Here’s a political trivia question for you: When was the last time that a majority of white evangelicals supported a Democratic presidential candidate?
The survey data suggests that the most likely answer to the question is 1964, the year when President Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater.
While pollsters in 1964 did not use “evangelical” as a category when questioning prospective voters on their presidential choices, a combination of public opinion surveys that screened voters for a “Protestant” identity, along with more focused surveys of Christian publishers or evangelical magazine subscribers, suggests that despite strong fundamentalist and white southern support for Goldwater, there was enough anxiety about Goldwater’s alleged extremism among white evangelicals nationwide that a majority probably voted for Johnson.
If that is true, it was almost certainly the only presidential election since 1948 when a majority of white evangelicals voted Democratic – which means that for the past half century, there has not been a single election in which white evangelicals supported the Democratic candidate, and only one election in the last seventy years when they have. Even the born-again Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter, it seems, was not able to win more than 49 percent of the evangelical vote.
Why have white evangelicals been so antipathetic to Democrats, even before their disagreements with Democrats over abortion or LGBT issues emerged? And can anything ever convince them to support a Democratic presidential candidate?
White evangelicals’ hostility toward the Democratic Party cannot be blamed on a lack of effort from Democratic presidential candidates to win over conservative white Protestant voters. Barack Obama spoke about his Christian faith at several evangelical gatherings, including a forum moderated by Rick Warren at Saddleback Church. Southern Baptist Bill Clinton cultivated a friendship with Billy Graham, invited Tony Campolo and Bill Hybels to be his spiritual advisors, and used the biblical phrase “New Covenant” for his campaign platform. Another Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter, famously became the first major-party candidate in history to proclaim that he had been “born again.” And when Democratic presidential candidates were not initiating outreach to evangelicals on their own, some of their small coterie of evangelical supporters were facilitating it. In 1972, for instance, the group of young left-leaning antiwar Christian activists who called themselves “Evangelicals for McGovern” arranged for the Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern to speak at Wheaton College, where he cited the Sermon on the Mount and gave a rousing defense of the Social Gospel. But that did nothing to stop more than 80 percent of white evangelical voters from casting their ballots for Richard Nixon.
Perhaps there’s a theological explanation for this. An intriguing book that was published by Oxford University Press last year – Gillis J. Harp’s Protestants and American Conservatism – argues that the tenets of American Protestantism (especially Protestantism of the Reformed variety) have produced a natural alliance with conservative ideas that can be traced back to seventeenth-century Puritanism. I’m not sure that I agree with Harp’s thesis in its entirety. I think that a significant strand of Protestantism – theologically liberal or mainline Protestantism, in particular – had a profound influence on American liberalism. But I am convinced that as far as evangelicalism is concerned, there are deeply rooted theological and cultural reasons for white evangelicals’ rejection of the Democratic Party. In other words, white evangelicals who vote Republican really are acting consistently with their own theological worldview, as can be seen in at least three areas where evangelical theology has clashed with liberal Protestantism and, by extension, with a Democratic Party that is today a largely secularized form of liberal Protestant theology.
In white evangelical theology, individual transformation is the key to social change. In the white evangelical worldview, sin is almost entirely an individual matter, not a matter of structural inequity, and salvation is similarly individualistic. By contrast, liberal Protestants have long seen sin and salvation in structural terms, and as a result, they have welcomed government programs to change unjust social structures – such as federal antipoverty programs to change economic structures in the 1960s or a universal healthcare program to create similar change today. Yet evangelicals have rarely shown much enthusiasm for any of these programs. That is not because they do not care about poverty relief or access to healthcare; it is instead because they do not think of any social problems in structural terms. Fighting evil through government activism has been, for evangelicals, almost entirely about regulating individual sin (such as abortion, homosexuality, or pornography) and not at all about changing social structures.
