Nationalism, American evangelicals, and conservatism

Historians Anthea Butler and Heather J. Sharkey and political scientist Michele Margolis share their thoughts on the history of American evangelicals in politics, Trump’s appeal, and what it means for the future of the GOP.

An American flag flaps in front of the tip of a white church steeple topped by a cross, with a blue sky and clouds in the background
Three experts on evangelical Christianity shared their thoughts with Penn Today on the history of American evangelicals in politics, Trump’s appeal to them, and what it all means for the future of the GOP.

Throughout President Donald Trump’s election, administration, and the time since, evangelicals have been among his staunchest supporters. Trump’s rise revealed an evangelical movement more nationalistic than religious.

How did this intermingling of identity come about? Is it new? And what does it mean for the Republican party and conservatism going forward?

Penn Today asked three experts on evangelical Christianity—historians Anthea Butler and Heather J. Sharkey and political scientist Michele Margolis—about the history of American evangelicals in politics, Trump’s appeal to them, and what it means for the future of the GOP.

Butler is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and graduate chair in the Department of Religious Studies whose research spans African American religion and history, race, politics, evangelicalism, gender and sexuality, media, and popular culture. An assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Sharkey’s research, among other topics, has focused on American missionaries and evangelicals in the Middle East. Margolis is an associate professor of political science whose research focuses on public opinion, political psychology, religion, and politics.

“Trump’s victory, and his support among this group of individuals is not a surprise,” Margolis says. “It’s not that evangelicals were supporting Donald Trump despite the controversial parts of his agenda and the company he keeps but actually because of them.”

History of American evangelicals in politics

Evangelicals have been involved in American politics since the country’s birth, Margolis says, adding that Thomas Jefferson ended up winning the presidency due to support from the Baptists, all because of his firm views on the separation of church and state.

Baptists had broken off from the mainstream and were innovating with different types of preaching styles and ways of connecting that were looked down upon by the masses, and they knew it, she says.

Woman in gray cardigan, green shirt and brown beaded necklace sits at a desk with hands folded, smiling at the camera, a white painted block wall behind her and a tall, slim window showing trees outside.
Michele Margolis is a professor of political science whose research focuses on public opinion, political psychology, religion, and politics. 

They were not, says Margolis, what we think of as the traditional, Northeastern denominations that had seminaries and leaders. “If there was going to be an institutionalized religion, it wasn’t going to be what we think of as evangelical Christianity,” she says. Baptists wanted to ensure that church and state remained separate so that other Christians would not interfere with their practice.

At the same time in the early 19th century, American evangelicals who traveled to other countries as missionaries became the major representatives of American culture abroad.

Sharkey says, “In many parts of the world, they ended up preceding the U.S. government at a time when the United States wasn’t yet a world power.” She says that they ended up working with consular delegates and helping to develop American diplomatic representation.

“Over time supporters of evangelical missionary groups also evolved into some of the major American humanitarian organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, though you might not even be aware that they had that history,” says Sharkey. “The Rockefellers funded what we would now call very liberal initiatives like promoting family planning, women’s health, and higher education.”

There are and have been evangelicals on the left who have worked for racial and environmental justice and for pacifist causes, she says.

Woman with glasses, a silver necklance and grey shirt stands in front of a brick wall, smiling at the camera
Heather Sharkey is a historian and professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations whose research, among other topics, has focused on American missionaries and evangelicals in the Middle East.

“Historically, evangelicalism as a movement has actually covered a broad spectrum of the American Christian population,” Sharkey says “Evangelicalism, at its core, entailed professing a personal and heartfelt religion, as such, it has appealed to many Christians coming from different churches and holding diverse social views.”

Evangelicals’ involvement in politics at home waned after the Scopes Monkey Trial in the 1920s, mostly due to public perceptions, says Margolis.

“The creationism side won in the court of law, but what people don’t remember is they lost in the public debate; they were seen as a joke,” she says.

Evangelicals for the most part stayed out of public life at that point and focused on building their own universities, colleges, seminaries, and publishing houses. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that evangelicals became involved in American politics in the way they are now.

