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Evangelicals supported Reagan. Why not Trump?

It's not about the man but the vision of America.

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.