“You can’t endorse me … but I endorse you and what you are doing.” That memorable phrase, delivered by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan at the Religious Roundtable National Affairs Briefing in Dallas in August 1980, highlighted the public beginnings of the “New Religious Political Right” (NRPR) in America. On the platform that August were political operatives like Jessie Helms and Ed McAteer, along with various rightward-reverends including Presbyterian D. James Kennedy, Baptists W. A. Criswell and Jerry Falwell (Sr.), and televangelist James Robison, known in those days as “God’s Angry Young Man.”
Preaching just before Reagan’s address, Robison denounced the “godless interpretation of separation of church and state,” while encouraging conservative Christian-Americans to “penetrate every area of society,” in order to preserve biblical truth and godly living in “the greatest country on the face of the earth.” His rhetoric intensifying, Robison roared: “Who’s going to lock up that unbridled, excessive, uncontrolled federal government?” “We are!” someone in the crowd of over 10,000 shouted back. “You better believe it,” the evangelist concluded, and the New Religious Political Right was on its way.
If Reagan’s 1980 endorsement christened the NRPR as a religio-political coalition to be reckoned with, 2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump’s so-called “locker room banter” with Billy Bush on the Access Hollywood bus fostered a faith-based pileup of epic ethical proportions. When the audio of their 2005 open-mic conversation broke, Trump was well ahead in polls with “evangelicals,” but his admission of a “failed” attempt to seduce a married woman, and his lewd remarks about female anatomy, created its own moral dilemma for Christian conservatives who vote Republican.
Some, like Southern Baptist Convention leaders Russell Moore and Albert Mohler, denounced Trump’s bus-born discourse as reprehensible evidence that he was unfit for the presidency all along; others — Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress — repudiated his statements but accepted his “apology” as a sign of “repentance”; still others like Ralph Reed suggested that such misogynistic, lust-laden comments were “low” on the evangelical list of peccadillos when Supreme Court justices are at stake.
(Such moral reparsing is not particularly rare for Christian America. Billy Graham and others confronted it with Richard Nixon, and left-of-center Christians with Bill Clinton.)
So beyond Donald Trump’s priapic persona, what does all this suggest about American Christianity in general and the not-so-new Religious Right in particular?
First, the rise of the NRPR reflected significant conservative distress over cultural transitions in American life, as well as a Republican initiative to cultivate a new, particularly Southern, voting bloc.
In The New Religious Political Right in America (1982), Samuel Hill and Dennis Owen write that the movement took shape due to “fear of moral and spiritual deterioration” in American life, opposition to abortion and secular humanism, a desire to restore “concerted moments of [school] prayer on a voluntary basis,” and “hostility … to any and all flagrant exhibitions of sex.” The scholars conclude that “the NRPR represents itself as the true America, defending the nation from those who have led us away from our original calling ….”
Second, Republican strategists like Ed McAteer, Richard Viguerie and Lee Atwater made no secret of their desire to cultivate religious conservatives, particularly in the South, as a consistent set of Republican voters concerned about moral issues, and rivaling Democrats’ African-American constituency. And it worked. Hill and Owen documented the impact of Independent Baptists and Falwell’s Moral Majority in delivering the vote for Republican candidates. Likewise, the infamous “course correction” led by Southern Baptist conservatives in the 1980s and ’90s was not unrelated to Republicans’ Southern Strategy.
Third, whatever the presidential outcome, the NRPR, or segments of it, finds its public witness mortally wounded and its claim to represent the country’s last, best hope for retaining Christian orthodoxy and biblical values fractured. Conservative Christians are certainly free to support any and all candidates they believe would facilitate their values-centered agenda. But the casuistry with which some have let Trump off the ethical hook compromises their relentless attacks on other gender-sexuality-related issues and individuals in the public square. Best to consider a moratorium on moralizing, at least for a season.
Finally, let’s abandon the term evangelical for describing any political bloc of voters and operatives. Those who consider themselves evangelical are actually quite a diverse lot, as evidenced by the responses to Trump’s “boy talk” farce, and by the varied theological and social emphases of multiple evangelical communities. Equating evangelical with a specific political maneuver cheapens its meaning for the entire Christian communion. Perhaps we could begin by reclaiming the word as it breaks forth from scripture — ευαγγελικός (evangelikós), God’s good news. North Carolina pastor the Rev. William Barber insists that before we profess to be evangelicals we should start with Jesus’ own use of the word in Luke 4: “to bring good news to the poor.” That’s not banter, it’s gospel.