As pundits scratch their heads over evangelical support for Donald Trump — he pulls a greater percentage of evangelical voters than any other candidate — they overlook one important fact: Evangelicals are secular now. Over the last several decades, they have devolved from theological guardians to political operatives.
When I was growing up in the evangelical subculture, the most damning thing you could say about a fellow believer was that she or he was “worldly.” The charge of “worldliness” encompassed many things — sexual promiscuity or coarse language or lack of modesty — but it also included a strong suspicion of affluence. I heard many evangelical sermons in my childhood about Jesus' declaration that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I haven't heard a sermon like that in decades.
What happened? When evangelicals organized in the 1970s to defend the tax-exempt status of racially segregated schools, they cast their lot with the far-right fringes of the Republican Party, and thus began a series of theological and cultural compromises that led them first to a film star and lately to a reality TV star.
Evangelicals were long suspicious of the entertainment industry (I was forbidden to watch movies when I was a child), and divorce was taboo. I recall asking my mother in the mid-1960s why we as a family weren't supporting Nelson Rockefeller. She was aghast, explaining that no evangelical could ever support a man who had been divorced, let alone divorced and remarried.
By the 1980 election, however, leaders of the religious right were telling their followers that the most “godly” man running for president was not Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, or even John B. Anderson, a member of the Evangelical Free Church. No, the “evangelical” choice was Ronald Reagan: a divorced, episodic churchgoer and former actor from Hollywood, a province not known for its piety. Even on the issue of abortion, which the religious right adopted in 1979, Reagan was hardly a logical choice; as governor of California, he had signed the most liberal abortion bill in the nation.
Despite his record, Reagan persuaded evangelicals not only that he opposed abortion, but that he would make it illegal. He also wooed religious conservatives by ridiculing evolution and declaring that if he were stranded on an island, the one book he'd want was the Bible.
On matters on policy, Reagan of course strayed dramatically from historical evangelical concerns for equality and for those on the margins. But having assisted in Reagan's ouster of Carter, evangelicals continued their slide toward secularism. During the 1980s, coincident with the trickle-down policies of “Reaganomics,” prosperity theology became all the rage among evangelicals, who welcomed the notion that Jesus was itching to bestow worldly goods — fancy cars, vacation homes, bulging bank accounts – on the faithful. The story about the camel and the rich man began to fade, as did evangelicalism's noble heritage of caring for those Jesus called “the least of these.”
As the religious right gained influence, evangelicals became the Republican Party's most reliable constituency, much the way that labor unions once provided the backbone of the Democratic Party. By the time George W. Bush took office, they had indisputably lost their prophetic voice. Although the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan failed to meet even the barest criteria for a just war, evangelicals supported these actions, and they raised no objections to the use of torture or the implementation of economic policies that overwhelmingly favored the affluent.
America's evangelicals have become secular, more interested in the pursuit of wealth and political influence than fidelity to the teachings of Jesus.
So all that head-scratching isn't necessary; it should come as little surprise that the candidate of choice for evangelicals so far in this 2016 election season is a twice-divorced, thrice-married billionaire famous for firing people on TV, who belittles the disabled and advocates policies — on immigration, for example, or the environment — utterly at odds with the “biblical values” evangelicals purport to uphold.
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. If racism is America's original sin, politically conservative evangelicals, neglecting the best of their tradition, have been loath in recent years to seek redemption.
Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.”