I am sick of the simplistic idea, now repeated to the point of Gospel, that Evangelicals were Democrats and then became Republicans when Democrats embraced Civil Rights. The idea is that Nixon made a deal with the Devil to get White Evangelical votes. He lost any shot at the historically Republican Black vote, but gained Evangelicals. In this story, Evangelicals are historically Southern, Democrats, and racists.
First, let’s note two facts. The Republican Party had always been the party of Evangelicals. Lincoln could not have won without their votes. They were one of his key (the key?) voting blocks. Evangelicals were much more numerous in the North than in the South . . . which was prior to the Civil War the most religious part of the country.
John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University. His personal website can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.com and his blog can be found at www.johnmarkreynolds.info.
Second, the mountain people of the South (with West Virginia as the prime case) were always Republican and much more Evangelical (low church West Virginia versus high church Virginia). Units of mountain folk from many states (including Georgia!) fought on the Union side.
In fact, Lincoln put almost too much confidence in the mountain people, but this was a confidence that paid rich dividends in Virginia (check out how vulnerable the control of Western Virginia by a Union state government left the CSA to Union raids).
Bluntly, the Republican party was always the party of many of the low church Evangelical mountain folk. Eventually in some regions race or poverty (see West Virginia) would trump history and shift regional politics, but in my childhood it was still possible for a Republican to win state wide office. This was despite the FDR driven/coal miner/union drift to being a strongly Democratic state. The Republican Party always had a shot in West Virginia in ways that would have been unthinkable in the parts of the South that joined the CSA.
I think the more complicated story of Evangelicals and Republicans is that the core base of the Republican party Northern and Mid-West Evangelicals began a long numerical decline during the fundamentalist/modernism fight of the 1920’s. In the North, New England especially, the old Evangelical numbers were never replaced.
The face of White Evangelicals used to be: non-racist (by the standards of the time) Evangelicals mostly in the North and Mid-West (a majority?) . . . and their CSA brothers in the South. . . with the Mountain folk complicating the picture.
It is not the fault of the Republican Party that a core group: White Northern Evangelicals (though not African-American Evangelicals!) died out.
A school like Biola could still count on many New England supporters early in its history, but could not do so by the fifties. Even R.A. Torrey the founding Dean (who if memory serves me came from a politically active Democrat family from up-state New York) represents a type of Northern Evangelical (mainstream and from powerful political roots. . . though in this case Democrat) that would soon begin to disappear.
New England went the route of Western Europe and not the rest of the World in secularizing. Meanwhile, after the Civil War the CSA South had experienced a long religious revival. . . but that became tainted by race. The number of Evangelicals rose in the South while it was declining in the North. The Gilded Age was the last great era of the White Northern Evangelical.
As an example of this weirdly divided religious world that came to be by the early twentieth century, note the Pentecostal movement. Born on the West Coast (as much as anywhere) in an inter-racial way, it had strong support in all regions of the country. However, when it hit the old CSA South, racism challenged its unity. Sadly, it chose to “make peace” and divide on race lines. It never made as much progress in a secularizing New England (as it might have had a generation before) and so soon found the “divided” part of the movement speaking for the whole.
The Republican Party thus was losing its Northern (though not Mid-Western) main street Evangelical voting group. . . core to its identity. Small farmers and the GAR vote were gone by the 1920’s as a large enough group to impact national elections. Mid-West and far West Evangelicals did not have the electoral votes to elect a president.
No more bloody shirt. . . and a secularizing Northern Evangelical voting base. . . combined with the Depression left the Republican Party as we had known it pretty much dead. Which way would it go?
Many Republicans wanted to secularize and go the way of their old New England (still very Republican) base. Others wanted to reach out from their Mid-West (see Ohio) redoubt to the last untapped bastion of Evangelical votes, the South. Expect in areas of race, the White Evangelical there was not so different than the old Northern Evangelical or the Taft-style Evangelical that still existed in Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio.
