Monday, October 5, 2015

Are Evangelicals Flocking to Donald Trump in the Same Way They Flocked to Ronald Reagan in 1980?

Ronald Reagan at the N.A.E. Annual Convention, March 8, 1983
Randall Balmer, our friend on the religion faculty at Dartmouth College, thinks so.  

In a provocative op-ed at The New York Times, Balmer compares evangelical's love of the Donald Trump presidential candidacy with the love they experienced in 1980 for a candidate with a pro-choice voting record and an opponent of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act who launched his campaign in a town where three civil rights workers were murdered.  His name was Ronald Reagan

Balmer argues that evangelicals abandoned the true "evangelical" candidate in 1980--the sitting president Jimmy Carter.

Here is a taste:

Among the more bizarre developments of the campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is Donald Trump's apparent popularity among evangelicals. Several polls show Trump garnering a plurality — though not a majority — of evangelical votes.
Pundits, religious and otherwise, have been shaking their heads about this. Some evangelicals claim the polling is faulty — because it has to be! Devoted Christians, the thinking goes, shouldn't embrace a thrice-wed blustery billionaire who, until very recently, supported abortion rights. How, after all, can Trump's race-baiting rhetoric about immigration be reconciled with biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger?
In one of the more amusing commentaries, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention claimed that evangelicals had suddenly abandoned biblical values in their fondness for Trump. "To back Mr. Trump," Moore wrote in the New York Times, "these voters must repudiate everything they believe."
Moore's lament that evangelicals have forsaken "the conservation of moral principles and a just society" in their love affair with Trump may be good theater, but it's colossally bad history. The evangelical repudiation of the faith for a mess of political pottage is not a recent phenomenon. It can be traced at least as far back as the 1980 presidential election, when evangelicals deserted Jimmy Carter, one of their own, for Ronald Reagan.
Whereas Carter advocated racial and sexual equality, cornerstones of a "just society" and articles of faith for 19th century evangelicals, Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment. Reagan opened his 1980 general election campaign in, of all places, Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the brutal slayings of three civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan 16 summers earlier. In his speech at the Neshoba County Fair on Aug. 3, Reagan proclaimed his support for "states rights," coded language employed by a generation of Southern segregationists.
Read the entire piece here.
Balmer may have overstated his case a bit, but it is hard to deny that Reagan and conservative evangelicals were not strange bedfellows in 1980. I wonder if anyone delivered a Russell Moore-type op-ed back then?