In God We Trust: How American Christianity Became Republicanism - Harvard Political Review (2023)

“In America, we don’t turn to government to restore our souls. We put our faith in the almighty God,” said President Donald Trump on the closing night of a Republican National Convention steeped in religious rhetoric. Indeed, August 2020’s convention saw Sister Dierde Byrns espouse a vote for Trump as a vote against abortion and for “eternal life,” while others claimed that Democrats had immorally “challenged” the United States’ “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Over the course of its four-day run, the RNC proceeded to welcome pastors, rabbis, nuns, even anti-abortion activists in attempts to further consolidate the Christian vote, a bloc that makes up 70% of the population, 64% of eligible voters, and 79% of those that lean Republican.

In a national climate that blurs political and religious lines, then, the overwhelming support for Republicans amongst evangelical Christians indicates that the party’s appeals to the Christian right have been largely successful. However, it contradicts national commitments to the separation of church and state and contrasts with the secularization experienced in other developed countries. Moreover, even when candidates seem to oppose traditional Christian values, like President Trump’s previously salacious lifestyle before assuming office, evangelicals continue to rally behind the Republican cause. Why, then, do American Christianity and Republicanism seem so inextricably intertwined?

Much like religion, politics is as much social as it is governmental. It is passed down from parent to child and is effectively innate, hereditary even, for many U.S. citizens. American Christianity in particular has, for centuries, developed alongside American politics so much so that their conflation would only be natural. Indeed, for many Christians, right-wing partisanship is just as generational, inveterate, and cultural as religion itself.

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It is no question that the United States is a nation of at least nominally religious origins, and one that, upon its founding, housed numerous Judeo-Christian minorities: Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, Jews, among others. Faiths intermingled, shared characteristics, and interacted with their governments overtly only to the extent that they would be allowed to maintain their religious freedom. Indeed, notions of limited interaction between religion and government in the United States date as early as 1644, with Roger Williams’ promulgation of a “wall of separation” between the Church and worldly affairs.

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Consequently, early American Christianity was predicated on disestablishment and diversity, an ironic truth when many contemporary religious conservatives subscribe to a dogmatically homogenous and strict construction of the Bible. Even today, as evangelical Christians vote in droves for an increasingly populist Republican party, this evolutionary character remains.

In addition to its cultural context, regional lines also dictated Christianity’s development. The Southeastern United States, for example, was an epicenter for Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist proselytization throughout the nation’s early history. Now known as the “Bible Belt” for its large Christian population, the region has continued to take on a clearly religious tone. Indeed, many of its citizens identify and prioritize their regional identity, claiming to be “Americans” only “by birth,” but “Southern by the Grace of God.”

Moreover, the American South has the lowest population of religiously unaffiliated voters, the greatest prevalence of school prayer, the highest proportion of Christians, and the most consistent Republican voting record today, a set of traits which cannot be a coincidence. In the presence of partisan sectionalism, then, if regional solidarity is coupled with providence and if providence is coupled with politics, it is unsurprising that many Southern voters view their identity as Republicans as deeply bound to their identity as Christians.

Of course, the political implications of religion are not isolated to the South. In recent history, the Midwest, where some 73% of the population identifies as Christian, has also long been a conservative stronghold. The 2016 Presidential election additionally saw a Trump-favorable mobilization of blue-collar conservative Catholic voters in the Rust Belt, a bloc of Americans with political leanings similar to the majority Protestant or evangelical Christians in other parts of the nation. Even California maintains “a number of very large [Protestant] churches that have been active in politics,” as Daniel Williams, a professor at the University of West Georgia and author of “God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right,” told the HPR. Conservative Christianity, thus, has managed to remain politically relevant throughout the country and likely informs millions of people as they cast their ballots.

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Mainstream discussions of the influence of Christianity on American politics are often rife with allusions to “evangelical” voters. As such verbiage is integral to the narrative, it would be irresponsible to proceed without adequately defining it. In an interview with the HPR, Dr. Kip Richardson, a historian of religion at Harvard Divinity School, stated that American evangelicalism goes back to the “revivalistic preaching” of the 18th and 19th centuries. In turn, this religious strain has maintained a “thread of social conservatism.” To note, however, evangelical Christianity at large includes demographics, like Black Protestants, who vote in proportions of upwards of 90% for Democrats. For this reason, most scholars limit the scope of Christian-conservative study to White evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics.

In the U.S., evangelical Christians have created what Philip Gorski, professor of Sociology and Religion at Yale University and author of “American Babylon,” calls “Christian nationalism.” This ideology’s clients believe that America was built by and for Christians on Christian principles and that its religious identity is the reason for its God-ordained success. For many, the only way to “make America great again” is for a return to Christian hegemony and to the belief that “American democracy is founded on biblical principles … and cannot survive without American Christianity,” as Gorski stated in an interview with the HPR. Indeed, 65% of U.S .citizens believe that identification as a Christian is at least “fairly important” to considering oneself an American.

This association of American institutions with Christian doctrine is by no means a nascent phenomenon. Decades of contentious international politics, especially in the late 20th century, likely bolstered the notion. Embroiled in the Cold War, American political leaders sought overwhelmingly to amplify religious sentiment throughout the nation in attempts to consolidate American identity in the face of communist threats abroad. Originally, this was not meant to magnify the prevalence of Christianity but rather to encourage the observance of a general “civil religion.”

