More than Just the Moral Majority

Evangelicals, the GOP, and the Global Political Landscape

Thomas S. Kidd

We’ve heard the claim a million times: “81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.” Some news outlets clarify that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, but even that assertion is murky and somewhat misleading. Probably only about 55% of American evangelicals have voted in recent presidential elections, a slightly higher percentage than the general population. And when pollsters and journalists say “evangelicals,” they usually just mean people who identify as evangelicals. 

“Evangelical” is typically not keyed to church attendance or evangelical beliefs. When pollsters ask about such matters, they discover that a significant subset of self-identified evangelicals hardly ever go to church, and that some hold beliefs that wouldn’t normally characterize an evangelical. So what “the 81%” actually means is “81% of self-identified white American evangelical voters” voted for Donald Trump. 

Put into a global religious perspective, this only tells us about a sliver of the world evangelical community’s politics. The claim also dilutes the historic meaning of evangelical, by lumping people who do not attend church or hold characteristically evangelical beliefs into an undifferentiated mass, together with many practicing and believing evangelicals.

Complex factors produced this politicized (and Republicanized) view of evangelicals. One reason is that, of course, many practicing white evangelical voters have more or less enthusiastically supported Donald Trump’s GOP, due to issues such as Republicans’ official opposition to abortion. 

The stereotypical story of the white evangelical alignment with the GOP goes back to Jerry Falwell Sr. and his Moral Majority organization. As the story goes, Falwell and the Moral Majority backed Ronald Reagan over the more recognizably evangelical Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election, creating the fusion that weathered the Trumpian storm. 

A History of Evangelicals and the GOP 

But the evangelical alliance with the GOP is actually at least as old as the 1952 election. 

The evangelist Billy Graham had skyrocketed to national fame in the late 1940s, turning him into a kingmaker in national politics. Graham was one of the most effective gospel preachers in world history, but he was also a staunch Cold Warrior and anticommunist. Thus in 1952, Graham helped to recruit Dwight Eisenhower to run for president, primarily due to the general’s anticommunist credentials and sterling leadership record in World War II. Eisenhower was not especially pious, but he valued the Judeo-Christian tradition as a great cultural bulwark against atheistic communism. 

From 1952 forward, white evangelicals have tended to vote Republican for president. This was especially the case for Northern evangelicals. The Northeast and Midwest were the historic centers of American evangelicalism at the time, while the major Southern denominations, including the Southern Baptist Convention, were not uniformly evangelical. (The SBC would, of course, become more consistently evangelical as a result of the Conservative Resurgence in the 1980s and ’90s.) 

Southern evangelicals, despite Graham’s prominent backing of Republican presidents, were slower to support the GOP, due to white Southerners’ historic commitment to the Democratic Party. That commitment went back to the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and it was reenergized by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s. White Southerners (including evangelicals) began to waver in their attachment to the Democratic coalition in the 1960s, amidst the civil rights movement, and a growing belief that the GOP was tougher on communism than the Democrats. Still, as of 1976 many white evangelical Southerners supported Carter, a Georgia Democrat, despite Carter’s pro-choice stance and his support for the Equal Rights Amendment, which promised legal equality between men and women. 

Thus, 1980 and the Moral Majority were decisive in the history of American evangelical politics, but more for Southerners than for American evangelicals generally. Falwell convinced many white Southern Christians that Reagan was their preferred choice, due to Reagan’s pro-life views (ones recently adopted) and his anticommunist bona fides. Reagan would make little headway on the abortion issue, and his nominations of Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court would guarantee the survival of the pro-choice precedent in Roe v. Wade (1973). But Reagan’s defense spending and negotiations with the Soviet Union set the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall, and for the ultimate collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The Moral Majority, which disbanded in 1989, was undoubtedly important in the evolution of evangelical politics, but it was not as decisive as some might suggest. The 1980 election saw the culmination of trends that had been developing for three decades. Most white “evangelical” voters—practicing or not—have voted for GOP presidential candidates, whomever he might be, since 1952. 

