IT IS not unusual for politicians and activists to see whichever election is around the corner as the most important for a generation. But, at the Values Voters summit in Washington last month, there was a palpable sense of urgency in advance of the United States’s mid-term elections in November.
The summit is an annual Republican gathering of the religious Right organised by the Family Research Council. Donald Trump was guest speaker in 2016. This year, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both addressed the summit.
The list of those attending a recent state dinner for Evangelicals at the White House read like a roll call for veterans of the Religious Right. They (or their fathers) have been at the top table, it seems, for ever: James Dobson and Tony Perkins, who founded the Family Research Council; Ralph Reed; Franklin Graham; Jerry Falwell, Jr. Then there were the newer foot-soldiers, leaders of megachurches or preachers of the prosperity gospel such as Pastor Paula White, who led the prayers at President Trump’s inauguration.
I WAS in Washington to make a documentary for the BBC with the White House reporter Tara McKelvey about the relationship between President Trump and Evangelicals. Everyone we spoke to said that this administration stands out from previous ones for the degree of access granted to those on the conservative end of the Evangelical spectrum.
“It’s like night and day,” Mr Falwell said. “Republican White Houses in the past said what Evangelicals liked to hear, and pretended to support their causes; but they really looked down their noses at Evangelicals and when they talked to you they thought they were doing you a favour.”
Although the President talks about “my Cardinals” as well as “my Evangelicals”, and includes members of other faiths in his close circle, many mainstream denominations say that they are shut out from the conversation.
Indeed, it became clear to us is that the access that some Evangelicals have to the White House is extraordinary. An executive order on religious liberty announced by the President in May 2017 committed the administration to putting a faith liaison in every department. The part that they play is, in part, to guard against the federal government’s behaving in ways that some Christians see as infringing that liberty.
When we interviewed Ms White, she had just come from a meeting at which 150 pastors had been briefed by officials from several departments and by the Vice-President. Jerry Johnson, the head of a national religious broadcasters’ group, told us about the time he went to the White House for a meeting. “There was a constant parade of people through our room who came to see us: cabinet members, members of staff. It was a very welcoming place, populated with believers — and that’s very different from the previous eight years.”
Some observers predicted that the President’s overtures towards Evangelicals during his election campaign would end once he was in the White House. They also thought that many of the 81 per cent of white Evangelicals who voted for him did so while holding their noses. They were wrong on both counts. Robert P. Jones, of the Public Religion Research Institute, Washington, DC, said that the doubts expressed by Evangelical leaders about Trump’s fitness for office were never shared by their congregations. When those leaders finally got on board with his campaign, they were merely “jumping ahead of a parade that was already moving”.
As with the 2016 election, so with the mid-terms. Mr Falwell said that Evangelicals voted on immigration and “America First” — and that was how they would vote again. Mr Jones agreed. He said that the Religious Right began as “white flight” from the Democratic Party as it adopted the cause of civil rights. Although it had widened its base by organising around abortion and same-sex marriage, it was the issues of race, immigration, and anti-Muslim sentiment, Mr Jones said, that now provided the glue in the relationship between Evangelical voters and President Trump.
WHITE Evangelicals are losing their cultural dominance as their numbers decline — from 23 per cent of the population ten years ago to 15 per cent today. In a poll in 2016, 75 per cent of them said that American life and culture had changed for the worse since the 1950s, a time when racial segregation was enforced by Jim Crow laws across the country. No other group shared that view.
President Trump reassures them that their world is not disappearing — and that is why his approval ratings among white Evangelicals remain strong. Their turnout is traditionally high; so they could make all the difference in the elections in November. Quite what the impact will be of the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is anybody’s guess, but longer-term political forecasts suggest an increasing polarisation of voters around questions of race and religion.
The prospect facing the Republican Party is that it becomes a white Christian nationalist party. The prospect facing the Democrats is that they become a party in which white Christians feel that they have no place. The potential in these mid-terms for the culture wars to shift into a higher gear should have all Americans worried.
Rosie Dawson is a freelance journalist who specialises in religion.
Trump’s Evangelicals will be broadcast today at 11 a.m. on BBC Radio 4, and will be available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.