“Evangelicals have always been interested in politics, whether we’re talking about slaveholders in the South who didn’t want to give up their slaves and fought for the Confederacy, or if we’re talking about the modern era, especially Billy Graham,” Butler says.

Dubbed by the media as “America’s Pastor,” Graham was a central player in making evangelicalism mainstream, in both public life and politics, particularly through his friendships with presidents for more than 60 years, she says.

Christian nationalism and Trump’s appeal

Butler says evangelicals have always been concerned with patriotism, but the sense of nationalism hardened after 9/11, and then again with the entrance of Trump.

Woman in dressy black leather jacket, silk grey blouse and silver earring sits in a black chair and looks at the camera, hands folded
Anthea Butler is an associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies and Graduate Chair in the Department of Religious Studies. (Image: Courtesy of Torrence L. Neal)

“If you pick Donald Trump after all these years of saying you want candidates who are godly, you’re showing us what it is that you value: power. You value somebody who’s able to give you things like Supreme Court judges,” Butler says. “It’s disingenuous to say it’s all about morality.”

In recent decades, white evangelicals have been dubbed “values voters” and seen as prioritizing a candidate’s character, but Margolis says the more accurate term these days is “nostalgia voters.”

“There is this nostalgia for the nuclear family, respecting adults, respecting parents, but at the same time that nostalgia extends to white, heterosexual male patriarchy,” she says.

Christian nationalism mixes Christian and American identity with beliefs like the idea that America is or should be a fundamentally Christian nation and should be treated as such, Margolis says.

Butler says having a religious movement embed itself in a political party has political implications for the nation.

For instance, the insurrection on Jan. 6 was largely started by conservative Christians talking about how they needed to take back the country and how God ordained Trump to be the president, she says.

“They didn’t care about the democratic process; they cared only about what they believed,” Butler says. “This is what happens when you mix politics with a religion that has decided to go off the rails. You have people who become radicalized.”

Future of conservatism?

As far as what this means for the future of the Republican Party, Margolis says it all depends on who they nominate in 2024: “If they continue to nominate culture warriors, it’s unclear what’s going to happen to the economic conservatives who don’t buy into those aspects.”

For Butler, the Republican Party isn’t about conservatism in its truest sense anymore.

“It’s more like a religious movement that has a lot of grievances,” she says, noting that more than 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump, and they have aligned themselves in such a way that they are driving the GOP. “I think in some ways they have taken over the party.”

Cover of a book with works "White Evangelical Racism" with a faded American flag print atop the words
Anthea Butler’s new book “White Evangelical Racism” was published in March by The University of North Carolina Press.

Butler says her new book, “White Evangelical Racism,” published in March, came out of her frustration with the ways in which evangelicalism is written about in the popular press, sympathetically and with a sense of mystification over the rise of Trump among their ranks.

“They haven’t looked at race as a big factor in how whiteness and evangelicalism come together,” she says. “When we say ‘evangelical’ in the media, you don’t think about Black evangelicalism, you don’t think about Asian evangelicalism; you think about white people. The reason why the book is titled ‘White Evangelical Racism’ is because I want to make it really clear that that is the word you’re operating with every time you say evangelical in the press.”

It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism and religion, and her book is holding a mirror up to the issue, Butler says.

“I think what my book is trying to do is to show the ways in which this particular movement is not just about Donald Trump,” Butler says. “It’s been about a longer arc. This is about a history of America and a particular kind of religious movement in that history that has benefited from white male patriarchy, and everybody else has been subservient to that.”

Margolis says it’s important to remember that evangelicals are not what political scientists called cross-pressured, or conflicted voters. Their economic and social policies and their identity politics all match up, and they are definitely staying with the GOP, Margolis says.

Although she can’t predict what will happen in the next presidential election, Margolis says that in 50 years their current strategy will be problematic.

“The country is changing,” says Margolis. “It’s becoming less religious, there’s increased immigration, there’s increased bi- and multiracial Americans. What it looks like to be an American is changing and changing rapidly, and the GOP is definitely going to be a party that’s in trouble in 50 years if they don’t change tactics.”