Honorable mention: Grad student essay contest — John Carroll
The evangelical chokehold on American elections
By John Carroll
In the 2016 presidential election, white Protestants (otherwise known as evangelicals), emboldened by a strong moral obligation to intervene in politics and protest the spread of secular ideals, showed up in unprecedented support for Donald Trump, with over 80 percent of them contributing to his victory. Evangelicals make up one-fifth of all registered voters in the United States, as well as one-third of those who identify as right-leaning or are registered Republican. Not only do they maintain that Christianity belongs at the forefront of politics, they also have the access to media, social institutions and money to amplify that view — so much so that it would be considered untactful for any campaign not to pander to them in some way. Trying to make the argument against the erosion of secularism, religious nationalism or the finagling of God into every aspect of political discourse from rhetoric to law is difficult if it fails to recognize the incomparable cultural, political and economic capital that evangelicals possess and throw behind their causes. As a voting bloc of the American populace, no other is more influential or poses a greater threat to separation of church and state.
Secular government seeks a balance between a stable social order and religious freedom. It seeks to protect freedom of conscience in matters of religion and tolerates all forms of belief, but not all actions based on those beliefs. It was born out of situations where minority beliefs faced constant persecution under governments representing the dominant faith, collusion between religious leaders and politicians that allowed siphoning of public resources and power, as well as the need to replace theocratic ideas that stalled social progress or denied rational justice. Even when the concept was new, religious nationalists sounded alarms equating secularism to cultural decay and the death of God. In an identical fashion, modern evangelicals use that same moral panic to prod voters into action.
The evangelical vote in 2016 was consolidated in Trump’s favor thanks in part to
endorsements from several prominent Christian figures, including [now former] Liberty University President Jerry
Falwell Jr., theologian Wayne Grudem, author and radio host Eric Metaxas, media mogul Pat Robertson, etc. Evangelicals with massive platforms who sanctified Trump’s campaign and sought to give his presidency a “mandate of heaven.” According to their views, supporting Trump was no longer simply a political stance, it was a Christian’s moral imperative. Despite many Christians maintaining a dissenting view of Trump, the significant ideological overlap between conservatives and evangelicals meant those endorsements provided a sense of divine conviction to his supporters. In 2020, Democratic presidential candidates face abnormal scrutiny for their religious convictions. Christian voter guides and media commentators routinely grade them on how well their platform complements gospel virtues, and candidates at all levels of government face increasing pressure to pander to evangelical sentiments.
For non-Christian religious groups, the “God” present on the American debate floor is most certainly not their own, and that dystopian situation of a politically dominant faith having leverage over minority faiths becomes more vivid. For secular thinkers, the incorrigibility of scripture is a routine impasse. How many current election issues that push and pull our nation’s voters are rooted in or complicated by evangelical dogma? The notion that Islam is an inferior theology touting violence against Christians is a perception that compliments the Islamophobia already prevalent in many discussions around immigration. Uncritical support for the Israeli government from the standpoint of a biblically cited right to exercise dominion over certain territory in the region. Rejection of LGBTQ+ rights based on biblical conventions on gender and sexuality. Denial of reproductive rights based in the fear of encouraging a pandemic of premarital sex, or from the notion that a zygote has a soul and can be murdered.
Biblical authority is a refuge from criticism, and most politicians find it less of a headache to affiliate that authority with their platform via rhetorical gymnastics.
When public officials pander and mix religion with government, it not only facilitates egregious fear and complication over which policy best serves our immortal souls, it also puts those groups who are clearly not being pandered to in a vulnerable position. The Evangelical Right showed their influence in 2016 and will continue to do so in the coming months. If we choose to be complacent about their encroaching agenda, the prospect of suffering under a pre-secular society becomes more and more real.
John, 25, is from Ballston Lake, N.Y., and attends SUNY Fredonia.
“I graduated from SUNY Schenectady with a degree in music performance and I’m working on a degree in music composition and pursuing my masters in musical theatre writing at NYU. I was music director and composed scores for two shows this year, and I was awarded first place in ICareIfYouListen.com’s 2019 New Voices essay contest for my writing on autism and the concert environment.”