Nearly 80% of white evangelicals say that they are willing to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. These are Jesus-loving Christians who will cast their ballots for a twice-divorced, bombastic, promiscuous narcissist who plays on nativist fears of Muslims and immigrants. How is this possible?
These votes are not so much in favor of Trump as they are against Clinton and the Democratic Party. It’s an entrenched political posture that traces back to the late 1960s, when Democrats, the party of southern evangelicals, Catholics, and African Americans, were arguably more morally conservative than the Republicans.
But the 1968 National Convention in Chicago suggested a new Democratic trajectory that veered toward secularism and cultural libertinism. Live television colorfully broadcast the most sensational scenes of leftist “lawlessness.” Images of Mayor Richard Daley directing foul racial slurs toward Abraham Ribicoff, a senator from Connecticut, melted away only to reappear as unclothed Yippies cavorting in the waters of Lake Michigan. Network cameras also captured working-class police officers and youthful protesters, former allies in the liberal coalition, battling in the streets.
Four years later the 1972 Democratic National Convention at Miami Beach reinforced the emerging image of Democrats as the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Outside the convention hall in Flamingo Park, crowds ogled provocateurs Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Allen Ginsburg. News reports, from evangelical and secular outlets alike, described activists parading around in full drag, smoking dope under a tree with a sign that read “Pot People’s Party,” and engaging in open sex. Members of the Progressive Labor Party and the Revolutionary Communist Progressive Party picketed the convention.
By contrast, a “neat, tidy, punctual” Republican Convention held a month later at the same site seemed to confirm the Democratic Party’s moral slide. This contrast troubled millions of evangelicals around the nation.
Political scientists Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio have argued that self-identified agnostics, atheists, and persons who seldom, if ever, attended religious services became the face of the Democratic Party. In fact, a full 21% of Democratic delegates at the 1972 convention could be classified as secular in an American population out of which only 5% considered themselves secular.
As I narrate in my book Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism, Jimmy Carter in 1976 temporarily stopped the flood of religious conservatives out of the Democratic Party. But it resumed in 1980, and white evangelicals have become such an entrenched bloc in the Republican Party that four out of every five of them plan to vote for Trump in 2016.