Earlier this month, President Trump spoke before a group of evangelical Christian supporters at the Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús in Miami. That morning, the president had ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and his address to the largely Hispanic crowd touched on national security, religious freedom, and his potential opponents in the Democratic Party.
According to exit polls by Public Religious Research Institute, Trump has enjoyed support from white evangelical voters in higher numbers than the previous three Republican presidential candidates. Many high-profile evangelical leaders’ disavowals of the president have raised questions about whether Trump can maintain support from this loyal coalition.
Another question, however, is appropriate: Who, exactly, comprises this group of “evangelical Christians” and how can we understand this movement that has become seemingly inextricable from the Republican Party in recent decades?
Thomas S. Kidd, a self-proclaimed evangelical and the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, has written Who Is an Evangelical: The History of a Movement in Crisis to attempt to answer these questions. Though Kidd, a former Republican, says he couldn’t ever bring himself to support President Trump, he understands the tendency for white evangelicals to do so. But, he says, the larger evangelical community — including those at Trump’s rally in Miami — holds more diversity than people think, and the allegiances of born-again Christians aren’t necessarily in Trump’s pocket.
The Saturday Evening Post: What is an evangelical?
Thomas S. Kidd: The simplest definition is just evangelicals are born-again Christians, but, of course, there’s a little more to say than that. I define it by three characteristics. One is to be “born again” or converted. Another one is a very high view of the Bible as a source of religious truth, and, finally, an ongoing sense of the presence of God in your life — a personal relationship with Jesus, or walking in the Holy Spirit. People would describe this different ways. Those things are not utterly unique about evangelicals, but I think they’re distinctive enough to set them apart from a lot of other kinds of Christians. I think those are historical and spiritual attributes to evangelicals, but also it gets beyond a sort of America-focused and political definition of who evangelicals are.
SEP: Another attribute of evangelicals that I’ve come across is proselytism. I’ve seen others include that in a definition of evangelicals.
Kidd: Yeah, Some people have put that under a category of general activism, or a kind of missionary impulse. I think that’s definitely an evangelical attribute, or at least it’s supposed to be, but, if you look at it historically, Catholics beat Protestants to the punch on missions by about a hundred years. I might make that a little less of an evangelical trait, but it definitely counts as one.
SEP: Would you say that the evangelical movement is growing?
Kidd: I think in the United States, it’s probably holding steady. The growth areas are mainly among charismatics and Pentecostals, and especially among immigrant groups — most obviously among Hispanics, but also among Asian and African immigrants. A lot of that tends to be off the radar screen, because those people are either not involved in politics or their political allegiances are more up for grabs than white evangelicals. I think white evangelicals are on a slow decline — not catastrophic, but a slow one. For instance, there’s been a slow decline in the Southern Baptist Convention over the past decade or so. The people that we tend to recognize most readily as evangelicals are white voters. Those people are definitely becoming a smaller percentage of the overall evangelical population in America.
SEP: In your book, you write about the white, conservative movement that most associate with evangelicals, particularly the media. If that isn’t the whole story, then what would you call that group otherwise?
Kidd: I think the term evangelical is going to be used in the media, so I think it’s probably futile for us to come up with other names. For me, personally, the only commitment I have to the term evangelical is that it’s a biblical term, meaning “good news.” In that sense, Christians can’t get away from the term evangelical. Some people have proposed terms like “gospel Christians” or “Jesus-followers” to bring some detachment from politics to the term. My view is that we’re kind of stuck with the term evangelical, so part of what I’m trying to do is to give a more historical and global view of what the term means and disconnect it a little bit from contemporary American politics.
SEP: If evangelicals aren’t united under support of the Republican party or the current administration, how would you say they are united?
Kidd: Well, they’re united in the characteristics that I’ve listed: conversion and the Bible and the felt presence of God. That allows you to look at evangelicalism as a global movement, so evangelicals in Brazil, Nigeria, and China are united on those kinds of attributes, but not on American political issues.
I do think in America there would be a pretty broad commonality on cultural and social issues. For instance, even though African American evangelicals tend to vote Democrat, they would be the most likely Democrats to have conservative views on marriage and abortion. Also, I think you would find a lot of white evangelicals who are more sympathetic to immigrants than other Republicans. I do think there are potential points of unity, but across those ethnic divides — especially between white and black evangelicals — in terms of electoral preferences, there’s not much unity.
SEP: Could an evangelical be a leftist?
Kidd: Sure. You don’t see very often, I don’t think, evangelicals who would be pro-choice — especially staunchly pro-choice. But, African American evangelicals are overwhelmingly Democratic. Historically, you certainly have a number of white evangelicals who, on economic issues, are leftwing. The magazine Sojourners, for instance, is a notable evangelical publication that is leftwing on economic issues — taking care of the poor, working class, etc.
