The Christian right’s Faustian bargain

It goes back 42 years.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Sept. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

(RNS) — “Trump should fill Christians with rage,” begins the headline on Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson’s latest opinion piece. “How come he doesn’t?”

Gerson, former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush and prominent evangelical-around-town, states the answer as succinctly as anybody: “Much of what considers itself Christian America has assumed the symbols and identity of white authoritarian populism — an alliance that is a serious, unfolding threat to liberal democracy.”

How did we get to this point? 

In Gerson’s view, the Christian Americans in question have come to feel themselves “outsiders in their own land” for holding traditional Western views on marriage and gender — views that are reviled by progressive elites. Whereupon: “Leaders in the Republican Party have fed, justified and exploited conservative Christians’ defensiveness in service to an aggressive, reactionary politics.”

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Ergo, resistance to vaccine and mask mandates, discrediting of fair elections, baseless charges of gay grooming in schools, silencing the teaching of the history of racism, and a belief in political institutions suffused in godless conspiracies. And that’s not to mention attachment to Confederate nostalgia, antisemitic replacement theory and QAnon accusations of satanic child sacrifice.

It’s a powerful assessment, but altogether too present-minded. The malady of the Christian America Gerson diagnoses goes back at least half a century, and its exploitation was engineered— by evangelical as well as Republican leaders — long before Gerson joined the Bush II administration.

When conservative Christians first began mounting political protests in the 1970s, they did so as, well, Christian conservatives. Whether it was Phyllis Schlafly and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints versus the Equal Rights Amendment, Anita Bryant versus the Dade County gay rights ordinance, or folks in Kanawha County versus public school textbooks, the protests were defensive — and nonpartisan. So too with the anti-abortion movement, which got off the ground toward the end of the decade.

But in 1980 that ceased to be the case, and here’s how.

Mesmerized by the idea of creating a Republican majority based in the increasingly populous Sun Belt, Republican insiders were shocked and dismayed by the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. For a moderate Democratic ex-governor of Georgia to carry every state of the Confederacy except Virginia posed a mortal threat to the GOP’s “Southern strategy.”

Ronald Reagan at the National Affairs Briefing in August 1980 in Texas. Video screen grab

Pastor James Robison, left, speaks and Ronald Reagan, center, applauds during the National Affairs Briefing in Dallas in August 1980. Video screen grab

And so it became essential to turn as many white Southerners as possible into Republican voters and, ideally, political activists. It all came together in August 1980, when 10,000 evangelicals came to Reunion Arena in Dallas for what was called the National Affairs Briefing.

The attendees were told, “You’ll walk away with know-how to inform and mobilize your church and community in a nonpartisan drive to push beyond complaint into positive control of your destiny.”

The object was the opposite of nonpartisan. Alongside major evangelical preachers, the event featured an array of prominent conservative Republican pols and culminated in the appearance of newly nominated presidential nominee Ronald Reagan, who stroked the crowd. “I know you cannot endorse me,” he said, “but I endorse you and everything you do.”

Come November, Carter lost every state of the Confederacy except his own. The Christian right was on its way; the Republican alliance, its Faustian bargain. Seduced by the promise of power, most white evangelicals and many other white Christians as well would become locked as much into a Republican as a Christian identity.

in a recent interview on the Ezra Klein Show, Russell Moore, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission who now edits Christianity Today, testified to his own experience as a teenager in Mississippi in the 1980s.

The problem is when the political ideas or even worse, the political affiliations and those sorts of tribal identities, that becomes primary. And so the religion then becomes kind of a means to an end.

That was one of the really difficult problems I had to grapple with as a teenager was seeing voting guides that would say here’s the Christian position on line item veto, balanced budget amendment, those sorts of things, and realizing, is there a Christian position on the Strategic Defense Initiative and how much funding it should get? 

Getting those voter guides into evangelical churches was the specialty of the Christian Coalition. Allegedly nonpartisan, the guides were structured by Executive Director Ralph Reed to favor only Republican candidates — as the IRS belatedly recognized when it denied the organization nonprofit status in 1999.

As Thomas Edsall and Hanna Rosin of The Washington Post put it at the time, “In states with large evangelical and fundamentalist constituencies, the coalition, the premier organization of the religious right, has helped Republicans at every level of the ballot, playing a crucial role in the GOP takeover of the House and Senate in 1994.”

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By the early 2000s, when Reed became head of the Georgia Republican Party and flipped the state from blue to red, the Christian right was literally demonizing the other side. As a lonely Democrat in a suburban Atlanta church emailed me two decades ago, “The ‘in-crowd’ at my church is all Republican and regularly encourage others in the church to attend the Christian Coalition meetings and rallies. … If I ever spoke up in defense of a Democratic politician, I was talked down and sometimes actually yelled at by red-faced Deacons saying that the Democrats are the work of the devil.”

The corrupting influence of power is an old story. Meditating on the theological relevance of the latest Lord of the Rings series in his most recent column for The Dispatch, anti-Trump evangelical David French writes: “Tolkien wasn’t naive. He knew that world. He’d confronted it directly. That’s why characters like Boromir or Fëanor resonate so strongly. In the quest to confront the enemy, you become the enemy.”

Rage? Having long since cast its political enemy as the devil, how could the Christian right have done other than embrace the demonic Donald Trump?

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