Like Eisenhower or Richard Nixon, Reagan’s personal evangelical credentials were not clear. But Reagan certainly knew a lot of evangelicals and Pentecostals, and he knew how to talk like them. George W. Bush was probably the most distinctively evangelical president since Carter, due to Bush’s dramatic conversion experience, but even his church membership was at a mainline United Methodist congregation. Mitt Romney’s 2012 candidacy was a new kind of strength test for evangelical commitment to the GOP. Obviously the Mormon Romney was not an evangelical in a historic or doctrinal sense. Yet evangelical support for Romney remained high, due to familiar factors such as Romney’s pro-life convictions. 

Donald Trump’s rocky marital history and sometimes uncouth behavior tested the evangelical-GOP fusion again, but in the end, his persona and controversial politics were not enough to erode the alliance. Undoubtedly much of the white evangelical support for Trump reflected opposition to Democrats’ sometimes extreme stances on culture war issues, such as marriage and gender. Evangelicals also knew that a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean more pro-choice justices on the Supreme Court. 

It is difficult to measure evangelicals’ relative enthusiasm for Trump himself (it’s hard enough to discern whether people in polls are actually evangelicals by belief or by practice). But Trump’s provocative personality didn’t end up having a major effect on the preferences of white evangelicals for the GOP, a pattern which had largely prevailed since 1952.

American Evangelicalism Is Not All There Is 

The white American evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, then, is a longstanding one. Yet it is important to remember for other Americans who identify as “born again” or evangelical, including among African Americans and Hispanics, a vote for the GOP is hardly guaranteed. Political dynamics among evangelicals around the globe also vary widely from the American model. 

The current American evangelical alignment reflects a relatively unusual political situation, one in which few evangelicals have ever found themselves. American evangelicals happen to live in a country where they can expect to have a major influence on national politics, for better or worse. Evangelicals (especially Pentecostals) play a somewhat similar role only in a few other countries today. Brazil, Nigeria, and South Korea are also places where evangelicals and/or Pentecostals make up a sizable portion of the voting population, and can wield significant electoral power if they vote as a bloc. 

It is more common for self-identified evangelicals around the globe to represent a small percentage of a country’s population, so that they can at most hope to be left alone by the government, and not be persecuted. For example, in Britain, evangelicals represent roughly 2 to 3% of the population. They tend not to think of any U.K. political party as their natural ally. There is virtually no public debate about the legal status of abortion in the U.K., and there are fewer galvanizing culture war issues that could produce a political fusion like the one between white American evangelicals and the GOP. Evangelicals in the U.K. were even divided over “Brexit” in 2016, with a small majority supporting the vote to remain in the European Union. If world evangelicals were all Trumpian Republicans-in-waiting, you might have expected British evangelicals to support the wave of populist nationalism that led to Brexit’s victory.

Whatever we think about self-identified American evangelicals’ connection to the Republican Party, in the rest of the world the relationship between evangelicals and politics works differently. Most evangelicals around the world are not Republicans, because they’re not Americans. Most evangelicals globally are also not white. If there is such a thing as “global evangelicalism”—and I think there is—the movement’s connectedness must be rooted in other things besides American political alignments. 

There definitely have been excesses in the American evangelical attachment to the Republican Party, but those excesses provide no legitimate reason to denounce the evangelical movement as a whole, as critics in the U.S. have often done. At most, the problems with self-identified evangelicals and politics reflect the temptations inherent in access to political power. 

But American politics cannot possibly define the global evangelical movement. Instead, evangelical Christianity revolves around beliefs and spiritual experiences that transcend national and political boundaries. Chief among these beliefs and experiences are a high view of the authority of Scripture, the need for all people to be born again, the “Great Commission” of missions and evangelism, and the tangible presence of God in one’s daily life. 

In America, one could get the impression that “evangelicals” are mostly white Republican voters who consider themselves religious. But that vague impression doesn’t capture the historic, global essence of what it means to be an evangelical.

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of several books, including Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press, 2019), and Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale University Press, 2022). You can follow him on Twitter.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24