Ten steps to tragedy: the religious right’s journey to Trump
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Ten steps to tragedy: the religious right’s journey to Trump

This briefing is part of our Believers in Trump series.

The “religious right”, or “Christian right”1, is a loose American political movement that first became prominent in the 1980s and continues to have a powerful effect on federal elections.

It is chiefly Protestant, with “fundamentalists” and evangelicals its major leaders. But their alliance with conservative Catholics has been key to its success, and socially conservative Mormons and mainline Protestants are also part of the picture.

It’s complex and messy; a loose movement, but a movement nonetheless. And it has re-shaped American politics. Here are the key points on its journey so far.


The fundamentalist-modernist controversy

A key context for the “religious right” is the so-called fundamentalist-modernist controversy1 ignited in the Presbyterian Church in the US in the early decades of the 20th century. It led to splits in every Protestant denomination and many organisations. The original arguments were about theology (did Jesus rise from the dead?) but also about the “social gospel”: conservatives accused the churches of selling out their theology in order to be players in the secular political arena.

These controversies led to broader disenchantment with modern thought, and the development of “fundamentalist” churches, universities and publishing houses that were separatist in their approach. These tended to ignore the “mainline” churches and were little involved in political life. Bob Jones University, founded in 1927, was one and it would still be called “fundamentalist”. Another, of a very different kind, would be Westminster Theological Seminary, formed by the scholarly professors who left Princeton Seminary, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that walked away from the mainline Presbyterians.


Bob Jones University: segregation

Credit: Wikimedia

Two Supreme Court decisions played key roles in energising the early movement.

The first was when the fundamentalist Bob Jones University refused to admit black students until 1971, and then banned dating between black and white students. In two cases that ended up in the Supreme Court, it was decided that because of these policies Bob Jones had lost its right to avoid paying federal tax. Many religious conservatives found it alarming that the government could seek to impose its values in this way.

This issue was a bigger driver of the nascent religious right that many of its adherents today might wish to admit. 1


Roe v. Wade: abortion


Better known is the second decision: Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that abortion is a constitutional right, specifically, that the states could not regulate it during the first two trimesters. Now the top social issue in American politics – and the key driver of the religious right – at the time, abortion was much less prominent in evangelical and fundamentalist thinking. It was widely seen as a “Catholic” issue, and initial responses from many fundamentalist and evangelical leaders were muted or even supportive.1

Why did conservative Protestant views change? One cause was undoubtedly growing collaboration with Catholics on wider issues such as ERA (the Equal Rights Amendment). Another were determined efforts to persuade them that this was not a “Catholic issue”. For example, in 2004, Albert Mohler, one of the most influential of contemporary Southern Baptists, celebrated the 25th anniversary of Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, a film and book series starring famed conservative thinker Francis Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop, the world’s most famous pediatric surgeon, who would later become Surgeon-General in the Reagan administration:

“The anniversary serves to remind us all of just how unaware and unawake most evangelicals really were 25 years ago – and how prophetic were the voices of Schaeffer and Koop.

As these changes worked their way through the evangelical/fundamentalist world, opposition to Roe drove a remarkable rapprochement between these conservative Protestants and Catholic leaders.


ERA and feminism

Phyllis Schlafly. Credit: Wikimedia

A further powerful catalysing force was the ERA, intended to remove legal distinctions between men and women. Dating originally back to the suffragettes, it was passed by Congress with wide bipartisan support, and sent to the states for ratification in 1972.

The Catholic conservative Phyllis Schlafly emerged as its key opponent, arguing that it would erase traditional gender roles – important for women in everything from divorce (alimony, child custody) to military service. With support from across the religious spectrum, she succeeded in stalling its progress.

AIDS and the gay agenda

When Obama first ran for President he was opposed to gay marriage. Credit: Laura Cavanaugh/SIPA USA/PA Images

The emergence of AIDS, with its disproportionate spread among the gay community, led to increasing prominence for their political agenda1 – culminating in wide acceptance for gay marriage. It’s easy to forget how recently and quickly that argument has been won (Barack Obama first ran for president as an opponent of gay marriage). The growing prominence of gay issues proved a further catalyst to the pro-family movement. Initially, a major focus was on adoption.