SEP: You mention in your book that you’re a “Never Trump” evangelical. When did you decide that?
Kidd: I was certainly not supportive of Trump in the primaries. I was actually affiliated with Marco Rubio’s campaign, on one of his faith advisory boards. Where I saw the difference between me and most Republicans — I don’t necessarily consider myself a Republican anymore — was that the vast majority of active Republican voters coalesced around Trump. When he got the nomination, I decided I couldn’t support him.
SEP: When he is talking to his evangelical base, President Trump talks about “believers” and religion being under attack. Would you say that’s true?
Kidd: Not overall in America. I think what he’s referring to is some of the policies, especially under the Obama administration, like the HHS mandate, requiring companies to cover contraceptives, and even going after groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, which was a major controversy, culturally. So, I think policies like that fed into a sense that the Democrats, and the Obama administration in particular, were inclined on some issues, like abortion or same-sex marriage, to require Christians to act against their conscience. I think that concern counts for Trump’s references to Christians being “under attack.”
I’m sure he would bring up the “Merry Christmas” issue too [laughs], but I don’t think that’s a very important issue. It is the sort of thing that people can understand.
But I think the religious liberty concerns are what he’s pointing to, and I think on issues like the HHS mandate, there really were religious reasons for Christians to be concerned. Whether that all amounts to Christians being under attack in America is probably overstated. But there are legal reasons for concern about religious liberty in America for sure.
SEP: You’ve talked about how you couldn’t support Trump, so where do you break from him?
Kidd: Different voters have different views on what is important, and some evangelical leaders have said that personal characteristics don’t matter that much, but I do think that they matter. For me, about half of what we’re looking for in any given president or presidential candidate is personal temperament and character. There are legions of problems with President Trump: the way that he talks about immigrants, the profanity, the Access Hollywood tape. There are all kinds of things you could list that are problematic, as far as character issues, with him. Policy-wise, I’m all for border security, but there are serious problems with the ways he has talked about both Latino and Muslim immigrants.
There are areas where I think evangelical support for Trump has panned out well. I think he’s made good nominations to the Supreme Court and other parts of the federal judiciary. I don’t think that white evangelical support for Trump has turned out to be absolutely unwarranted or foolish. But, for me, the character and confidence issues continue to make him unqualified for office.
SEP: How do you contend with that evangelical support for Trump? Would you urge other evangelicals to drop their support for him?
Kidd: Well, I think it depends some on what happens in terms of the democratic nominee. I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton either. I didn’t feel like there was a good alternative for evangelicals in the 2016 election. Because of that, I didn’t feel that there was one acceptable option. What I’ve often said is that I don’t understand the enthusiastic support of Trump where he can do nothing wrong. That, I think, is especially unseemly. But I can understand why evangelicals would have voted for Trump, and I can understand why some evangelicals even voted for Hillary Clinton. I personally don’t think evangelicals had good options in 2016, and I suspect it’s going to be the same in 2020.
SEP: What about Pence? Is he a good representation of what evangelicals are looking for in a politician?
Kidd: My main concern about Pence is the way he has enabled Trump to do what Trump does, but I do think had Pence been a candidate in 2016 that he would have been a better alternative for evangelicals. Evangelical support in the 2016 election was deeply divided between Trump, Rubio, and Cruz. It wasn’t until the general election that white evangelical support largely coalesced around Trump. It’s a tough call between being willing to serve in Trump’s administration, but I think in general he would’ve been a better choice.
SEP: We have seen some evangelical leaders disavow President Trump, like Christianity Today’s former editor Mark Galli and author Beth Moore. White evangelical support for the president was polled at 81 percent in 2016 and, more recently, about 72 percent to 75 percent. Do you see that support from his evangelical base going anywhere?
Kidd: The Christianity Today editorial was certainly notable, because CT is still sort of the flagship evangelical magazine. They weren’t ever in support of Trump, though. What they did wasn’t a break with Trump; it was just coming out in favor of his removal. But, the fact they were willing to take that position was quite controversial and spectacular, and it was worth the attention that it got.
When you go back to 2016, Beth Moore, as you mentioned, but a lot of white evangelical leaders and of course a lot of Hispanic and African American evangelical leaders were critical of Trump and even went so far as to say they wouldn’t support him. Russell Moore at the Southern Baptist Convention got into a dustup with Trump and Trump denounced him on Twitter. Albert Mohler of Southern Seminary, John Piper, the prominent Baptist parachurch leader. World magazine, which tends to be a very conservative evangelical magazine, was highly critical of Trump in 2016. So, there were a lot of evangelical leaders who either expressed significant reservations or just outright opposed Trump in the 2016 election. As you said, 81 percent of self-identified white evangelical voters said they supported Trump in the general election.
