Evangelicals could use a hot-button issue like abortion or gay rights to muster votes.
Presidential elections are won by obtaining a majority in the Electoral College and not by popular vote. It is a foregone conclusion that some states like Oklahoma are reliably red, and others like Vermont are solidly blue in presidential elections. So both parties focus their campaign efforts on a handful of battleground states. Ohio is a battleground state that receives much attention from the GOP because no Republican has ever won the White House without winning the Buckeye State. In 2004 Ohio gave George W. Bush the winning margin of electoral votes needed for reelection. Bush’s victory was a result of efforts by Evangelicals to register voters who were supportive of a ballot initiative (Issue 1) that would ban same-sex marriage.
During the summer of 2014 the Ohio Christian Coalition distributed 2 million voter guides to churches throughout the state. The guides explained why President Bush was preferable to John Kerry on issues such as gay marriage, protecting the Ten Commandments, and keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Ohio GOP assigned 10 staff members to conduct voter registration campaigns in congregations, and the party actively sought church directories for this purpose.5
The Bush campaign also used Issue 1 as a tool for voter registration. The campaign’s state officials identified about 750,000 “social conservatives” who were pro-Bush but had not gone to the polls in 2000, and then set up a statewide network to mobilize them. The campaign’s message was that the president has demonstrated a commitment to upholding moral values during his first term in office.6 Furthermore, President Bush himself emphasized the “values” issue during his numerous trips to Ohio.
All the hard work reaped rewards on Election Day. Turnout soared in conservative areas such as Ohio’s Warren County, where Bush picked up 18,000 more votes than in 2000, and local activists credited churches for the increase. A comparison of the 2000 and 2004 Ohio exit polls shows that the 2004 electorate contained almost 5 percent more White Protestants than in 2000, and Bush increased his vote totals by about 500,000 over his 2000 results (from 2.3 million to 2.8 million).
Responding to the Critics
The Pew Forum’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study revealed that 70.6 % of all Americans identify themselves as Christians. This number is down from 78.4 % in 2007.7 Critics use this type of demographic data as evidence to support their assumption that the Evangelical community is in a state of recession. However, a closer look at the Pew Study shows that the number of Evangelicals is not shrinking as severely as the overall Christian population. Mainline Protestants and Catholics were responsible for the largest decrease in the number of Christians. Mainline Protestants witnessed a precipitous drop from 18.1 % to 14.7 %. Catholics numbers fell from 23.9 % to 20.8 % of the population. In contrast, Evangelical Protestants fell only slightly, from 26.3 % to 25.4 %. So any predictions about the imminent extinction of Evangelicals are seriously exaggerated.
Critics also use recent voting patterns to diminish the size and influence of Evangelical Christians. They point out that in 2012, Evangelicals made up a lower percentage of the overall electorate than in 2004.8 They overlook the fact that this drop is not a result of fewer Evangelicals, but rather a reflection of the GOP’s failure to mobilize Evangelical voters. For them, much of the blame rests upon the 2012 Republican nominee for president.
Mitt Romney did not provide Evangelical Christians with a compelling reason to vote for him. First of all, he is a Mormon, and many Evangelicals view the LDS church with suspicion. Also, during his 2002 campaign for governor, Romney declined to support a proposed state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. In addition, Romney was pro-choice for most of his political career and only changed positions just before his first presidential run. He also chose to make his campaign a referendum on Ohama’s economic record, instead of concentrating on the social issues that are important to Evangelicals. Romney also failed to engage in the Evangelical outreach that yielded results for Bush in 2004, and he paid the price for it on Election Day. Romney received more than 2 million fewer votes than George W. Bush earned in 2004.9 Obama himself lost 4 million votes compared to 2008, but still won partly because so many Evangelical Christians stayed at home instead of voting for Romney.
