Evangelicals and Washington

Evangelicals have become loyal to Donald Trump because we see him as a champion of our values. Instead of pandering for votes from religious conservatives and then treating Evangelicals as if they don’t exist, which some leaders have said Ronald Reagan did, Trump listens and acts.

Today, there are many Evangelicals in the Trump administration, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Vice President Mike Pence. Friends of Zion founder Mike Evans frequents the White House, and he told me that you can’t walk 10 feet in the West Wing without running into an Evangelical.

But it hasn’t always been so. Until Jimmy Carter exploded on the national scene in the mid-1970s, Evangelicals were not seen as a voting bloc, and the term “born again” was not widely used outside conservative churches.

Of course, before the 1960s, there was at least a religious veneer on the nation’s political scene. Back then, there were moral issues of war and peace, as well as disputes -- often violent -- between labor and management. But today’s hot-button issues were nowhere on the scene. Prayer was considered legitimate in schools when I was a child, abortion was so secretive it was unheard of, and homosexuality was definitely in the closet.

After World War II, Christians were scandalized by behavior that to many today doesn’t seem so bad. For example, Harry Truman liked to drink bourbon and play poker with his friends. To him religion was primarily ethical behavior derived from a Protestant tradition, and he didn’t speak much about it. However, he quoted Scripture, perhaps because he had read the Bible through twice by the time he was 12, and when it came to recognizing the Jewish state, it was evident that his worldview had been shaped by his knowledge of Scripture.

It’s widely accepted that Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton had marital infidelities. But until Clinton, marital unfaithfulness was something no politician talked about and the media ignored.

When Truman was still president, a 33-year-old Billy Graham was interviewed in Christian Life magazine about how the 1952 election was the most important since the Civil War. The reason: the drift toward socialism. Now, six decades later, what was said seems quaint.

Graham was among the first in modern times to use the term “evangelical,” which conservative Christians began using to refer to themselves to avoid being lumped in with liberal “social gospel” Christians on one side or “fighting” fundamentalists on the other. He was also one of the first high-profile Christian leaders to be welcomed in his role as Christian leader to the White House. Beginning with Truman, he visited every president at the White House through George W. Bush until he was too old and feeble to travel. Barack Obama and Donald Trump went to visit him in his North Carolina home.

Likewise, Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher before he was governor of Georgia, popularized the phrase “born again.” Then Newsweek named 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical,” and the same year a book titled The Miracle of Jimmy Carter by veteran journalists Howard Norton and Bob Slosser persuaded many conservative Christians to vote for Carter. I remembered thinking this Baptist Sunday School teacher was “one of us,” and I supported him even though at the last minute I decide his policies were too liberal and voted for Ford.

While we knew Dwight Eisenhower was a Presbyterian, John Kennedy was Roman Catholic, Lyndon Baines Johnson was Disciples of Christ, and Richard Nixon was a Quaker, no one talked or speculated if they had been born again. When Gerald Ford became president, he invited Billy Zeoli, a fellow Michigander, to be the White House chaplain. I knew Zeoli, and we had dinner in Grand Rapids a few years after Ford left office. He had a colorful personality and loved to tell stories about how he led Gerald Ford to the Lord at a prayer breakfast in Washington when Ford was still a U.S. representative from Michigan. That means that Ford, not Carter, was actually the first “born-again” president.

Pat Boone and Ronald Reagan would also play a role in opening doors to the White House for a young motivational speaker, now a historian and television pundit, named Doug Wead, who ended up being an instrumental liaison between Evangelicals and the White House. Long before Paula White Cain or Trump’s Faith Advisory Board, here was a former Assemblies of God evangelist-turned-motivational speaker inviting evangelical leaders to fund-raisers in the East Room at the White House, and it wasn’t even considered an evangelical event!

In Washington, Wead quickly learned that most of the Washington Republican establishment didn’t like Evangelicals and didn’t trust them. It was not popular to be an Evangelical, and Wead knew it. So he got to know the Bushes and later worked his way into their White House by being secular, not religious. These Washington biases were never discussed openly. No one questioned why Evangelicals -- said to be about 40% of the U.S. population at that time -- were barely represented at all.

Still today, Wead knows national politicians who look at Trump and figure he picked up the Evangelical vote because he was in the right place at the right time. Intellectually, they may be conscious of the fact that Evangelicals are an important constituency. But no matter how often they see reports about the group’s size, they don’t fully comprehend it, or even believe the numbers, until they actually encounter Evangelicals.

“You can live and die in that Northeast Corridor,” Doug told me, “without ever meeting one.”

Stephen E. Strang is an award-winning journalist, founder and author of the bestseller God and Donald Trump. This content was excerpted from his new book, “God, Trump, and the 2020 Election,” out Jan. 14

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