Co-written with Andrew Klumpp
Why do many evangelical Christians still back Donald Trump?
Because they are consistent.
What James Dobson said this week could have been said 40 years ago of Jimmy Carter: "I also find Hillary Clinton's support of partial birth abortion criminal ... There really is only one difference between the two. Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not."
This statement, unpalatable to some, heroic to others, is consistent with what evangelicals championed in the '70s: family values. Family values proved pivotal to the rise of the Religious Right, and they will be indispensable to the religious right in the post-Trump era.
Rather than deny the ongoing reality of family values, even if our presidential candidates have barely mentioned them and some people find them disagreeable, let's turn back the clock in order to understand them.
Family values wasn't so much the American Dream as an American Agenda -- to shore up the family after the over-indulgence of the '20s, the austerity of the '30s, the loss of men in the '40s, and the threat of communist takeover in the '50s. The background of family values lies in the ideal -- or idealized -- family of the 1950s, when veterans charged off to work and mothers tended the home, when Catholic homes burst at the seams with kids, when a neighborhood could be multi-ethnic, full of the sons and daughters of European immigrants, but not multi-racial.
This imagined world came, if not to a screeching halt, at least to a visible slowdown during the 1960s and early 1970s. What suburban mothers and fathers needed was a practical way to control the heaving swells of change that took their daughters and sons to college and back home again with unconventional ideas and well-placed but trenchant post-adolescent opposition to the Vietnam Conflict. The need for family values was existential.
Americans headed into the '70s with Vietnam in full swing, racial tensions at an all-time high, and devastating legal and legislative actions (not to mention hideous fashions and fads) on the horizon. Divorce rates soared. Women moved in droves into the workforce. Gays and lesbians, suspect since Joseph McCarthy associated them with communism during the 1950s, gained momentum and public notoriety. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which had languished for decades, picked up steam in Congress. The Supreme Court's 7-2 decision in Roe vs. Wade forced the loosening of abortion laws in 46 out of 50 states.
The '70s were a decade of mobilization -- transformation, even -- for evangelical Christians. They began the decade disorganized but ended with virtual control of the Republican Party. It was a remarkable transition, with family values at its core. Phyllis Schlafly, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and a slew of others, would become household names in public American life.
Conservative Roman Catholic activist and former congresswoman Phyllis Schlafly torpedoed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973-74 by gathering a grassroots army of evangelical and Catholic women, who fought tooth and (manicured) nail against the feminist agenda of equal rights for women. Schlafly insisted that gender equality robbed women of their feminine mystique and made them vulnerable to the military draft. The ERA would destroy the order of the family -- and the order of the nation, where men go to work and war, while women stay home.
Slightly later, evangelical child psychologist James Dobson worked to restore men to leadership in the family. This was not a political ruse. In 2004, Dobson recalled what God had said to him in the mid-seventies: "If this country is going to make it," God said to Dobson, "and if the family is going to survive, it will be because husbands and fathers begin to accept their responsibilities for leadership, and especially spiritual leadership in their own families ..." With the conviction of that call, Dobson began a ministry to men in 1976 and left Children's Hospital and the USC School of Medicine to found Focus on the Family in 1977.
One of the remarkable side effects of the '70s was an unholy alliance -- or what a decade earlier had been deemed an unholy alliance -- between Catholics and evangelicals. Roe vs. Wade, in particular, forged this alliance. Catholics had long been opposed to abortion; evangelicals had not developed a unified front. The Southern Baptist Convention, in fact, in both 1971 and 1974, issued official statements that abortion was permissible in cases of incest, rape, mothers' health, and disabilities in fetuses. For years, the dramatically increasing number of abortions had horrified some evangelicals, including pro-life Carl F. H. Henry, founder of the flagship evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, and the 1973 Roe ruling legalized their worst nightmare by making abortion, in their minds, a matter of convenience.
Forty years later, abortion is still many evangelical Christians' worse nightmare, and a female president (let alone one who supports Roe vs. Wade) a bad dream. Trump's graphic description in the third debate -- ripping babies from their mothers' womb on the last day of pregnancy -- touches a real and raw nerve, steeled by 40 years of thwarted opposition to a pro-choice agenda. Palatable or not, this position is consistent, unwavering. I'll leave it to you to decide if that consistency is also laudable.
For much more insight into the relationship between family values and current political trends, see our essay, "Family Values and the Bible," in the recently published book, The Bible and Political Debate. What Does It Really Say?