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Washington University in St. Louis

Expert: Religion and the 2020 election

For decades, evangelical Christian voters — specifically white evangelicals — have been an essential voting bloc for Republican presidential candidates, including Donald Trump. While evangelical support for Trump remains strong in 2020, there is evidence that their support is waning. Most notably, more than 1,600 U.S. faith leaders have publicly endorsed Trump’s challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.

According to Lerone A. Martin, director of American Culture Studies and associate professor of religion and politics and of African and African-American studies, all in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, modern evangelical voters have supported political candidates for myriad reasons, not all of which are in line with traditional Christian values.

Below, Martin discusses the complex relationship between religion and politics in America and its role in the 2020 election.

Religion has played such a central role in the 2020 election and other modern elections. Why is this?  

Religion has long been a key aspect of U.S. political convictions. Voters take their religious and accompanying moral and ethical commitments with them inside the voting booth and to the ballot box, influencing voter behavior. We have seen this throughout American history: Religious values compelled abolitionists to organize and vote for anti-slavery candidates; it compelled white nationalist political aspirations and labors of Ku Klux Klan and elected officials during Reconstruction; it led voters to cast their votes for President Eisenhower two times over, crowning him “the spiritual leader of our times.” Faith empowered civil rights protesters and activists to organize not only for the vote, but also for local and national candidates that believed racial justice would “redeem the soul of the nation.” Furthermore, the white evangelical vote carried Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump into the White House. Indeed religion continues to play a central role in political contests.

How do you explain the evangelical support for Trump, whose personal values appear to contradict Christian values?

Contrary to popular belief, white evangelical support for Trump is very much in line with the white evangelical tradition, not a departure from it. From its post-World War II genesis, modern white evangelicalism was more than just a movement for supposed Biblical and theological fidelity and purity. It also involved broader political commitments, including Christian nationalism, white racial purity, patriarchal families, laissez-faire capitalism and virulent anti-statism — opposing intervention by the state into personal, social and economic affairs — only when it appears federal government support will upset the aforementioned social order. As a result, post-war white evangelicals have overwhelmingly supported and worked with political actors they believe will fight for and defend the world they believe in by any means necessary.

For example, Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry, the founders of Christianity Today, embraced longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover eschewed the evangelical belief in the necessity of being born-again, rumors swirled that he was gay and his penchant for illegal wiretapping was well documented and publicly known as was his anti-blackness. Nevertheless, Hoover’s power, Christian nationalist politics and moral policing garnered the favor of white evangelical power brokers. Editor Carl F.H. Henry thanked Hoover for his FBI service, telling the FBI boss that he played a “vital part” in the “message” and “mission” of white evangelical Christianity. Likewise, Ronald Reagan left a great deal to be desired when it came to evangelical ethical commitments. He was not a church goer, never confessed being born-again, was divorced and remarried, supported murderous regimes abroad, illegally sold arms to a foreign adversary and preferred to consult astrology and astrologists as opposed to clergy, prayer and Jesus for political and personal guidance. Nevertheless, white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for him, carrying him to the White House, largely based on his stringent commitment to laissez faire capitalism and his unfulfilled promises to put prayer back in schools and outlaw abortion.

So white evangelicals have longed supported white politicos whose theological, sexual and constitutional commitments do not comport with their stated standards. Trump is simply the latest in a long tradition.

Throughout Biden’s political career, he has been very vocal about his faith and religious beliefs as a Catholic. Has this resonated with voters?

Biden would be the second Catholic president in American history, after JFK.  Polls show his faith has indeed resonated with a broad cross section of American Catholics of all races, particularly those who identify with the long Catholic tradition of social justice, poverty and racial equality. As a pro-choice Catholic, Biden has not been successful with the tradition of the Catholic faith that has almost seamlessly merged with white evangelicalism around the issue of a woman’s right to choose. Indeed, for the latter group of Catholics, issues such as social justice, poverty and racial equality are a distant second to the issue of abortion.

Trump frequently claims that Biden’s America will be anti-Christian. Why does this resonate with evangelical voters?

The white evangelical worldview is all-encompassing. “Christian” then includes broader political commitments including Christian nationalism, white racial purity, patriarchal families, laissez-faire capitalism and virulent anti-statism only when it appears federal government support will upset the aforementioned social order. Therefore, any political agenda that appears to be outside of these commitments is considered “anti-Christian.”

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