A Faith-Based Electorate: Link Between Religion, U.S. Politics Over Time

From the rise of evangelical influence to the influence of the Black church during the Civil Rights Movement, Christianity and politics in the U.S. have always been linked. The relationship is longstanding and even played a role in this year’s election.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: Faith can often influence how and why people vote. 


Here is a timeline of key religious currents in politics throughout U.S. history. 

Richard Nixon And the Southern Strategy

In the 1960s, Republican Richard Nixon rose to power and won the presidency partly through taking advantage of white resentment toward the Civil Rights movement, as well as an explicit appeal to evangelical Christians in the South. 

Evangelical leader Billy Graham campaigned for Nixon. Graham motivated Christian voters with ideas about the threat of communism, opposition to legal abortion, and the fear of prayer being removed from school. 

The Moral Majority

Jerry Falwell Sr. and his associates created created the Moral Majority, a coalition centered around advancing Christian ideals through Republican politics.

In 1980, the Moral Majority mobilized evangelicals in support of Ronald Reagan’s campaign against President Jimmy Carter, an outspoken evangelical Christian who the Moral Majority did not feel was strong in his efforts to codify Christian ethics into law. 

Our Mission Is Accomplished

In 1989, Jerry Falwell Sr. dissolved the Moral Majority, stating that the coalition had accomplished its mission of mobilizing the Christian right in America. However, cracks had already begun to form, with Moral Majority leader Rev. Pat Robertson breaking ranks to run in the 1988 Republican primary against the coalition’s preferred candidate, Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Trump’s Dominance of the White Evangelical Vote

Around 44% of U.S. registered voters are white Christians. In 2016, Trump won a staggering 79% of these voters, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 16%. 

In 2020, his numbers faltered slightly to 76%, while Joe Biden was able to pick up 24% of white evangelicals. In 2018, an Associated Press survey concluded that white evangelicals were twice as likely to approve of Trump as any other voters. 

“I think the biggest difference between the 2016 and 2020 vote is that President Trump has proven to be a loyal ally to evangelicals,” said Derrick Lemons, professor of religion at the University of Georgia. “And they really do. You know, they are passionately advocating for him even now, even as it looks as though he won’t be reelected.”

Biden’s Path to Victory

While President-Elect Biden performed better among white evangelicals than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, they were not as strongly in his favor as some other Christian groups. A surge of support from both Black protestants and white Catholics, especially in battleground states, was crucial to President-Elect Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. 

In the final days of the election, the Biden campaign released two 30-second video advertisements titled “Principles” and “Morning.” In the “Morning” ad, the President-Elect can be seen reading scriptures from the pulpit. These ads highlighted Biden’s personal beliefs of service to others, faith, and the “idea that everyone is entitled to dignity.” 

Split between White And Black Churches

Black Protestant Christians make up a much smaller portion of the electorate, only around 8%, and they vote almost exactly the opposite of white evangelicals. Eighty-eight percent of Black Protestants planned on voting for Biden. 

Biden won 87% of the overall Black vote in 2020, but Trump won 19% of Black men, the highest a Republican has drawn since 1980. Bishop James Washington of New Grove Baptist Church in Winterville, Georgia, attributes this change to the influence of large churches and individualistic theology. 

“And now some of the churches… your mega-type-flavor churches, their emphasis is more on prosperity,” Washington said. “And so it becomes more individualized than a community of helping one another.”

Washington considers the Black church the “backbone of the African American community,” because “it’s the only thing that poor Black folks can say they truly say [they] own.” 

The intersection of religion and politics is inherent to the message Washington preaches, “always working for the betterment of the whole community,” he said. 

“When you go back and you look at the civil rights movement, or any other movement among us, it was actually born and bred within the church,” Washington said. “Because the Black church preaches a message of liberation.” This message of liberation was a product of slavery and abolitionist sentiment. It was a way for Black people to express hope for a future free of slavery. 

Descendants of the Movement

The growing political divide in the Evangelical community is illustrated in two of the most prominent descendants of its founders. Jerry Falwell Jr., son of Jerry Falwell Sr., was an early supporter of Donald Trump and leader of the Christian right in the 21st century. 

Jerushah Duford lives at the opposite end of the evangelical spectrum. She is the granddaughter of prominent televangelist Billy Graham and is an outspoken evangelical who supported Joe Biden in 2020. Duford says that her ideas are centered around her belief that Trump’s behaviors go against the gospel. She also believes that it is important to expand the meaning of “pro-life.”

A Shifting Electorate

Georgia’s blue turn in the 2020 presidential election was predicated on an increasingly young and diverse population in the state. This demographic change could set up future gains for Democratic politicians in Georgia, shrinking the influence of white evangelical voters and solidifying the state’s reputation as a purple battleground

While much of the current white evangelical electorate still votes similarly, the future of this group is uncertain.

For example, a Pew Research survey found that 55% millennial evangelical protestants favored same-sex marriage opposed to only 23% of older evangelical protestants who born before 1981.

While white evangelicals make up 19% of voters over 40 years old, but only 8% of the electorate under 40 years old identifies as a white evangelical. These changing demographics have the potential to dwarf the evangelical influence on future elections. 

Alexis Brock, Camryn Callaro, Abigail Chasteen, Meghan Hansen, Elijah Johnston, Evan Lasseter, Lance McCurley and Alex Miller are all seniors majoring in journalism in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.



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