Despite initial non-sectarian motives, though, the conjunctive efforts of evangelists like the late Rev. Billy Graham and politicians like then-President Eisenhower led to a rise in the prevalence of evangelical Protestantism. This budding form of faith was largely affiliated with loyalty to one’s country and against foreign threats, and its sentiments have persisted decades after the close of the Cold War. Indeed, today, evangelical Protestants constitute the plurality of Christians in the United States at large and the majority of the Republican Party. Thus, patriotism, in addition to prayer and praise, has gradually come to define American Christianity.

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Perhaps at the root of American Christianity’s movement to the right is the conflation not just of Christianity with Republicanism but of “free markets and free religion,” as Yale professor of religious history Tisa Wenger told the HPR. This notion may find its roots in, as Richardson notes, the Weberian belief that Protestantism embodies the spirits of capitalism, thrift, and modesty. In more contemporary terms, modern Christianity is also rooted in its mid-century identity as a unifying force against communism. Insofar as it is the offspring of these earlier movements, it is possible that evangelical Christianity may, in the perception of its adherents, yield itself to capitalist fiscal conservatism, an ideal which is now one of the defining characteristics of the Republican Party.

Social conservatism and a commitment to family values may also play a role in the Republican Party’s “monopoly on God,” especially when compared to their Democratic counterparts who ostensibly vindicate violent protestors, support abortion, and tout third wave feminism. “The Christian Right has always been concerned about the moral direction and survival of the nation,” notes Williams, “and in their minds, personal behavior is always linked with a national cause.”

Indeed, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, often credited with clinching the Reagan presidency and putting the religious right on the national stage, was a simultaneously Christian and Republican response to the civil and gay rights movements, gender equality, and secularization of school curriculum and society in general. Many Christians of the late 20th century found their biblical support for male-lead heterosexual marriage and the maintenance of the nuclear family challenged by calls for equality for women and LGBT rights. Even Christian understandings of the creation story were actively undermined by public school systems that increasingly taught evolutionary biology. The response was a form of Christian separatism, which Darren Dochuk, professor of History at the University of Notre Dame clarifies as separatism from Christianity’s longstanding association with “the Social Gospel,” economic reform, and progressive policies at large in an interview with the HPR.

A more somber explanation for the development of the Christian Republicanism may rest, however, in discussions of race. There seems to be a general consensus amongst scholars that, in some significant capacity, race relations played a role in the alignment of White Christians with the Republican Party. Particularly in the South, where the population of White evangelicals is highest, Wenger and Dochuk state that the Republican fear of big government and support for the privatization of educational institutions took hold as a response to intervention measures undertaken by the state to racially integrate society. Even respecting tax policy, it’s possible that White Protestant Southerners in the late 20th century deplored the possibility of their tax dollars going to minority communities, leading to their espousal of fiscally “responsible” policies.

The transition of Christianity into Republicanism is, without a doubt, multifaceted, but deeper conversations regarding the potential involvement of race relations may also be necessary. In the words of Dochuk, “it’s about abortion, it’s about the culture wars of the 1970s, but it’s also about resisting the desegregation of schools in the South. This too is a part of the story of the rise of the … evangelical Republican self,” he says. “Yes, race needs to be recentered in our narratives and very much to a tragic degree.” Whatever the case, it is clear that the “wall of separation between Church and State” of which Thomas Jefferson and Roger Williams writes is perhaps only half-built, or is only a fence and not a wall at all. How can two ideologies that have existed and grown concomitantly for centuries ever be truly independent of one another?

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When Florida Representative Ted Yoho was called to the House floor to apologize for referring to Alexandrai Ocasio Cortes as a “f—— b—-” on the steps of the Capitol, he instead turned to more religiously charged language, stating, “I will not apologize for my passion, or for loving my God, my family, or my country.” His words were surprising to many who could not imagine a version of God, Christian or otherwise, who would endorse such behavior, but statements like his are far from uncommon. It is easy, after all, to justify partisan animosities with the addition of a legitimizing reference to the Maker of the Universe.

The aftermath of the 2020 Presidential Election has seen numerous imperious religious figures do just that. Footage of megachurch pastor Paula White praying for the demise of demonic voter fraud recently went viral following the week of November 3rd. Moreover, soon after the AP called the election for Joe Biden, millionaire televangelist Kenneth Copeland was recorded laughing in hysterics at the prospect of a Biden presidency. When met with such footage, however, one should know that it is likely more indicative of Christian leaders’ Republican ties than it is of their Christianity.

If faith itself were the sole initiator of right-leaning partisanship, every Christian would vote red, but that is overwhelmingly not the case. There remains a sizable, albeit smaller, religious left, which despite lacking the same organizing power as its conservative counterpart, does contribute to the political narrative from time to time. It’s clear, then, that Christianity at large, even within the United States, institutionally and ideologically spans a wide array of concerns, from racial injustice to poverty.

Even so, it’s unlikely that Christian rhetoric will disappear from politics. Richardson tells us: Republicans have found that it earns them reelection and Democrats, in their sparse usage of it, have found that it makes them less liable to accusations of anti-religion. Christianity, then, is a tool just as much as it is a faith and those who vote with the intention of adhering to the will of God should know: Their ballot has no salvific power, their candidates are not prophets, and when politicians invoke the name of the Lord, it is likely not with spirituality in mind.

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