Elections in the United States have been reshaped by the influence of religion, particularly in the right-wing support of evangelical Christians. The mobilization of a group historically uninvolved in politics has greatly influenced nearly four decades of voting habits and political policy, a trend that is now seeing new challenge. This essay will analyze the New York Times article detailing the situation, critique the author’s synthesis and presentation of information, and examine the dynamic of followership demonstrated in the behaviors of a generation of voters.
Evangelical Christians have been one of the most prominent and outspoken sources for support to the Republican party for the last thirty-five years. However, as detailed in the October 28th New York Times article, “Religion and Right-Wing Politics: How Evangelicals Reshaped Elections,” (Haberman) the same white evangelicals that have reshaped voting behavior of Christians in under half a century have not always been as influential in politics. Democrat Jimmy Carter introduced Christian faith-integrated speech in his presidential campaign, and while he won the 1976 presidential election, he faced opposition from white evangelical Christians during his presidency with the growth of the Moral Majority, a political organization started by televangelist pastor Jerry Falwell in 1979. The Moral Majority mobilized the population of American evangelicals that previously avoided politics and influenced them to embrace conservative stances and support the Republican party. This movement led to an overwhelming two-thirds of white evangelicals voting for Republican nominee Ronald Reagan, helping him to take control of the White House in 1980 (Haberman). This began the trend of the group’s widespread embrace and advocacy for the Republican party for most of the past four decades.
White evangelical Republican loyalty continued in the 2016 presidential election, providing President Donald Trump with over eighty percent of the evangelical vote (Haberman). This allegiance has recently begun to be challenged however, as some far-right religious figures have opposed this unwavering support of the current Republican party, and new ethnically diverse groups of evangelical Protestants have emerged that are less hostile to the same issues of same-sex marriage and abortion condemned by their elders. The aging demographic of white evangelicals has decreased in size from accounting for twenty-three percent of the population to just fifteen, and their long-held, scarcely challenged ideals and Republican vote now face lessening widespread acceptance and influence among religious voters (Haberman). Just as the white evangelical voters that were mobilized to vote Republican nearly forty years ago have affected the distribution of votes and views on certain issues, the new, more progressive and diverse group of evangelicals poses a challenge to a long-held tradition.
Though the New York Times article effectively details the role of evangelicals in party preference, the author lacks depth in his assessment of the correlation of the white evangelical vote and traditionally held beliefs of Christians. As explained in the article “How the Christian Right Ended Up Transforming American Politics,” Jerry Falwell’s support of the Republican party was born out of the issue of school segregation, not religious principles (Schlozman). The article explains that Falwell ran the segregated Lynchburg Christian Academy, a private school, beginning in 1967. During “white-flight” movements from public schools, the IRS sought to revoke tax exemptions for these types of establishments in 1978 with the implementation of school desegregation. Through multiple appeals against the IRS ruling from Falwell and many others, the issue of segregation was reframed as an attack on religion by “meddlesome bureaucrats” under the Democratic Carter administration to protect the segregated academy (Schlozman). This resistance is what began the Moral Majority movement, a self-centered protection of school segregation, not focused on Christian religious conventions, explored in the article, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right”(Balmer). This truth is left unrecognized by the author, as he portrays evangelical support of presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump as irrational because of their traits that “flew counter to much of what they considered elements of an upright life,” describing them as “thoroughly implausible vessels for evangelical aspirations” (Haberman). The author fails to recognize that Falwell’s beliefs that influenced “Religious Right” voters were not exactly religiously-motivated; they were birthed from personal interest and presented under the guise of being faith-affiliated (Balmer). This contributes to an issue of fairness, as the author draws the uninformed conclusion that the voting habits of all evangelicals are based solely off their faith convictions when, in reality, many of the political ideals of the Moral Majority stem from the disguised self-interest of the leader of their mobilization. Had this aspect been addressed, a more accurate understanding of the Moral Majority’s voting behavior could be obtained.
Another aspect that could have been considered in the article by the author is his expression of slighting prose and presentation of negative viewpoints. The author, Clyde Haberman, seems to be biased in his critical portrayal of white evangelical voters, especially censorious of Republican leaders, and selective in the deprecatory viewpoints of outside contributors he included. Haberman describes the movement of white evangelicalism as “hostile to Jimmy Carter’s agenda and to him personally,” evoking an image of anger and discrimination from white evangelical voters in only the third paragraph of the article (Haberman). He also portrays them as careless contributors to political chaos, saying that they “closed their eyes” to justify their support for Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, asking near the end of the article, “will white evangelicals continue to influence the national discourse so powerfully?”, chastising white evangelicals as the source of political problems due to their voting choices (Haberman). This critical bias casts a derogatory tone on the rest of the article, preventing objective assessment of the actions of white evangelicals. The author also further criticizes Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, only focusing on their unfavorable traits in his analysis of them as leaders. Instead of acknowledging his accomplishments, Reagan is described in the article as a man that was “twice-married, alienated from his children, that almost never attended church,” while Trump is defined by “multiple extramarital affairs” and “vulgar speech,” and someone that “talked of grabbing women by the genitals, and demeaned immigrants from poor countries” (Haberman). While these traits are mostly true, the author’s focus on these flaws villainizes these figures and presents his vested interest in politics. The author also strategically includes quotes from opponents to support his subjective point and frames the words of supporters as foolish. When quoting evangelical figure Franklin Graham, Haberman prefaces the supportive words with the image that Trump makes Graham “practically swoon”, and that other figures have “infatuation” for the president (Haberman). However, he presents contributors such as speechwriter Michael Gerson and Presbyterian clergyman Timothy Keller as level-headed experts immune to the obsession of Republican supporters. After respectfully introducing them, he includes their critical quotes about evangelical figures, such as claims they provide “religious cover for moral squalor”, and that “‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite'” (Haberman). This selective quotation supplements the author’s bias against white evangelical Republicans, which makes the article difficult to read objectively when paired with his other forms of bias.
