How politics and religion became intertwined in America

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Religion and politics are two highly emotive subjects in today’s public discourse. Until relatively recently, leaders of faith championed social causes rather than exert their influence on a candidate or a party. But beginning with the 1980 election,“we begin to see a kind of interlacing of the religious right with the Republican Party, especially the more extreme conservatism of the Republican Party” - that’s according to Randall Balmer, author of “ Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America .” 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Professor of Religion at Dartmouth University Randell Balmer. 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016. T hese are prominent voters, who show up and cast a vote. 

Randall Balmer: “ That is the case, but it was not that case for a long time. In the middle decades of the 20th century, roughly from 1925 to 1975, evangelicals were not involved in politics, certainly not in any organized way. You had a few fringe figures who would spout anti-communist beliefs but by and large evangelicalism were not engaged in politics and many, in fact, were not even registered to vote. 

In the 1970s, that changed. A whole lot of things happened in the 1970s and  central to that narrative is Jimmy Carter's campaign for the presidency in 1975/1976 when he began to lure evangelical voters into the political arena. In one of the great paradoxes of American politics many of those same voters who supported Jimmy Carter in 1976, turned dramatically against him in 1980, when he was running for reelection against Ronald Reagan and that marks the formation of the religious right.”

A lot of your research brings up the fact that evangelicals were a part of very important social movements and social reforms in the US and were very vital to American culture.

Balmer: “It's fair to say that evangelicalism has really shaped the social and political agenda for much of the nation in the 19th century. Coming out of a series of revivals that historians call the Second Great Awakening that straddled the decades at the turn of the 19th century, you had evangelicalism who are really expressing themselves, in terms of remaking society, social reform, almost invariably directed toward those on the margins of society, those Jesus called ‘the least of these.’  What I find so striking, is the juxtaposing of that agenda, with the agenda of the religious right at the end of the 20th century. 

In the 19th century, evangelicals were very involved in peace crusades, they were very involved in prison reform — the whole notion of a penitentiary began to emerge at this time. The idea that you segregate somebody from the rest of society, not merely to isolate that person, but to make that person penitent so that he or she, at some point can rejoin society in a constructive way. 

The notion of public education, what was known in the 19th century, as common schools began to emerge during the early decades of the 19th century and evangelicas played prominent roles in shaping the whole movement for public education. They understood public education as being directed toward the children of those who are less fortunate, those who cannot afford schooling on their own and education would provide a way for those children to become upwardly mobile. 

Evangelicalis obviously, in the north in particular, we're interested in the issue of slavery and equality, looking for the abolition of slavery. I don't want to deny the fact that there were southern evangelicals who were pushing or defending slavery, but in the north on this issue, evangelicals were abolitionists. 

Finally, in the issue of women's rights. Evangelicals defended the notion of women's equality, and even were campaigning, in what was considered at that time a radical issue, of voting rights for women in the 19th century. So as I juxtapose that social agenda, which was directed toward those on the margins of society, with the agenda of the religious right in the waning decades of the 20th century, and now in the 21st century, I find a jarring disconnect between the two.”

America's political leaders have developed a closer and closer relationship with religious leaders. Is it possible to run for public office without a faith affiliation?

Balmer: “ I would argue that Donald Trump is proof of that but, without getting into that and becoming too partisan, that's the question that’s really interested me is; the relationship between religion and the presidency or campaigns for the presidency. I think the narrative begins to emerge in 1961, with John Kennedy, only the second Roman Catholic to be a major party nominee for president. 

Kennedy had to address that issue at a campaign at the Rice Hotel in Houston, Texas on September 12 1960, where he famously said that he was “ not the Catholic candidate for president, he was the Democratic nominee for president who happened to be Catholic.” What he argued in that speech was that voters essentially should set aside a candidates faith and a candidates religion when they entered the voting booth and I argue in, in another book, “God in the White House,”   that Kennedy was so persuasive, that not only did he win election to the presidency in 1960 but that what I call, ‘the Kennedy paradigm’ - voter indifference to candidates faith really prevailed in American politics for about a decade and a half after that.  

One of the ways I like to text to test this is when I do lectures is to ask the audience, what was Lyndon Johnson's religious affiliation? Unless there's a ringer in the audience, the typical response is “gee, I don't know’”or “he was probably a Baptist.” Well, it happens to be Disciples of Christ, which is a story in itself but my point in asking that question, is that nobody cared after Kennedy. We didn't really ask those questions until Watergate and there you had a president who was certainly morally compromised. 

All of a sudden after Watergate, the American public American voters wanted to know that their president had a moral compass. Who emerges 1976, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher. A progressive evangelical who promised never knowingly to lie to the American people. I tried to get my students these days to understand how extraordinary that was in 1976, that a presidential candidate promised not to lie to the American people. Americans have become so accustomed to the prevarications coming out of the Nixon administration that Carter's pledge was really quite, quite remarkable. 

So again, all of a sudden voters began to care about a president's faith. In 2000 again, you had an evangelical Christian, George W. Bush, who is elected to the presidency.  Once again Americans were looking for what I call a “redeemer president” just as Jimmy Carter had been a “redeemer president” in 1976 after Watergate, so too George W. Bush became president in part because of Bill Clinton and the tawdiness of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 

So these things tend to be cyclical. We are now going into 2020 and  I think it is a fascinating question. It would be logical for American voters to be looking for another ‘redeemer president’ — we'll see on election day.”

Randall Balmer. Photo by Christian Balmer.



  • Randall Balmer - Professor of American Religious History, Dartmouth College


Andrea Brody