The Religious Right's True Colors

Franklin Graham is on a crusade across California. But unlike his father, Billy, who launched his career as the world’s most famous evangelist in Los Angeles and held numerous revivals across the state through the decades, Franklin has not come to California to win souls to Christ. Instead, he’s looking for voters he can deliver to the Republican Party.

As Elizabeth Dias reported in The New York Times last Sunday, Graham has embarked on a two-week bus tour up the middle of the state, holding 10 “campaign-style rallies” in anticipation of California’s June 5 primary. In doing so he hopes to mobilize evangelicals in several important battleground House districts and other purplish spots in the otherwise very blue state.

“People say, what goes in California is the way the rest of the nation is going to go,” Graham explained to the Times. “So, if we want to see changes, it is going to have to be done here.”

Targeting California – a state Donald Trump lost by nearly 30 percent of the vote in 2016 – might seem like an odd choice for launching a conservative resurgence. But one in five adult Californians identify as evangelical, and Southern California has long been a vital center of the Religious Right.

Even still, Graham’s decision to focus on turning out evangelical voters in the Golden State – and the defensive, almost defeatist message he is bringing to them – demonstrates how much today’s Religious Right has departed from its early history. It also shows why white evangelicals remain Trump’s strongest supporters.

The early Religious Right of the 1980s and 1990s optimistically believed it could redeem the nation by bringing Christians into politics. They aimed to assert America’s religious values and defeat secular liberalism’s creeping advance, a mission that, as the name of the largest Religious Right organization at the time spoke to, assumed the nation contained a “moral majority” that just had to flex its muscles in order for conservatism to prevail. No doubt, there were dark undertones to much of the Religious Right’s efforts, but the movement’s generally positive outlook on how Christians could shape the nation paired well with the sunny disposition of their first national candidate, Ronald Reagan.

White evangelicals’ support for Trump doesn’t expose their hypocrisy so much as it plainly reveals their heart.

Very differently, today’s Religious Right, led by Graham and other Trump supporters, takes a defensive position, angrily defending their sense of occupying a shrinking place in the nation as an oppressed minority. It’s that aggrieved identity that led evangelicals to abandon their formerly high character standards for politicians in order to embrace the thrice-married casino magnate Trump in the first place, a man who may not join them in the church pews on Sunday but promised to fight for them on America’s political battlefields. “We should have the power. We should have the power,” Trump thundered to a group of nearly 1,000 evangelical leaders back in the summer of 2016.

As much as anyone, Graham has led evangelicals’ political about-face. In doing so, he’s also distinguished himself from his father who, after an early flirtation, ultimately abandoned the political realm. Disgusted by his friend Richard Nixon’s vulgarity revealed in the White House tapes (plus embarrassed by how the recordings had also captured his own anti-Semitic statements), Billy Graham distanced himself from politics.

In marked contrast, neither Trump’s own filthy language nor hateful rhetoric has diminished Franklin Graham’s support for the president. “I can’t think of anything mean he’s said,” Graham told the Times in February. Even more tellingly, Graham has argued that Trump’s affair with the adult film actress Stormy Daniels was “nobody’s business.”

Such moral compromises for the sake of politics have long troubled some evangelical leaders, including Franklin’s father. Even in the heady days of the early Reagan years, Billy Graham refused to allow his evangelistic association to help the Religious Right, worried such work would detract from his soul-saving mission. “The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it,” Graham famously told Parade magazine in 1981.

Manipulating religion in service of the Republican Party, and especially Trump, now appears to be exactly Franklin Graham’s project. In regular appearances on Fox News and now on his tour across California, Graham has fanned the flames of white evangelical resentment and outrage. Such a dark and alarmist vision might seem to contradict the hopeful joy evangelicals claim their faith provides, but it aligns perfectly with the cynical and conspiratorial worldview Trump has brought to the center of American politics. As such, white evangelicals’ support for Trump doesn’t expose their hypocrisy, as plenty have contended, so much as it plainly reveals their heart.

In other ways, Graham’s California campaign mirrors the isolationist retreat that Trump has carried out with his foreign policy. Rather than reaching out to other conservative Christians, like Mormons and Catholics, as the early architects of the Religious Right often did, Graham’s efforts focus solely on evangelicals. That’s an unusual political strategy given how important coalitions are to electoral successes in the United States, but it’s a tactic that plays directly into the growing separatist sentiment among many white evangelicals.

Some – secularists especially – may hope that move will eventually lead to the demise of the Religious Right and the exit of white evangelicals from American political life. But that’s not at all what’s at work. Quite the opposite, Graham’s campaign signals a doubling-down on politics and a hardening of support for Trump. 

If some Americans once feared how a so-called Moral Majority might remake the nation, they ought to consider what kind of politics – and politicians – white evangelicals who perceive of themselves as persecuted and embattled might pursue next. Frighteningly, in this new reality Trump may be only the beginning.

Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”