The embrace of the Republican party by evangelicals over the past thirty-five years shows the power of the dynamic of followership. Democracy is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the influence of followers, as candidates are elected by the votes of the people that have been motivated to make their voice heard. As described in “The Followers,” chapter three of Robert M. McManus and Gama Perruci’s Understanding Leadership: An Arts and Humanities Perspective, “followers can, and do, play a vital role in the process of leadership; that is, achieving a common goal” (McManus, Perruci 40). The widespread impact of the sustained Republican evangelical vote in elections over the past four decades displays the importance of follower participation in policymaking and the political landscape. As mentioned in the New York Times article, evangelicals were not very active in politics in the early 1970’s, however, when encouraged to take political action by influences such as Jerry Falwell’s conservative Moral Majority, this same group helped to limit Jimmy Carter to a single term and become “interlocked with the Republican Party” for a generation of voters (Haberman). This shift particularly highlights the influence of followers based on their level of engagement in supporting or opposing their leaders and goals, portrayed by Barbara Kellerman’s followership continuum (McManus, Perruci 51). Kellerman’s continuum places followers in order from passive to active in their engagement, with isolates being the most passive, followed by bystanders, participants, activists, and diehards, the most active. In the early 1970’s, evangelicals could be considered what Kellerman defines as isolates, or in some cases bystanders, as their avoidance of political matters are what Understanding Leadership describes as followers who are either “entirely disengaged from the leadership process” or “aware of their leaders and goals, but make the conscience choice to disengage, thus supporting the status quo,” respectively (McManus, Perruci 50). However, once mobilized before the election of Ronald Reagan, evangelical voters took on the roles of, at the least, participants, and more commonly, activists or even diehards. By framing political action as religious duty, instead of existing in the margins of politics evangelicals began exercising their voting privileges, championing conservative viewpoints, and rallying behind candidates that contributed to the Moral Majority’s mindset. This active support of leaders made a significant difference in an area of the voting bloc that previously expressed no voice in politics, and turned a group disinterested in elections into one of Republican candidates most important sources of support.
The challenging of old ideals by new groups of evangelical Christians highlights the role of critical thinking and activeness in the role of followership. These factors’ influence on types of followers is illustrated in Robert Kelly’s typology, where followers are identified based on their place along an axis of participation and one of critical thinking (McManus, Perruci 46-47 ). While many evangelical voters over the past thirty-five years have actively supported the Republican party in their vote, the long-standing and unchallenged ideals embraced by this group shows a tendency of conformity. This shows an example of followers that are “Yes People” on Kelly’s followership model, a group that falls on the active side of the participation axis, but towards the dependent, uncritical thinking end of the critical thinking axis, representing a group that while very active in supporting the goals of the Republican party and the beliefs of Jerry Falwell, offers little challenge to the reason for their thinking and traditional behaviors (McManus, Perruci 46-47). This mentality of high participation and low critical thinking has been challenged by new, more diverse groups of evangelical Protestants, who have taken stances on issues based on their own beliefs instead of being dependent on the thinking of past leaders and followers to determine their decision-making. These people are what Kelly describes as “Effective Followers,” followers that are active in pursuing the common goals of the group, but willing to form their own opinions and challenge their leaders if the leader’s direction and ideals they embrace distract from the common goal (McManus, Perruci 47). These followers present a need for accountability from leaders and demonstrate the impact of followers based on their critical thinking instead of dependence on unchallenged ideals. Instead of embracing president Trump in defiance of their values because of his party affiliation, this group of effective followers is seeking to think for themselves and advocate for their own beliefs, voting based on their religious convictions instead of the self-centered agenda of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
In my personal voting experience, I identify in the group of new opposition to the traditional voting habits of evangelical Christians. As a first-time voter, I experienced the pressure of the mentality that Christians historically have and should continue to only support the Republican Party, which is not completely consistent with my personal viewpoints based on my understanding of the Bible. Instead of voting straight-ticket Republican, I express my support for candidates and causes that I believe are right, not based on the interests of others before me. This decision of divergence further exemplifies the actions of an Effective Follower on Robert Kelly’s followership illustration, because while I am active in exercising my right to vote, I do so because of my own convictions based on critical thinking– not the unchallenged traditions of others (McManus, Perruci 47).
White evangelicals’ allegiance to right-wing politics has greatly impacted elections and the behaviors of Christians for an entire generation of voters. The long-standing ideals held by previously disengaged evangelicals motivated by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority have proven crucial in politics for the past thirty-five years, which are now being challenged by new, more diverse groups of evangelical voters. Though the article implies unfair conclusions and biased assessments of the “Religious Right,” the situation displays the crucial role of follower engagement and critical thinking in the changing behaviors of evangelical voters. By utilizing the voice provided by followership, evangelicals have changed– and continue to change– the face of American politics.
Balmer, Randall, et al. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” POLITICO Magazine, 27 May 2014, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.
Haberman, Clyde. “Religion and Right-Wing Politics: How Evangelicals Reshaped Elections.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/us/religion- politics-evangelicals.html.
McManus, Robert M, and Gama Perruci. “The Followers.” Understanding Leadership: An Arts and Humanities Perspective, Routledge, 2015, pp. 40–54.
Schlozman, Daniel. “How The Christian Right Ended Up Transforming American Politics.” Talking Points Memo, 25 Aug. 2015, talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/brief-h