The 2016 presidential election was a nerve-wracking time to be a Christian. The very fate of the country seemed to be hanging in the balance, and a choice was presented to the people: choose the party of God, or give the country to the morally corrupt. Dedicated church members called their friends, desperately urging them to vote and making sure they would reach out to their friends too. From the pulpits, pleas made by pastors urged whoever was listening to take responsibility for the country and make the “right choice” in the voting booth. Many evangelical pastors in the past have warned against Christians taking an involved stance in politics — so why is the idea of being a Christian so synonymous with being a conservative? Where did this all come from?
The rise of the religious right as a dominant political force isn’t something that appeared overnight. The early ‘70s were a boon for Christianity. They were seen as a return to the status quo on the heels of the drugs and spiritualism of the 1960s. New churches were being built and old churches were now full and thriving. One such church was Thomas Road Baptist, led by Pastor Jerry Falwell. During this time, many Christian leaders, spearheaded by Falwell, began urging their congregations to take an active role in politics.
“The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country,” Falwell said from his Thomas Road Baptist pulpit in 1976. “If [there is] any place in the world we need Christianity, it’s in Washington.”
In 1979, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, a political organization focused on electing government officials who supported “Christian values.” The effects of this organization were felt most strongly during the 1980 presidential election. Falwell pushed for every church in America to hold registration drives, urging Christians to vote for his chosen candidates. During his campaign, Ronald Reagan sought the advice of organizations like Moral Majority to appeal to this newfound well of supporters, even appointing the organization’s former executive director, Robert Billings, as an advisor.
After the election, evidence suggested the direct influence of Falwell and his coalition of “the Christian Right” was, at least in part, the cause of his victory. Soon after, the Republican party welcomed its new supporters and adopted policy platforms to cater to them: platforms such as pro-life, abstinence-only sex-ed and support for prayer in schools. Moral Majority disbanded in 1989, but the mantle of a champion for Christian values in politics has been carried by other institutions such as Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family ever since.
The religious right was founded on the marriage of religious values and political ideals. The religious leaders rallied their troops and looked for political leaders to champion. Both Falwell and Billings have passed away and many other prominent pastors have retired or stepped out of the spotlight. The reins were let go. Slowly, they were picked up again by the other side of the movement. Political figures, like Reagan or Bush, espousing their belief in Christ, dominated the conversations between evangelicals and changed their agendas to court their support.
Throughout the ensuing decades, a cultural exchange in political values happened. Republicans cemented a party platform on anti-abortion and Christians developed an opinion on immigration. Slowly, the Republican platform became the de facto Christian platform, for better or worse.
Today, the narrative brought forth by the church is less brazen. The main focus is outreach, to spread the word to as many people as possible. Outsiders are welcomed with open arms. “Come as you are,” they say, “God accepts all.” On the surface, the church appears as it says it is, a welcoming environment for everyone and a place free of any judgment. The church operates under the pretense that it doesn’t endorse political views, but it certainly facilitates them.
Church happens on Sundays, but its members’ lives go on for six more days after that. They go home, read their conservative newspapers, watch their conservative news networks, talk with their conservative friends. On Sunday, it’s all brought to the church once again. The pastor makes a joke about immigrants. Everyone laughs. “Don’t take it too seriously,” they say. “It’s just a joke.” The pastor calls for a prayer meeting after the message. The topic is for our leaders to make the right choices in their governing. It’s a neat trick where nothing is said but everything is understood.
As the Republican party took a heavier hand in guiding the ideas of the religious right, the people’s trust in the party grew implicit. They didn’t need to think hard about their views. They just needed to trust the party they’ve been told Christians voted for. So what if this candidate made a few off-color remarks or some issues on their platform aren’t perfect? At least they were against abortion. This lack of accountability in political thought made a crack. The teachings of the Bible and platform of “The Party of God” started to split.
Years passed and still this disconnect went unchecked. The rise of the right reached its apex in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush. A proud and open born-again Christian was elected to the highest office in the country. Soon after, the September 11 attacks struck at the heart of the nation. For many, this was the first time they had experienced a tragedy of this scale up close and personal. The country was struck to its core and needed to reexamine its identity. All eyes turned to the man in the Oval Office. It was official; the country needed to go to church. God Bless America. The citizens adopted their national identity into their own and to criticize one was to criticize the other. The mission of the modern right was clear. Too long had the country been overrun by moral outliers. The nation was corrupted and it was time to restore it to a time when it was morally just. Make America Great Again.
The modern church encourages you to come as you are, but the people inside demand that if you want to stay, you need to fit in. So much pressure is emphasised on not making trouble. Those who do are dropped and swept under the rug. Openly gay members now find themselves in a hostile environment. They’re still allowed to come, but suddenly their invitation to the after-church luncheon is noticeably absent. Gun control isn’t up for debate. If you try to start, all your friends abruptly have someone else they need to talk to. You can call someone out for their racist or homophobic comment but the frustration will be cast on you for making a scene. The behavior is learned quickly. Fit in or get out. Not by design, but rather a symptom of its own shortcomings, the church slowly molds itself into a homogenized cult of personality where everyone can get along, because everyone shares the same beliefs, inside and outside the church.
This problem has no easy solution. Like Falwell did all the way back in the ‘70s, conservative media spins a narrative of moral depravity in society, insisting the Republican philosophy is the only way to set the country on the right track. It drives a wedge between people at a time when a lack of cooperation is the biggest problem plaguing politics today. But it’s hard to fix a problem when no one believes it exists. To many, they’re compartmentalized. Everything in church is religion and this is just politics. Yet white evangelicals account for 70 percent of Trump’s core base. The causes have not gone away, and it seems this problem will only get worse before it gets better, if it ever does. I can only offer the same warnings given by many others: be cautious. Always challenge the reasons for your own beliefs. Don’t accept anything at face value and encourage others to do the same.