White American evangelicalism has embraced a narrative that is deeply suspicious of the state, especially as an agent of social change. While not all modern evangelicals have been premillennial dispensationalists, a large number have been drawn to biblical interpretations that emphasize the state as an enemy of God’s people, and they have been unusually worried about state “persecution” of Christians. The near-paranoia about the state seems to date back to the beginning of the American fundamentalist movement, when conservative Protestants who sensed that they were losing the fight for control of their own denominations and their hold on American culture became fearful of nearly all institutions, whether denominational, academic, or governmental. By contrast, liberal or mainline Protestants controlled the vast majority of the nation’s ecclesiastical, political, educational, and legal institutions for most of the twentieth century, and as a result, they saw these institutions – including especially the state – as tools for societal betterment and social salvation.
White American evangelicalism does not view inequality as a social problem. The liberal Protestant Social Gospel of the late nineteenth century was based on the premise that socioeconomic inequality is a social evil, but most white evangelicals never embraced this idea. While they were deeply concerned about poverty and worked through private charities and evangelistic organizations to offer relief to the poor, they hardly ever saw poverty in structural terms or as a social problem with political solutions. Instead, as individualists, they believed that the message of the gospel and the reform of individual behavior, coupled with private philanthropy and the efforts of local churches, would be sufficient to help the poor. Relationships mattered to them more than structural reform. The Christian responsibility to help one’s neighbor in need formed the basis for many evangelical sermons; the duty to support federal antipoverty programs did not. Instead, white evangelicals were more likely to blame misguided government social programs for the problems that the poor faced.
The problem with most previous attempts to convince white evangelicals to vote Democratic is that they have wrongly assumed that evangelicals could be persuaded to adopt liberal Protestant understandings of the world. They have assumed that if evangelicals cared about the poor, they would naturally support anti-poverty programs and universal healthcare, or that if they valued evangelistic outreach to their Hispanic neighbors, they would want to support liberal immigration policies. But most white evangelicals have not seen the world that way. They have seen no incongruity between inviting a Hispanic immigrant family from their church to join them for Sunday dinner and then supporting a Republican candidate whose policies would make family reunification for many immigrants from Mexico considerably more difficult.
Based on historical trends and current polls, I doubt that we’ll see any change in these trends in this election cycle. Currently, public opinion polls show that President Donald Trump has a nearly 50-point lead over Democratic challenger Joe Biden – which means that Biden, like nearly all other Democratic presidential candidates for the past two decades, is not likely to get more than about 25 percent of the white evangelical vote.
Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the innovative approach of a new evangelical group that formed last week: Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden. A few of its members, such as Ron Sider, have long been identified with the small contingent of politically liberal evangelicals, but most are much more conservative. Some, such as John Huffman, who served as board chair for Christianity Today magazine, have never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate before. Because they are neither political nor theological liberals, their arguments in favor of voting Democratic are distinctly evangelical arguments that, unlike most previous unsuccessful attempts to mobilize evangelicals for Democratic candidates, do not require one to accept liberal Protestant or secular Democratic Party assumptions about the benefits of government programs or the need to fight structural evils.
Instead, the arguments of some of the leading supporters of Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden are distinctly individualistic moral arguments that seem to come straight out of a pre-2016 evangelical sermon. Trump, they argue, is not a moral leader for the nation. His racially charged rhetoric is dividing the church and making Christian racial reconciliation more difficult. While the website for Pro-Life Evangelicals does note some areas in which pro-life Christians should support the policies of the Democratic Party (except, of course, on abortion), the explanations given by leading evangelical pastors as to why they joined the group focus much more on familiar evangelical arguments about individual character than on policy proposals. “I’ve never seen someone so divisive and accusatory,” Joel Hunter, who voted for Trump in 2016 and now regrets it, declared. “We’re becoming divided and angry, and it’s the opposite of pro-life.”
In other words, the argument of many members of Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden is that in a world of imperfect political choices, the Democratic presidential nominee this time around would be better than the Republican incumbent for the cause of the gospel. Whether a majority of white evangelical voters will accept this argument and vote Democratic is highly doubtful. But even if they don’t, it’s hard to imagine an argument that has a greater claim to being authentically evangelical. If any argument could conceivably convince white evangelicals who genuinely believe in their own theological tradition to consider breaking with the Republican Party in this election, an argument about individual moral leadership and the cause of the gospel is the one that should.