A strange ecumenism

Credit: John F. Kennedy Library/Zuma Press/PA Images

In 1960, the fact that John F. Kennedy was a Catholic lost him many Protestant votes. When Roe was first decided, abortion was seen as an issue for Catholics. Yet the succession of public ethical/religious controversies in the 1970s soon brought a series of these questions under one umbrella – “pro-family” and “pro-life”, two planks of the religious right1.

Not only would Catholics and conservative Protestants begin to campaign and vote together, their leaders began a fresh discussion of their theological differences.



The moral majority

Pastor Jerry Falwell. Credit: Wikimedia

In 1979, the Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell pulled together a wide coalition that included Mormons and Jews as well as Catholics to provide an institutional framework for these various movements. His agenda included opposing ERA, gay rights and abortion, and promoted religious freedom as well as a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy. While the organisation lasted only a decade, it established the conservative religious movement as a major player in American politics – and a key to Republican success.

Interestingly, when fellow fundamentalist and televangelist Pat Robertson decided to run for the Republican candidacy after Reagan stepped down in 1988, Falwell did not see this as an opportunity for his movement to take over the party. He backed George H. W. Bush.

The players

Protest against Focus on the Family’s “Stand for family” event. Credit: Wikimedia

A wide spectrum of organisations articulate aspects of this agenda, some focused on one issue (such as abortion), others with a wide brief – Focus on the Family, and its related group in Washington, the Family Research Council, is perhaps the most prominent. Others include Concerned Women of America, the Christian Medical Society, and of course the bishops’ conference of the Catholic Church.

Much business is done in Washington through coalitions, in which groups with similar interests compare notes and will often support each other’s distinct concerns. Religious conservatives have mastered these techniques.

The three-fold GOP

High point: George W. Bush. Credit: Douliery Olivier/ABACA/Press Association Images

The modern Republican Party is recognised as a coalition of economic conservatives, defence hawks and social conservatives. Individual members – and politicians – may have strong or weak commitments to one or more of these agendas, but they recognise that to hold power they need the support of the others. The rise of religious conservatives has made them central to GOP electoral success.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, which might be seen as the high point of conservative religious influence, several moderate religious conservatives served in the administration and had a major impact on policy choices that were not part of the Moral Majority bundle.

Initiatives on penal reform, religious liberty overseas, poverty and the provision of AIDS drugs (a huge effort, lauded by Bill Clinton among others) all flowed from their influence, and drew plaudits from liberals. (A full front page of USA Today summarised these efforts with some astonishment.)

The election of Donald Trump

Credit: Van Tine Dennis/ABACA/ABACA USA/PA Images

According to one report, Donald Trump secured no less than 81% of the white evangelical vote. For many observers, this level of support for a vulgar, boastful and ignorant man, thrice married and accused by many women of sexual impropriety – a man whose views on subjects such as abortion have fluctuated wildly – was extraordinary.

It’s clear that an increasingly shrill religious-right critique of political opponents has essentially locked in conservative Christians to whichever candidate runs on the Republican ticket – and can promise to nominate pro-life judges to the Supreme Court. They have abandoned their consistent concern for the character of candidates for high office.

Looking back to the early days of the controversy with Modernism, is it now religious conservatives who have bought into a “social gospel”, albeit a conservative version?

Two officials of the George W. Bush administration best sum up the angst that 81% vote has caused among thoughtful, moderate people who have been affiliated with the “religious right”. Indeed, in their case it helped bring them to power. They are Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, who have emerged as two of Trump’s most astringent critics, now columnists for the Washington Post and New York Times respectively.

Wehner recently announced that he could no longer call himself an evangelical.



I’ve been happy to be loosely associated with this loose movement over the years, warts and all. I once served as a consultant to Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship. I’ve met people such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, and once even shook the hand of Jerry Falwell himself, in the George W. Bush White House. I chaired the coalition of civil society groups opposing human cloning (and generally supporting the Bush White House position on stem cell research) back in the early 2000s. Dr. C. Everett Koop was a personal friend.