Why Progressives Shouldn't Celebrate the Decline of the Evangelical Vote

For most of American history, evangelicals have alternated between two seemingly contradictory modes of political activism. The first is a crusading moralism that shades into xenophobia. At the dawn of the twentieth century, for example, evangelicals asserted the nation's right to "Christianize" the "backwards" peoples of Cuba and the Philippines. Evangelicals also led the fight for liquor prohibition, a policy designed to discipline the nation's growing ranks of Irish and Italian immigrants. And as late as 1960, many evangelicals insisted that the Catholic John F. Kennedy was unfit to occupy the Oval Office.

But while evangelicals' history of xenophobia is well documented, any fair-minded account of American political history would also have to note the prominent role of evangelicals in movements to create a more compassionate and egalitarian society. It would be difficult to tell the story of women's suffrage or the fight to abolish child labor without reference to evangelical organizations and reformers. The Civil Rights Act, too, might well have failed if not for the intense lobbying efforts of Midwestern Protestants. Even Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty received a boost from the conservative evangelist Billy Graham, who produced a film highlighting rural poverty in Appalachia.

In recent decades, however, the compassionate half of the evangelical legacy has been increasingly overshadowed by its less appealing twin. At first glance, it may seem that the roots of the shift can be traced to 1980. That was the year that evangelicals abandoned Jimmy Carter -- himself a devout evangelical - in favor of Ronald Reagan. Historians disagree on why evangelicals became disenchanted with Carter and the Democrats. It may have been Carter's relative lack of interest in culture war issues such as abortion, school prayer, and pornography. Or it may have been the Carter administration's decision to deny tax-exempt status to Southern religious schools that engaged in racial discrimination. Whatever the reason, evangelicals would remain more or less loyal members of the Republican coalition from this point forward.

Even after 1980, however, many evangelicals continued to exhibit a genuine commitment to aiding the less fortunate. As late as 2000, evangelical voters flocked to George W. Bush, a candidate who promised to govern as a "compassionate conservative." And evangelicals remained loyal to Bush as he pursued a policy agenda that included comprehensive immigration reform, education reform, new spending on faith-based social services, and massive increases in foreign aid to fight HIV and malaria in Africa.

Upon close inspection, the real shift in the evangelical worldview likely took place in 2008 - the year that evangelical primary voters backed the upstart Mike Huckabee over John McCain. Although Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, was adept at weaving religious themes into his campaign speeches, his policy proposals bore little resemblance to those of earlier evangelical candidates. Indeed, his preferred method of generating headlines was to stoke conservatives' darkest fears. He promised to reject even the most anodyne of international agreements, lest the United Nations usurp American sovereignty. He warned of a coming clash of civilizations between "Islamofascism" and the West. He described Americans' increasing tolerance of homosexuality as a sign of cultural decay. And although he had once spoken respectfully of undocumented immigrants, he was the first of the 2008 Republican candidates to sign a "no amnesty" pledge.

The trend continued in 2012, when evangelicals backed Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic, over Mitt Romney. Santorum, like Huckabee, rarely appealed to evangelicals' better angels. Instead, he promised to build a fence along the Southern border and to make English the official language. He promised to scale back social programs to prevent minorities from becoming dependent on "government handouts." And he warned that recognition of same-sex marriages would lead inexorably to the legalization of polygamy.

And then came 2016. At present, evangelical voters appear torn between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. That significant numbers of evangelicals are backing a profane, thrice-married billionaire is, of course, worthy of note. But the more interesting development concerns the way in which Trump and Cruz are winning the evangelical vote. Indeed, both candidates appear to be reading from the Huckabee-Santorum script. America is under attack, we are told, and the attackers are legion - from Mexican immigrants, to "radical Islam," to Syrian refugees, to the United Nations, to a President who favors Muslims over Christians. And there is only one remedy: We must "take our country back" from the nebulous other.

Trump's curious popularity among evangelicals -- the subject of so much media chatter -- can thus be seen as the culmination of a long-term trend. As evangelicals have gradually exchanged the Sermon on the Mount for the rhetoric of fear and exclusion, there has ceased to be anything distinctly evangelical about the "evangelical vote." To be sure, there are millions of Americans who call themselves evangelicals, and it is possible to measure these voters' preferences. But it is becoming harder and harder to distinguish evangelical voters from their secular counterparts on the Republican party's right flank.

In the short run, it seems only natural for progressives to celebrate these developments. What progressive wouldn't relish the thought of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee? But there should be no sugarcoating the long-term dangers that an irreligious Republican party presents. Stripped of its genuinely compassionate instincts, American "conservatism" may well become indistinguishable from the ultra-nationalism that is currently making an alarming comeback in Europe. And that is a prospect that no one -- least of all progressives- - should welcome.