American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so. “For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party,” Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, told Retro Report. In Mr. Reagan they had a president who shared their distaste for modern whirls of social change. His endorsement of them was a clarion call. “It was, like, come up out of the catacombs — you know, you don’t have to be silent anymore,” the conservative columnist Cal Thomas said.
They are certainly far from silent in rallying behind the present president, Donald Trump, whose personal traits make him a thoroughly implausible vessel for evangelical aspirations: thrice-married, credibly accused of multiple extramarital affairs, given to vulgar speech. He has talked of grabbing women by the genitals, demeaned immigrants from poor countries and said, in defiance of a central Christian tenet, that he has never seen reason to ask God for forgiveness.
Yet white evangelical support for Mr. Trump exceeded 80 percent in the 2016 election; he did better even than George W. Bush, who was outspoken about his rebirth through Jesus. Important evangelical figures like Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, practically swoon. “I believe he’s president of the United States for a reason,” Mr. Graham has said of Mr. Trump. “I think God put him there.”
The infatuation appalls some others on the religious right, among them Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for Mr. Bush who was reared in an evangelical family. In an Atlantic magazine article this spring, Mr. Gerson criticized the likes of Mr. Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. for having provided “religious cover for moral squalor.” A comparably dark assessment was offered by Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian clergyman who wrote in The New Yorker last December, “ ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ ”
All the same, Mr. Trump’s us-versus-them pugnacity is well-received by white evangelicals. He shares, and augments, their fear that the country they know is slipping away — if not already lost, what with upheavals like legalized same-sex marriage, acceptance of gay and transgender rights, and the ascension of religious and racial minorities. Those evangelicals, Mr. Gerson wrote, have proved susceptible to “a message of resentful, declinist populism.” In other words, to Mr. Trump’s message.