Time to Face Facts: White Evangelicalism Has Always Been Right Wing

Given that eighty-one percent of white evangelicals who voted in the 2016 election supported Donald Trump, it may seem strange that Trump’s victory has generated such spirited debates within conservative Christian circles about whether to abandon the “evangelical” label. This post-election handwringing builds on conversations that took place for over a year among a small set of evangelicals who opposed Trump from the start, but the latest rounds demonstrate an even greater propensity to rewrite history and recent events in an attempt to disconnect evangelicals from the rise of Trump.

Back in February, as Trump began to win state primaries with the help of white evangelical support, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that he had taken to calling himself a “gospel Christian” instead of an “evangelical,” a word that had become “meaningless” in 2016. After the election, other evangelicals publicly announced their alienation from their own religious community and their evangelical identity. “’Evangelical’ used to be a word that I could stomach as an identity,” Patrick Kampert wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “I now view it as an epithet.” 

Yet some evangelicals—even those who didn’t support Trump—continue to defend the evangelical label and argue that it should mean far more than a conservative political expression.

“Despite Trumpism, I’m not quitting evangelicalism,” declared the headline of Richard Mouw’s recent reflection for the Religion News Service. Mouw, the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, cited his long involvement in evangelical movements for social justice and racial reconciliation to argue for a more expansive understanding of evangelicalism, one that transcends its current associations with Trump. In Mouw’s telling, American evangelicalism has been a force for the oppressed and powerless as much as it has served as a reliable bloc for the GOP. 

To the extent that through the years some evangelicals have not identified as political conservatives, Mouw is right. As the historians David Swartz and Brantley Gasaway have shown, an evangelical left has existed since the mid-twentieth century, though it has never been more than a sliver of the larger conservative evangelical movement. The title of Swartz’s book, Moral Minority, speaks to the diminutive size of progressive evangelicalism, if not also its marginalization. Despite Mouw’s efforts to broaden and diversify the image of his faith beyond conservatism, history shows that white evangelicalism’s center of gravity has always remained squarely within the right wing of American politics. 

Strangely, Mouw’s own essay acknowledges as much, although he doesn’t seem to realize it. To ground his argument, Mouw proudly points to the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, a document he helped produce, that called on evangelicals to commit themselves to God’s call “to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed” and condemn racism. 

Yet in whatever ways the Declaration suggested a progressive evangelical conscience, it more definitively helped underscore the predominance of conservatism among the vast majority of evangelicals. Only 53 evangelicals put their signatures to the Declaration, a group that consisted almost entirely of white men. Some of those signatories, like Foy Valentine and Nancy Hardesty, soon distanced themselves from or entirely disavowed their evangelical identities, perhaps the surest evidence that attempts to marry political progressivism to theological conservatism could not succeed for most. 

Despite this history, Mouw’s mention of the Declaration as a milestone for evangelical social concern immediately precedes his admission that, “The evangelical activism we called for in Chicago soon took a different direction with the emergence of the Moral Majority in 1980, and various manifestations of the religious right since then.” 

Mouw’s nonchalance at such developments does not diminish how thoroughly such events undermine his own argument. The rise of the Moral Majority—an organization that attracted not 53 signees, but rather tens of thousands of evangelical members—and the religious right movement in general, demonstrated both the utter failure of the Chicago Declaration to reorient evangelical politics and the definitive proof that progressive initiatives would never be more than an aberration to the overwhelming prevalence of evangelical conservatism. 

Instead, the bulk of white evangelicals’ political efforts have always veered to the right, often to the extreme. From Civil Rights to Vietnam to abortion to gay rights, from national defense to tax policy to climate change to health care and on and on, white evangelicals have solidly and consistently championed the most conservative positions. Where some white evangelicals have at times been found on the other side of these issues, they have only served to highlight the enormous evangelical majority that remained firmly to the right. If exceptions prove the rule, progressive evangelicals have done so categorically.

Still, Mouw presses on in his post, amassing more examples that negate his argument. He notes that 15,000 college students at an evangelical conference in St. Louis last January “enthusiastically applauded a call by an African-American speaker to work diligently against racial injustice” and support the Black Lives Matter movement, but he conveniently ignores what soon followed. As Mark Oppenheimer pointed out in a piece for the New York Times, support for Black Lives Matter quickly dissipated among these young evangelicals once they realized the movement’s intersectional stance acknowledged that gay and trans lives mattered too.

Mouw also claims a “large number” of Liberty University students protested that their school president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., lobbied passionately for Donald Trump throughout the campaign. Although some Liberty students did object to Falwell’s efforts, that hardly materialized into substantive results. On his popular blog The Pietist Schoolman, the historian Chris Gehrz recently showed that more than 85 percent of Liberty students supported Trump on Election Day. And, as I argued here shortly after the election, all the efforts of evangelical leaders to complicate or downplay evangelicals’ role in Trump’s victory only works to reinforce a basic fact of the election: 81 percent of white evangelical voters chose Donald Trump, a level of support even George W. Bush could not achieve.

None of this is to pick on Mouw, a principled man who has an admirable record of social engagement. Mouw merely represents the latest, but certainly not the last, evangelical attempt in the wake of Trump to obfuscate both reality and history in order to lessen their judgments.

Understandably, many evangelicals—perhaps even some who voted for Trump—want to distance their faith from its association with the president-elect. Trump is a tyrant and a demagogue who demonstrates no Christian principles, evangelical or otherwise. Evangelical critics of Trump are right to worry about how their fellow believers’ strong support for him will damage their faith’s reputation and public witness.

But advancing historically indefensible claims and naïve predictions that white American evangelicalism has ever been or will ever be anything other than steadfastly conservative in its politics and public influence is no way to handle the fallout from its linkage to Trump. That relationship represents neither a historical anomaly nor a minority position. To suggest otherwise only magnifies the lie.