Ronald Reagan's election signaled a huge turn in America toward conservatism, with massive American support for this type of political conviction. Many groups had severed their ties to the Democratic Party, and these included former liberals, blue-collar workers, ethnic voters, and southerners, who became known as the "Reagan Democrats."
Two groups that made up part of Reagan's base included antifeminists as well as fundamentalist Christians, and the three candidates in the 1980 presidential election all described themselves as born-again Christians. Then-President Jimmy Carter had seen the air taken out of his presumed base, and during that time, the Republican right was riding the wave of the evangelical movement.
During the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the religious right, with all its big spectacles regarding "televangelism," galvanized voter and media attention with an agenda propagated by televangelical preacher Jerry Falwell. Falwell supported Anita Bryant's 1977 anti-gay-rights crusade, while religious mover-and-shaker Pat Robertson spoke to a crowd of around 200,000, and invoked former President Richard M. Nixon when he said, "You have seen the Great Silent Majority!" This seemed to confirm that "born-again politics" was back in America by 1980.
If you look back at the evangelical movement that aligned itself with Reagan during the '80s, it is not difficult to spot the intolerance of the religious right. Isn't it a little disconcerting when Baptist minister and former Carter backer Bailey Smith spoke at a gathering in Dallas on the campaign trail, and told the audience, "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew"? Of course, Rev. Falwell felt the need to illuminate Bailey's statement when he spoke of how God, indeed, hears the prayers of Jews, providing those Jews convert to Christianity. Falwell eventually reversed himself after meeting with the American Jewish Committee's liaison to Christians.
It almost seems as if, since Reagan's two terms in office, there is a tendency for presidential candidates or presidents to face a sort of "come to Jesus moment" to capture and maintain a base of voters.
President Donald Trump continues to have the support of many white evangelical Christians, and evangelical leaders are the first ones to come his defense in the face of well-deserved criticism. These same evangelicals are also the first to forgive Trump for his personal behavior. However, younger evangelical voters don't seem to share the same level of enthusiasm for Trump. According to a Voter Study Group survey, only six in 10 younger white evangelical Christians (ages 18 to 44) view Trump favorably, whereas 80 percent of those age 45 or older have a favorable opinion of him.
It is easy to understand at least one issue that epitomizes Trump's popularity among white evangelicals, and that is immigration. Trump's identity politics were built around hard-line immigration policies, and white evangelicals firmly embraced the Muslim travel ban, policies against Syrian refugees, and the "wall" along the southern border. The Old Testament does speak about the Israelites as "strangers" during their captivity in Babylon, as well as in Egypt, yet that same testament tells of how every one of us can be a stranger and, for that very reason, we need to overcome our fear of those who live among us whom we do not know.
We should not forget what columnist Colman McCarthy once wrote: "Religion is dishonored when it is Americanized and militarized. Earlier presidents have done one or the other. Reagan is the first to do both."
Brent Been is a Tahlequah educator with a special emphasis on civics and history.