Despite an increasingly secular world, religion has been far from absent from the 2016 United States presidential election campaign. Both Republican and Democratic candidates have invoked religion as a banner to rally their constituents. Throughout the election campaign, the President Elect Donald Trump, a registered Presbyterian, has courted Evangelical voters by opposing abortion and gay rights and advocating a ban on Muslim immigration. Exit polls from the 2016 Presidential elections suggest that White Evangelical Christians favoured Trump by a margin of 81 percent to 16 percent over Hillary Clinton. In addition, Clinton has tried to appeal to Evangelical voters by linking her social justice platform to the philosophies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. These appeals to religion and faith matters reflect the strong religious influence in United States society and politics, particularly American-style Evangelical Christianity.
Several of the major contemporary figures and institutions in Evangelical Christianity come from the United States. Billy Graham, James Dobson, Jim Wallis, T.D. Jakes, R.C. Sproul, Joyce Meyer, and Don Moen are familiar household names not only within the American Evangelical community but also abroad. American Christian literature, films, music, ideas and movements including the Charismatic movement, Dominionism, megachurches, and Prosperity Theology have been exported internationally. The spread of American-style Evangelical Christianity has been enhanced by the status of English as the international lingua franca and the United States’ superpower status. American Evangelical ministries such as Samaritan’s Purse, Focus on the Family, and the International House of Prayer have also made inroads into Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Africa.
Till today, American Evangelicals have continued to wield a strong influence on US politics and society, particularly in the South and the Mid-West. Social issues like abortion, gay rights, transgenderism, the Evolution-Creation debate, religious instruction in schools, and even Harry Potter have become lightning rods for conflict between conservative Christians and their so-called liberal, “secular-progressive” opponents. Several media and academic commentators have referred to these conflicts as the “Culture Wars”; a struggle to define US national identity. Conservatives have asserted that the United States was founded on Christian roots while their opponents have contended that the Founding Fathers sanctioned a separation of church and state. At various times, Catholicism, Communism, and Islam have been deemed as incompatible with a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant-based American identity.
Since the 1980s, American Evangelical Christianity has become increasingly aligned with the Republican Party. Successive Republican presidential candidates since Ronald Reagan have actively courted the Evangelical vote. According to Stephen Spector, American Evangelicals constitute an important pillar of support for Israel in the United States. These Christian Zionists have joined forces with Jewish groups and neo-conservatives in forging an influential pro-Israel domestic coalition in the United States. American Evangelical support for Israel is predicated on the belief that the establishment of Israel is a prelude to the End Times and the Second Coming of Christ. This pro-Israel “lobby” has helped inject a pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian discourse into US foreign policy towards the Middle East.
Despite the role of the Evangelical vote in Trump’s victory, it is important not to exaggerate the influence of the American Christian Right; a recurrent bogeyman in many liberal and progressive circles. The United States is an increasingly pluralistic and diverse society. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, Christians comprise 70.6% percent of the American population of roughly 300 million; with Evangelicals making up 25.4% of the total Christian population. However, the US is also home to significant Jewish (1.9%), Muslim (0.9%), Buddhist (0.7%), and Hindu communities (0.7%) as well as a growing number of self-described unaffiliated individuals (22.8%) including atheists (3.1%) and agonistics (4.0%). Thus, American Evangelicals will have to learn to negotiate power with other communities and interests.
American Evangelicals are also far from a monolithic movement. There are disagreements on various issues ranging from female ordination, salvation, theology, divorce, contraception, Creation-Evolution, the environment, the relationship between the church and society, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and even homosexuality and transgenderism. While it easy to stereotype American Evangelism as a predominantly White movement, there are growing pockets of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian Evangelicals. This demographic trend, compounded by societal changes, has led several American denominations to address past racism. Recent films like Gifted Hands and War Room testify to the efforts of elements within the Evangelical community to come to terms with an increasingly diverse society.
Trump is only the latest in a long line of Republic Presidential candidates who have opposed Roe vs Wade; the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in 1973. Abortion continues to be a “hot potato” in the United States. Pro-choice advocates typically cast themselves as advocates for women’s reproductive rights while their pro-life opponents cast themselves as defenders of the rights of the unborn child. Several states have introduced legislation limiting access to abortion or even banning it in the event that Roe vs Wade is overturned. It remains to be seen whether abortion will be a major political flashpoint in a Trump presidency. During his campaigning, Trump has sent the right signals to Evangelical voters by attacking Planned Parenthood and promising to appoint a conservative justice to the Supreme Court.
For all the pro-life rhetoric emanating from Trump, it is unlikely that Roe vs Wade will be overturned. Despite their avowed opposition to Roe vs Wade, previous Republican Presidents including Ronal Reagan, Bush Senior, and Bush Junior failed to overturn the law. US Presidents have to negotiate power with Congress, the Supreme Court, the States, and various interest groups in society. Finally, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights acts as a check and balance on the powers of these institutions. Perhaps a middle ground between the rights of women and the unborn child can be found. While Evangelicals constitute an important pillar of support for Trump and the GOP, they have to compete with other institutions, groups, and interests in American society.
Andrew Lim is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research looks at the role of Israeli and Palestinian public diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He also contributes to Wookieepedia, the Star Wars Wiki in his free time. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org