The Self-absorbed Politics of White Evangelicalism

Why did so many white evangelicals support Trump in November? Self-protection perhaps? As Wayne Grudem last summer:

a Trump-appointed Supreme Court, together with dozens of lower court judges appointed by him, would probably result in significant advances in many of the policy areas important to Christians. It would also open the door to huge expansion of influence for the many Christian lobbying groups known as “family policy councils” in various states, especially enabling them to work for further legal protections for life, for marriage and family, and for religious liberty.

Many white evangelicals believed it was more important to protect the prerogatives and traditions of their religious institutions than to resist the broader threat to the public good represented by the Trump campaign.

This insular brand of evangelical politics is not new. During the upheavals of the 1960s, many white evangelicals mobilized on behalf of their religious interests while remaining on the sidelines in matters of social justice. In the Spring of 1965, many clergy came to Selma, Alabama to participate in the civil rights movement’s voting rights campaign. But not white evangelical leaders. Just weeks after Alabama State Troopers attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Clyde W. Taylor, Secretary General of the National Association of Evangelicals, firmly rejected rumors that the NAE was lobbying on behalf of civil rights legislation. He wrote,

The official stand of the NAE on the whole race issue, including Selma, is that we do not take a stand on it. We are neither for nor against.¹

In a telephone conversation with an evangelical who wanted the NAE to support the civil rights movement, Taylor’s assistant explained,

The NAE has a policy of not becoming involved in political or sociological affairs that do not affect the function of the church or those involved in the propagation of the gospel.²

This hands-off posture had not prevented the NAE from jumping into the fray of a national election just five years before. In 1960, the NAE produced and distributed materials encouraging Protestants to vote against John F. Kennedy, who would be the nation’s first Catholic president.

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A not-so-subtle NAE appeal to vote against Kennedy

For some white evangelicals, the prospect of a Kennedy Presidency was a threat to their religious liberty. Would Catholic Bishops exert undue influence on the President, working to subvert Protestant Christianity? Such concerns seemed to justify political engagement.

In contrast, the denial of basic rights and safety to Black Americans did not “affect the function of the church.” While evangelical leaders rallied to defend the role they believed their religious tradition ought to play in American life, they were less likely to take political risks on behalf of other communities.

The election of 2016 suggests this self-protective politics remains an important feature of white evangelicalism.
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¹Clyde W. Taylor to Herbert S. Mekeel, March 22, 1965. Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.

² “Memo for Dr. Taylor,” March 12, 1965. Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College.

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