I think a lot of this speaks to some disconnect between evangelical leaders, particularly white evangelical leaders, and rank-and-file white evangelicals. When you look at that 81 percent, it definitely reflects something important. And I’m sure a strong majority of white evangelical voters really did support Trump in 2016. Sometimes media reports get this right, but those exit polls were only asking white people, saying to them, “Are you an evangelical and who did you vote for?” By design, it doesn’t represent nonwhite evangelicals. And it’s only asking voters, obviously. Probably something like 45 percent of self-identified evangelicals didn’t vote in 2016. That’s why I want to pump the brakes on that number, especially when it gets reported as “81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump,” which is simply not true. It’s way off from being true.
SEP: Out of that 81 percent, though, do you see that base of support diminishing at all?
Kidd: I don’t see that base of white support dwindling much, if at all. Part of the reason for that is because I think Trump has given those people enough to work with to be happy. Some of that has nothing to do with religious reasons. The economy is good. It’s not that these people voted only on religious, cultural issues. But, the Supreme Court nominations from that perspective have been good, and that’s probably the most important issue that core evangelicals vote about.
I think the more interesting story is probably Hispanic evangelicals. It was very much a calculated decision that Trump’s evangelical meeting was at a Hispanic-led evangelical church in Miami. I suspect the Trump campaign feels confident that they’ll be able to retain white evangelical voters, but Hispanic evangelical voters’ allegiances are far more up for grabs. They’re the second-largest evangelical ethnic group in America to whites, and — to the extent that we know their voting patterns — their allegiances seem much more up for grabs.
SEP: Back to your book: What are you hoping that a history of evangelicalism can say in today’s political and religious landscape?
Kidd: I guess I would like people to come away realizing the evangelical movement has a long history that mostly doesn’t have to do with contemporary American politics or the Republican party. Evangelicals of different ethnicities have taken a lot of different political stances over time, but there are particularly reasons why, over the past 50 years, white evangelicals have become closely attached to the Republican Party. That wasn’t a given, even as late as 1976. I would hope readers come away with a different understanding of who evangelicals are than just “white religious Republicans in America today.”
Featured image: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo
Country musician Lucas Hoge was firing up a crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis last Friday when he asked the audience, “Are you guys ready for a great NRA convention? It’s gonna be a good one, I guarantee you that.” Playing songs with titles like “Dirty South” and “Power of Garth,” Hoge was opening for the leadership forum put on by the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action. The forum, featuring a speech from President Trump, kicked off the weekend of the NRA’s annual meeting — a weekend that coincided with a crisis for the organization itself.
The next day, the New York attorney general would announce an investigation into the NRA’s tax-exempt status, and NRA president Oliver North would step down, announcing that he would not seek another term in his role.
On Friday, however, the gang was all there, and the crowd was eager to hear from some of the country’s most prominent conservatives, even as reports swirled that the organization’s biggest yearly event was coming at a time of division for the NRA. The rift in the gun group’s leadership didn’t seem to bother the red-hatted spectators. An audience at an NRA convention might be one of the purest distillations of the president’s base of support.
“Where the spirit of the Lord is, there’s freedom. And that means freedom always wins,” Vice President Pence said during his speech, invoking the word “freedom” for the 35th time. He spoke with intense emphasis on each word as he decried the prospect of voting rights for prisoners and an American socialist movement.
Red and blue lights illuminated the large platform as President Trump took the stage to the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A.,” MAGA hats waving and cell phones recording all around. One cell phone was actually thrown onto the stage by a zealous fan (or protester?) who was then removed. It wasn’t a rally, per se, but it was close enough.
The tight embrace of the Trump administration to the NRA couldn’t be clearer. After all, the gun group spent well over 50 million dollars in outside spending during the 2016 election, which is just about double the amount it has spent in other election years. But their mutual enemies seem to define their alliance. As Trump points to the press section in the center of the stadium and says, “They’re fake,” boos emanate from the surrounding crowd.
Over the course of the day, the word “they” is used frequently to refer to the other side, whether that is immigrants, Hollywood celebrities, the left, or some vague combination of them all. “They hate us,” Chris Cox, executive director of the Institute for Legislative Action, said. “They hate our trucks. They hate our plastic straws. And, yes, they hate our guns.” Ted Cruz, on the media: “The men and women here, we are speaking the truth. They are speaking lies.”
As the program made its case for billing the NRA as “freedom’s safest place” and touted the organization’s long history of gun advocacy in this country, an outsider might have wondered what exactly comprises that history. Over the span of many years, the NRA transformed from a group focused on uncontroversial marksmanship training to one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.
In the beginning, the NRA didn’t have enemies.
