The popular understanding of the history of evangelical political mobilization is still rooted in the 1970s and 1980s and the movement of apolitical or Democratic southern evangelicals toward the Republican Party. But it’s important to understand that as a southern story, not a national one. The nerve centers of northern evangelicalism had long been overwhelmingly Republican.
Wheaton College was of course among the most influential evangelical centers of higher education (it counted Billy Graham among its alumni). As the snapshot above shows, the future leaders of evangelicalism had a habit of voting overwhelmingly Republican, even in years when to do so was radically out of step with the rest of the country (1948, 1964).
Wheaton’s mock election results in 1964 were almost exactly the inverse of the national returns. While Johnson won over 60% of the vote in a historic landslide, over 60% of Wheaton students gave their mock votes to Goldwater (remember, this was before the 26th amendment lowered the age of the franchise to 18).
Wheaton students’ overwhelming support for Goldwater in the fall of 1964 did not come without controversy. Wheaton students holding a pro-Goldwater rally encountered an interracial counter-demonstration of black kids and a few Wheaton students.
Wheaton student Dan Kuhn described what happened next:
Singing the “Freedom Song” and “Jesus Loves Me,” the teen-age demonstrators moved unresistingly in an extended oval configuration. Many noted their songs—“God loves us, why don’t you, Mr. Goldwater,” or “Wheaton Christians — do you really care,” or “You preach to us, you pray for us, you say you love us, but you vote for Mr. Goldwater” — many resented them and many fought back—kicking, pushing, and jeering the Negro youths…
Some background here: Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you read the speech he gave in the Senate explaining his vote, and then read the speeches of segregationists such as Stennis, you’ll very find little difference. The old line that Goldwater wasn’t personally prejudiced may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. His constitutional principles didn’t allow him to support human rights for black people. That’s why the counter-demonstrators were associating a vote with Goldwater with a lack of care for fellow human beings. Kuhn went on to reflect on the stakes involved in Wheaton students’ support for a political platform so oppressive to black people:
The problem confronts us suddenly at Wheaton when we realize with embarrassment that these people to whom we talk about Christianity can see nothing authentic about our claim to be committed to Jesus Christ in the way we live…
A pro-Goldwater student attended the rally and had a different take:
Saturday’s rally provided expression for many people. Some was constructive and pertinent, some was not. Several young Negroes in a revolving picket were out of place…
Someone told them that Barry Goldwater voted against them and thus hates them. Because of this they return their hate to him and his supporters. I offer that this sort of misunderstanding and action engenders new hatred for which there is no room in this situation.
Of equal importance is the offense that was brought against the Christian supporters of Mr. Goldwater. The demonstration was a slap in the face of progress for the Christian in understanding his fellow. I was told that by supporting Barry Goldwater I took my place among the prejudiced. This is not true. The Negro and the white are my fellow, but this demonstration hampers our understanding of one another.
In this tangled mixture of defensiveness and resentment, the student actively supporting systemic racism claimed the right to be offended! Here you can see the toxicity of Christian colorblindness. Black and white people are his “fellows” and they must seek “understanding” with each other, but it is unreasonable and offensive to judge white people on the basis of their actions.
He didn’t vote for Goldwater because he supports racism, but because he supports conservatism. Sound familiar? Then, as now, if he had taken the time to understand perspectives other than his own, he might have realized that this was only a roundabout way of saying that the rights and safety of others are expendable in pursuit of one’s ideological goals.