Once upon a time, social scientists who study religion and politics in the United States thought they understood voters who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ — read: evangelical Protestants. Beginning in the late 1970s, when Jerry Falwell, a Baptist minister in Virginia and founder of Liberty University, launched the Moral Majority, which became the lobbying arm of white Protestants alarmed by what they saw as the nation’s moral decline, evangelicalism seemed to capture the affinity between conservative Protestantism and the GOP. That analysis looked plausible from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.
Then came Donald Trump. As pollsters quizzed voters and early primary returns came in, support for Trump among believers, who (one would think) should be offended by his failed marriages and vulgar remarks, was not only a surprise but a phenomenon that defied more than three decades of faith-based electoral expectations. As much as born-again leaders distanced themselves from Trump, polling data suggested that rank-and-file evangelicals were supporting him at levels that contradicted the assumption that conservative faith and conservative politics go hand in hand. In state after state, from Massachusetts to Virginia to Mississippi, Trump won the evangelical vote that pollsters and social scientists widely assumed would go to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Trump reveals the weakness of the scholarly consensus about evangelicals and politics.
Pundits and political observers have been scratching their heads over the apparent inconsistency. But a generation’s worth of scholarship on born-again Protestantism shows that evangelicalism was always a contrived identity that actually hid more than it explained. And Trump’s unexpected appeal to evangelicals has shown that evangelicalism is a feeble hook on which to hang so much of the American electorate.
Older social-scientific surveys of the national electorate — say, before 1975 — generally make today’s social scientists look like rocket scientists. For one thing, the older literature didn’t distinguish between mainline and evangelical Protestants. They were all simply Protestant. Today we know better. Mainliners belong generally to the historic Anglo-American denominations and find their institutional voice (what little is left of it) in the ecumenical body, the National Council of Churches, which grew out of the Federal Council of Churches, founded in 1908. These mainline institutions were not sufficiently sound for evangelical Protestants, who in 1942 formed an alternative, the National Association of Evangelicals.