Yes, 79 % of Evangelical voters chose Romney in 2012—identical to what Bush received in 2004.10 Romney’s defeat was attributable to a decline in the total number of Evangelical Christians who voted. The number of Evangelical votes needs to rise in 2016, because they have more at stake in this year’s election. The recent experience of African American voters demonstrates how a motivated voting bloc can sway the outcome of an election. African Americans traditionally vote in proportionately lower numbers than Caucasians.11 However, in 2008 and 2012 an unusually high percentage of African Americans showed up at the polls, presumably to support the first Black president. In 2012 the increased numbers of African American voters gave Obama the margin of victory in the key battleground states of Florida and Virginia. Of the 66.2 % of eligible African Americans who cast a vote in 2012, 87% of them were for Obama. Evangelicals could make a similar impact in this year’s election if they turn out in equally impressive numbers.
The outcome of this year’s presidential election could be very dire for Evangelical Christians if they do not respond as they have in the early days of their political awareness. As they see it, elect Hillary or Bernie, and there will soon be a Supreme Court that forces Evangelicals to betray their faith. The next battle facing Evangelicals involves their right to object conscientiously to gay marriage. A liberal-leaning Court could, for example, order Christian florists to provide flowers for gay weddings. Or Christian congregations could be required to baptize the children of gay couples who openly violate the very creeds upon which churches exist. This scenario is frighteningly similar to what the early Christians experienced when they were ordered to pay homage to Roman deities. Harsh punishments, including execution, awaited any Christian who refused to compromise their faith by honoring a deity other than God.
The United States of America may soon become a place where Christians face government-mandated persecution for their beliefs. Perhaps the major element preventing such an outcome is the appointment of Supreme Court justices who will protect the First Amendment right to worship freely without constraints imposed by the government. So, as with all citzens, November 8, 2016, is the date when Evangelicals must utilize the power of the ballot box if they truly want to elect a president who will ensure that this nation’s highest Court will honor and respect the right to live in accordance with Scripture.
Editorial note: This is a true summary of the goals and dilemmas facing the politically active Evangelical movement. There are issues at play that should concern all Christians. As it was in Rome for early Christians, today’s secular society directly challenges faith and at times seeks to dismiss it. However, Liberty has long cautioned against political action that might go beyond protecting faith and instead tend to seek coercion to a faith view. And of course in the United States there is the often wrongly assumed but attractive concept of the Christian Nation and American Exceptionalism. Christians must answer any threat to the practice of any faith and be prepared to advance the cause of Christ by witness and example, not by exclusion and coercion. There is much at stake. L. Steed.
1 Michael Sean Winters, God’s Right Hand: How Jerry Falwell Made God a Republican and Baptized the American Right (New York: Harper One, 2012), p. 96
2 Sara Diamond, Not By Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right (New York: The Guilford Press, 1998), p. 65.
3 Winters, p. 110.
4 John C. Green, Mark J. Rozell, and Clyde Wilcox, The Christian Right in American Politics: Marching to the Millennium (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003), p. 2.
5 Ibid., p. 86.
6 Ibid., p.87.
7 Pew Research Center, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ (accessed Mar. 11, 2016).
8 Red State, What Went Wrong in 2012? www.redstate.com/diary/griffinelection/2012/11/14/what-went-wrong-in-2012-the-case-of-the-4-million-missing-voters/ (accessed Mar. 12, 2016).
9 Federal Election Commission, Federal Elections 2012, www.fec.gov/pubrec/fe2012/federalelections2012.pdf [accessed Mar. 13, 2016].
10 Pew Research Center, How the Faithful Voted: Preliminary 2012 Analysis, www.pewforum.org/2012/11/07/how-the-faithful-voted-2012-preliminary-exit-poll-analysis/ [accessed March 12, 2016].
11 Brookings Institute, Minority Turnout Determined the 2012 Election, www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2013/05/10-election-2012-minority-voter-turnout-frey [accessed Mar. 13, 2016].
Author: David Rhee
David Rhee is an adjunct professor of theology and Bible studies at Horizon University, Los Angeles, California.