The overwhelming white evangelical support for Donald Trump is a puzzle that will occupy historians for generations. How can the religious right, a movement that trumpets its fidelity to “family values,” throw its support to a vulgar, thrice-married casino operator and self-confessed sexual predator?
Fully 81 percent of white evangelicals did so in 2016; only a slightly lesser percentage repeated the folly in 2020 — after four years and, according to the Washington Post, 30,573 false or misleading statements during Trump’s term in the White House.
Any attempt to solve this conundrum — religious right support for Trump — will have to reckon with the role of racism. After several decades of research, I can state without fear of contradiction that evangelicals mobilized politically in the 1970s not, as commonly supposed, in opposition to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973 but rather in defense of racial segregation at Bob Jones University and at all-white “segregation academies,” many of them church-sponsored.
Evangelicals overwhelmingly considered abortion a “Catholic issue” until the late 1970s. (Jerry Falwell, to cite one example, by his own admission did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 1978, more than five years after the Roe decision.)
The durability of what I call the abortion myth, the fiction that opposition to legalized abortion was the catalyst of their movement, can be attributed to the founders of the religious right themselves. In a breathtaking act of rhetorical jujitsu, one notable for both its audacity and its mendacity, these leaders have insisted over the decades that opposition to abortion is what forced them to become political, when in fact they mobilized politically to defend racism. They eventually realized, however, that they needed a different issue to mobilize grassroots evangelicals. Only later, just before the 1980 presidential election, did evangelicals embrace opposition to abortion as a political issue.
The true origins of the religious right, rooted in racism, make the 2016 support for Trump a bit more understandable, if not defensible. Trump entered the national political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s first African American president. His rhetoric surrounding immigrants and racial minorities speaks for itself.
The 2016 election, therefore, allowed the religious right finally to abandon any pretext that it was a movement devoted to family values. Instead, the religious right circled back to the charter issue behind its formation: racism.
But how do we account for the four decades between the emergence of the religious right and the embrace of Trump? While it is true that both Bush presidents, father and son, supported policies that were not kind to people of color, neither man was openly racist. What is the missing link between, say, Falwell and Trump?
In the course of my research, I’ve come increasingly to see Ronald Reagan as the missing link.
Let’s consider the run-up to the 1980 presidential election. The incumbent, Jimmy Carter, was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher who spoke openly about being a “born again” Christian. Carter’s tenure in office occurred during a troubled time, no question about it.
But any reasonable appraisal of his tenure would conclude that, even though he was careful to observe the line of separation between church and state, Carter sought to govern in a way consistent with his religious convictions: his pardon of Vietnam-era draft resisters; the emphasis on human rights and both gender and racial equality; the Camp David accords; renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaties as a way to move the nation beyond colonialism. (Carter’s opposition to abortion, by the way, was longer and far more consistent than that of Reagan, who as governor of California in 1967 signed into law the nation’s most liberal abortion law.)
Why would leaders of the religious right choose a divorced and remarried former Hollywood actor over Carter, a fellow evangelical? I’m afraid racism cannot be discounted.
Just as Trump entered the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of Barack Obama, Reagan entered California politics in opposition to the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which sought to guarantee equal access to racial minorities. Falwell (although he repented of it later in life) characterized the civil rights movement as “civil wrongs;” Reagan vociferously opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Throughout his political campaigns, Reagan regularly invoked the racially fraught term “law and order.” And who can forget his vile caricature of “welfare queens,” mythical women of color who ostensibly lived the good life on the public dole?
For me, the most damning evidence of Reagan’s racism occurred Aug. 3, 1980, when the Republican nominee chose to open his general election campaign in, of all places, Philadelphia, Miss., at the Neshoba County fair. This is where, 16 summers earlier, members of the Ku Klux Klan, in cooperation with the local sheriff’s office, abducted, tortured and murdered three civil rights workers, burying their bodies in an earthen dam.
Lest anyone miss his meaning on that occasion, Reagan, the master of symbolism, invoked the time-worn segregationist battle cry: “I believe in states’ rights.”
Sadly, the thread that links Donald Trump back to the aborning religious right of the late 1970s is racism. There’s no pretty way to say it. Ronald Reagan was very much in that loop.