Donald J. Trump won the 2016 presidential election with overwhelming support from Christians. According to exit poll data, Trump received a majority of votes from Protestants, including 81 percent of those who identify as evangelical. We can therefore expect that Trump and his advisers will incorporate some amount of Christian language and biblical symbolism into the speeches and festivities planned for the inauguration later this week as a gesture to those who helped elevate him to the presidency. Such gestures are not novelties in American politics; they are as old as the country itself and loaded with meaning.
Religion mattered in the founding of the United States of America, but not for the reasons many Americans think. Only by shifting away from the overly simplistic debate over whether America was founded as a Christian or secular nation can we see a major role of religion in the American Revolution and the process of state formation. Religion served as a tool of political mobilization. Patriot leaders partnered with many of the country’s spiritual leaders to translate a limited struggle over what British sovereignty entailed into religious terms and thereby transformed it into a full-fledged continental revolt. In doing so, they convinced common people to face bullets in a war that transferred power from one group of elite men to another.
The political utility of religion remained a theme in American politics even after the patriots achieved independence from Great Britain. In the election of 1800 between the Federalist incumbent, John Adams, and his Republican challenger, Thomas Jefferson, the desperation of the Federalists led them to attack Jefferson on religious terms. They cited Jefferson’s denial of Christianity — he was a deist — as proof that he was unfit for the presidency. One clergyman predicted that as president, Jefferson would “get rid of religion and the clergy,” arguing that his election “would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of [this] nation” and “a rebellion against God.”
Federalist Sen. James Hillhouse of Connecticut was similarly stark in his declaration that “The introduction of Mr. Jefferson will ruin the Republic.” In the short term, the Federalist strategy failed. Jefferson was elected president, the country flourished, and, even with a deist in the country’s highest elected office, rates of American church membership actually increased. But the enduring impact of the Federalists’ strategy was the way it demonstrated how a political party could broadly characterize itself to the American public as the only religious option and its political opponents as a godless party.
Since Jefferson’s presidency over 200 years ago, political and religious leaders have regularly joined forces in exploiting genuine religious beliefs held among large segments of the American public in order to aid their various quests for power. For examples, in the 1830s the Whig Party declared national days of fasting and prayer to opportunistically court evangelicals into its coalition built around opposition to President Andrew Jackson. In 1928, Republicans successfully rallied Protestants to support Herbert Hoover in order to prevent a Catholic, Democrat Al Smith, from becoming president. When the Republicans resorted to a similar tactic in 1960 (trying to block the election of another Catholic, John F. Kennedy), it backfired as many Americans deemed a vote for Kennedy a vote against religious bigotry.
Ronald Reagan rode into office in 1980 in large part because of the emergence of the new religious right. In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich led the charge to further strengthen the bond between Christians and the Republican Party by placing opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage at the heart of its platform. By the end of the 1990s, the political and spiritual leaders of the religious right had arguably gained more influence in the Republican Party than any other Christian coalition — formal or informal — had ever had in any other American political party. Furthermore, by emphasizing moral issues over other matters in the party’s agenda, they took a play out of the Federalist 1800 playbook and billed the Republican Party as the party for God-fearing men and women and the Democratic Party as the party of the godless.
In 2008, some outspoken leaders of the religious right opposed Barack Obama by perpetuating false rumors that he was secretly a Muslim. In 2012 they expressed serious reservations about supporting the nominee of the Republican Party, Mitt Romney, because of his Mormon faith. Yet, in 2016, many of the same men and women demonstrated strong support for Trump. Romney was not Christian enough for the religious right. But apparently Trump is.
This historical narrative helps us contextualize such high levels of support among Christians for Trump, a candidate so completely unlike any other man their religious predecessors have held up as their preferred choice for president. It also helps us determine where the 2016 election fits in this enduring American tradition of tangled religious and political opportunism. Trump is not the paragon of Christian morality, nor has he ever claimed to be. Indeed, several prominent leaders of American religious communities, including Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared that Trump’s actions and harsh rhetoric against women and minority groups set him up as the antithesis of Christian morality.
But such dissent was drowned out by the pro-Trump voices of other evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffers, whose endorsements apparently went a long way in delivering to Trump a staggering level of evangelical votes. In fact, Jeffers recently predicted on Twitter that Trump will “be the most faith-friendly president in our nation’s history.”
How could the election of a man who doubles-down in defense of actions and opinions that run so contrary to much of what is central to notions of Christian morality represent a political victory for Christian values? The answer: it doesn’t. What Trump’s victory represents is yet another exploitation of Christian voters' genuine desire for a government that supports their values. While may Christian voters also undoubtedly supported Trump because they saw him as the “lesser of two evils” when compared to Hillary Clinton, this was not the rationale of some prominent leaders in the religious right such as Falwell and Jeffers, who supported Trump from early in the primary contest even as other Christian candidates campaigned for the Republican nomination.
In the end, Falwell, Jeffers and other leaders of the religious right have so thoroughly convinced many of its members that the Republican Party is the only acceptable party for Christians that its members largely refused to break rank even when presented with a candidate whose behavior and rhetoric stands in stark contrast to so many of their core values.
Tying religion to political causes, candidates and parties is a troubling, yet persistent, feature of American political culture. In a representative democracy, men and women are expected to vote for candidates who they believe represent their values. And so they should. But then, in every election, religion is just one of many issues that determines how Americans vote. Accordingly, voters of all faiths and creeds — as well as those who subscribe to none — should be aware that many of the men and women who seek to gain and maintain power will try to exploit them by turning elections into overly simplistic tests of faith.
Spencer W. McBride is the author of "Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America."