Evangelicals, Family Values, And The Rise Of Donald Trump

Perkins School of Theology Professor Jack Levison and Perkins doctoral student Andrew Klumpp write about evangelicals and the rise of Donald Trump.

By Jack Levison and Andrew Klumpp
SMU Perkins School of Theology

To grasp what happened this week, turn the clock back forty years. Exactly.

In 1976, evangelical Christians looked for a messiah, and one man fit the bill, down to the initials, J. C. A Sunday school teacher, born-again Christian, and family man with a likable Southern drawl hit the campaign trail for the 1976 presidential election. With endorsements from Pentecostal televangelist Pat Robertson, Civil Rights activist Jesse Jackson, and a welter of other Christian leaders, Jimmy Carter won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976.

Carter’s messianic reign was short-lived. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and waffled on abortion; personally opposed to abortion, he defended nonetheless a woman’s right to obtain one.

The real disaster occurred when Carter attempted to fulfill his campaign promise to deal directly with family values. His White House Conference on Families in 1980 was a failure from the get go, when he offended Catholics, in particular, by naming Patsy Fleming, a divorced mother of three, to lead the conference. Even the word, families, troubled many evangelical Christians, who worried that the term families communicated the acceptance of more than the traditional family. Were single-parent and same-sex households included alongside the traditional American family?

With the full-throated approval of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and other grassroots movements, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan surged to the top of the Republican ticket. With open arms and an explicit family values agenda, Reagan welcomed Christians who felt scorned by Carter and the Democratic Party. The divorced governor of California assured them, “I know that you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” In one fell swoop, evangelical Christians found their new home in the Republican Party.

The 1980 party platforms tell the story. The Republican Platform includes three straightforward statements on the “traditional family” and offers specific strategies for ways to protect the American ideal. The Democratic Platform includes a single ambiguous line: “The Democratic Party supports efforts to make federal programs more sensitive to the needs of the family, in all its diverse forms.” Federal programs and diverse forms did not appeal to many evangelical Christians, especially those of the Religious Right.

Reagan won the 1980 election. Carter went home to Georgia.

In the end, however, members of the Religious Right did not win with the election of Reagan.

Women would outnumber men on America’s campuses and begin to dominate segments of the work force.

Abortion would remain legal.

Same-sex marriage would become legal.

And Democrats would co-opt family values rhetoric that went straight to the heart of conservative evangelicals. In 2014, president Barack Obama used family values to justify an executive order loosening immigration policies: “America’s not a nation that should be tolerating the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms. We’re a nation that values families, and we should work together to keep them together.” The American Family Association decried Obama’s appeal to family values on behalf of other nations’ children.

Then came election night, 2016, and we wonder how it happened.

How did it happen? This is where historical perspective matters. History should have taught the cultured despisers of the Religious Right that ignorance—ignoring them—should not be an option. Remember that single line in the 1980 Democratic Party Platform: “The Democratic Party supports efforts to make federal programs more sensitive to the needs of the family, in all its diverse forms.”

It didn’t work. It wasn’t enough.

I do not belong to the Religious Right, but I recognize that for forty years—a generation of biblical proportions—their yearning for an advocate has simmered on the stove of discontent.

Then, in what seems like one fell swoop to those of us with our backs turned, the pot boiled over.

But the pot had simmered for quite some time. Forty years, to be exact.