Evangelicals supported Reagan. Why not Trump?

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Ronald Reagan campaigns with his wife Nancy and Senator Strom Thurmond (right) in South Carolina, 1980

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Ronald Reagan campaigns with his wife Nancy and Senator Strom Thurmond (right) in South Carolina, 1980

Ronald Reagan campaigns with his wife Nancy and Senator Strom Thurmond (right) in South Carolina, 1980

Ronald Reagan campaigns with his wife Nancy and Senator Strom Thurmond (right) in South Carolina, 1980

In 1980, white evangelicals switched their allegiance from Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist who taught Sunday school, to Ronald Reagan, a divorced, non-churchgoing media celebrity who had opposed restrictions on gay rights and signed one of the nation’s most liberal abortion laws. So why should anyone be surprised that evangelicals are now supporting a divorced, non-churchgoing media celebrity whose record on the social issues is well to the left of his Republican rivals?

Sure, 1980 was back in the Dark Ages, when evangelicals were newly mobilized as a national political force under the banner of the religious right. But Reagan was not just the available alternative to a Democratic president who seemed to have bought into liberal policies like the Equal Rights Amendment.

What he had on offer was America Restored — a backward-looking idealization that resonated strongly in a religious tradition that, beginning in the early 19th-century, considered the country the place to bring about a restoration of early Christianity. This restorationism animated new denominations that didn’t want to be considered denominations, that called themselves just “Disciples of Christ” or “the Church of Christ.” Mormons too were animated by the restorationist impulse, seeking to restore not only Christianity but also Israelite patriarchy and, indeed, “all things.” As I’ve argued at length elsewhere, this helps explain why, in Reagan’s wake, evangelicals and Mormons became the GOP’s most loyal religious voting blocs.

Reagan, who was brought up as a Disciple, knew the old-time restorationism in his bones, and he adapted it in a way that appealed to Americans who were neither evangelical nor traditionally Republican. These included conservative Catholics longing for the restoration of the verities of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. It attracted white working class voters — those Reagan Democrats looking for a restoration of their blue collar mojo.

Post-Vietnam, post-ceding of the Panama Canal (said Reagan, “We built it. We paid for it. It’s ours.”), America would be back to being First. The Republican Party has been selling “Morning in America” ever since, but no GOP presidential candidate has done so as effectively as Donald Trump. “Make America Great Again” may lack the poetry of “Morning,” but it conjures up the Reaganite image of a “We’re Number 1” America where God’s in His Heaven and all’s right with the industrial economy.

That’s not to say that Trumpism is identical to Reaganism. Where Reagan offered illegal immigrants a one-time amnesty, Trump has premised his campaign on expelling and walling them out. Where Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment was “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” Trump does the opposite.

But like Reagan, Trump offers evangelicals something better than a president who is like them and shares their values. He offers them a country that is all about them and their values. It’s a mirage, of course, but after tomorrow’s voting, it will make him the presumptive Republican nominee.

  • Glenn Harrell

    This blog exemplifies the frustrations that well-educated, independently thinking, bright and studious people are having with this election cycle.

    It’s like the brilliant violinist/composer talking about the state of the music industry. He is saying to the Pop Music World, “Hey, look at me–listen to me, I’m over here.” But the Rappers (Trump fans-Bernie fans, etc.) are appealing to the heightened emotions and red-blood cells of the majority, not the grey matter and intellect of the few.

    Our beloved USA is not overwhelmed with the bright and studious. She is sporting the rowdy and the rambunctious who want to feel powerful, not think well. Otherwise, we would be talking more about John Kasich right now.

    Politicians must play the dumb card if they want to win.
    And pandering to ethnicity doesn’t hurt either (see Hillary on both)

    “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.” Mark Twain

  • samuel johnston

    I agree. Human social decisions are always complex mixtures of motives and values, so I am not saying religion does not matter in this election cycle, but frankly, i don’t think it matters much. While reading an Atlantic article yesterday (“Trump Is Winning a Two-Front War”) a insight hit me on the head.
    1. When polls report about religion preferences, they lump the few enthusiasts with the many – who are much more interested in other aspects of their lives.
    2. Many college graduates are flipping burgers, and most of these are the children of the working class, drowning in tuition debt.
    3. Even many of those college graduates who are suitably employed, (according to the pollsters) are just dog paddling, and feeling very vulnerable.
    Finally, lots of folks who have been force fed multiculturalism, are about to bail publicly. Trump is now saying publicly what they have been too intimidated to say,
    and the Progressives have only themselves to blame.

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  • Jack

    Great….everything I just wrote got erased. Lovely.

    To sum up, it was the takeover of the Democratic party by the counterculture and its effect on economics, the culture, and foreign policy and its backlash which led to Reagan’s rise. It brought together millions of former Democrats, from evangelicals pushing back against school prayer bans and abortion rulings to ethnic Catholics concerned about violent crime and welfare dependency and taxes, to middle-middle class Jews concerned about threats to a meritocracy through the rise of racial and ethnic quotas and unwillingly to do the intellectual gyrations of the upper middle class to explain the impossible, how being anti-Israel is really being pro-Israel.

    I think it was Bill Bennett who summed it all up by saying, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party; it left me.” It changed from being the party of Henry Jackson and Humphrey to being the party of the counterculture.