The Republican Party knew how to get those votes, they were still getting them in places like Ohio and to a lesser extent pockets of places like West Virginia, and their old rhetoric (read a Lincoln speech) laced with the Bible and TR enthusiasm for apocalyptic imagery fit nicely. (Note that West Virgina, for example could often be split from the “South” in presidential races.)
The problem was that the White Evangelical community in some Southern states had bought, to a great extent, racist lies. The traditional Black Republican vote could not live with this sort of Evangelical.
However, a good thing happened in the Southern (old CSA) White Evangelical community. A new generation of leaders (such as Billy Graham) attacked racism and began to help create “the New South.” With such Southron, the old Evangelical wing of the Republican Party that Nixon represented (however imperfectly) with its anti-Godless-Communism rhetoric was a perfect fit. The New Southron voter (the Billy Graham Evangelical) was more like the old Lincoln Evangelical than he was like the CSA supporting religious type of the FDR-era South.
Do secular scholars ignore the religious changes in the New South amongst Evangelicals in favor of over playing the importance of more fringe liberal religious groups?
Western Conservatism (Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan) and the Republican Party in which it found a home had no racist past, was not mired in the old fights, and if leadership was not Evangelical itself could appeal to a history in the Republican party that was Evangelical in its rhetorical and government style.
Nobody seriously considers the leaders of the mainstream conservative movement (National Review anyone?) overt racists. They may, may, have attracted racist votes, but this was a declining number. . . and not something that they made an overt part of any national campaign. . . unlike historic Democrats who did so (see the FDR years).
Secular scholars have a blind spot. These scholars like to call the historic Republican Party the party of main street, but they too often ignore how religious main street was. It was easier to motivate Evangelical voters with moral issues, see wet/dry discussions, than economic ones. Main street was Evangelical, and Republican in the North and Mid-West, for most of the history of the Party. Republicans in the Sixties simply began to add the rest of Evangelicals (Southern) ones to their coalition.
The trick was to combine a big chunk of the African-American vote with the new Southern Evangelical (Billy Graham) vote. In this, the Republican Party failed.
It does seem true that some Republicans, sick of being the minority party with a me-too dying base, were too eager to make peace with the old South. That was a huge error, though a short term electoral “good.” Old Southern voters did enter the Republican Party, but their racist roots never fit well. Despite the loss of their historic African-American base, a process already well underway with FDR despite his openly racist Democrat base in the US Senate, Republicans never were comfortable with the politics of race. They kept producing folk like Kemp who sniffed out and attacked any vestige of it in the “new converts.”
Bluntly the racist Evangelicals (in the old open CSA sense) are dead. They do not exist as a major voting block. . . at least openly. Racists still exist in all states, whether religious or not, and African-American candidates may still “over poll” as a result. However, is this the future of any party? I doubt it.
(Don’t get me wrong. Racism still exists and is a huge American problem. However, one good bit of progress is that essentially nobody will defend this evil openly. I can think of no national Evangelical leader from the Old South. The younger and more Republican they are, in fact, the more eager they are to make peace and unite with their African-American Evangelical brothers. Issues like abortion and gay rights should unite us. . . we only wait a leader who can forever end any stereotype of the Republican Party as the party of the Old South. Even if historically false, in this case perception has become reality.
A Black Evangelical Republican candidate who could begin to reunite the two historic wings of the Republican Party would be unstoppable. God raise up such a leader!) If such a figure could get one-third of the African-American vote, no Democrat foe could defeat him or her.
Of course, there is much to dispute in my little story about the Republican Party, but I would argue that as a story it is much closer to the truth than the simplistic “William Jennings Bryan Democrats all became Republicans over race” story.
The spirit of Northern Evangelicals (never totally dimmed) was kept alive in the Mountain South and folk like Billy Graham were its heirs. . . whatever their geography. The non-racist wing of the movement won, though its original backers (in the North) declined and were replaced by many Southern Evangelicals who saw the light.
In short, I am a proud Lincoln/D.L. Moody Republican and evangelical. There are millions more like me. . . we win elections. On the other hand, no one has yet demonstrated the existence of a significant Old South vote (Pat Buchanan tried. . . and did not beat the Bush family!). . . or an Evangelical “left” of any size. CRO