A Big Brotherhood of Rifle Enthusiasts
The National Rifle Association was formed in 1871 by two Union Army officers, Col. William Church and Gen. George Wingate, to improve shooting skills among American men. They modeled it off the British NRA, which still resembles its original incarnation. The National Rifle Association — “the big brotherhood of rifle enthusiasts” as a Lyman Gun Sights advertisement called it in 1916 — held long-range shooting competitions and focused very little on policy at the turn of the century.
In the 1920s and ’30s, as historian Jill Lepore writes in The New Yorker, “To the extent that the NRA had a political arm, it opposed some gun-control measures and supported many others, lobbying for new state laws … which introduced waiting periods for handgun buyers and required permits for anyone wishing to carry a concealed weapon.” In 1934, NRA president Karl Frederick said, “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The group supported both the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, two bills that came in the wake of Prohibition-era gangster violence.
In 1968, the Gun Control Act was also passed without too much resistance from the NRA. (Executive Vice President Franklin Orth wrote in American Rifleman that“the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”) The bill banned mail-order sales and prohibited addicts and the mentally ill from purchasing guns. But still, it had been stripped of some fundamental proposals. Lyndon Johnson, originally having pushed for a national registry of gun owners and universal licensing in the bill, decried the opposition that blocked his additional measures, saying, “The voices that blocked these safeguards were not the voices of an aroused nation. They were the voices of a powerful lobby, a gun lobby.”
President Johnson was speaking not about Orth, but about many rank-and-file members of the NRA who had begun to organize around the defeat of gun control legislation of any kind.
Growing a Movement
In 1966, Guns Magazine began publishing articles by Neal Knox in opposition to the “Dodd Bill,” an earlier version of the Gun Control Act. “A federal agency, acting under provisions of an ‘anti-crime law’ has launched a move that may be the death knell of organized gun shows, the lifeblood of antique arms collecting,” Knox wrote. There was no mention of the Second Amendment in those years. Knox seemed to be more concerned about the massive inconveniences that gun control could bring to “law-abiding” gun owners and dealers, as well as the possibility that the government would take a mile if given an inch.
When agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms shot and paralyzed NRA member Kenyon Ballew, in 1971, Knox’s fears seemed to be confirmed for many in the group. The ATF agents conducted a raid to confiscate a stockpile of illegal grenades, and they rammed in his door to find the veteran naked and wielding a replica of an 1847 Colt revolver. Ballew was not prosecuted, but a federal court ruled against his own lawsuit since the explosives were found in his home. The NRA’s American Rifleman published a six-page story headed “Gun Law Enforcers Shoot Surprised Citizen, Claim Self-Defense,” and for years afterward, according to James Moore’s account, Very Special Agents, Ballew “was wheeled to gun shows and put on display — head hanging, face slack, mouth drooling — with a sign hung around his neck: ‘Victim of the Gun Control Act.’”
Hard-line views on gun rights fermented among NRA members until the disparity of interests between the organization’s leadership and membership came to a head in 1977. That year, in Cincinnati, the NRA’s annual meeting was taken over by a group of blaze-orange-cap-wearing members led by Knox and former U.S. Border Patrol leader Harlon Carter. They had gathered support to vote out executive vice president Maxwell Rich and install Carter. While the old guard of the NRA was interested in moving out of D.C. and away from politics, Knox and Carter — director of the recently formed lobbying wing, the Institute for Legislative Action — wanted to plunge the group headfirst into a fight for gun rights with a new strategy: “No compromise. No gun legislation.” There was a new motto as well: “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”
The hard-liners had studied the organization’s bylaws and carried out a grassroots organizing effort to use the annual meeting to oust their leaders and change the direction of the NRA. After a meeting that lasted until 4 a.m., Knox and Carter’s constituency was successful, and the new direction of the NRA was official.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the NRA grew its membership alongside a fairly novel understanding of the Second Amendment. In 1986, the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act was passed by Congress, which rolled back many of the restrictions passed in 1968. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 banned many semi-automatic weapons, to the annoyance of the NRA, but its ban on “assault weapons” expired after 10 years and was not reinstated.
An Uncertain Future
These days, the NRA has a friend in the White House, but mass shootings in recent years have bolstered support for gun control advocates. For the first time, during the 2018 midterm election, gun control groups spent more money than gun rights groups.
A few weeks ago, the NRA sued Ackerman McQueen, the public relations firm that has been forming the organization’s sharp messaging for decades. Ackerman McQueen is responsible for the online channel NRATV, which has drawn scrutiny for drifting into far-right programming that has little to do with gun ownership or policy. The lawsuit came after the NRA claimed its PR firm refused to provide financial documents.
The NRA is also seeing shrinking contributions, and the group found its finances in the red for a second consecutive year in 2017. In six of the last 10 years, the group has spent more than it has taken in, with 2017 seeing its largest deficit.
“Let me make this really personal,” Oliver North said on the Indianapolis stage last Friday as he asked for help in doubling the NRA’s current membership of 5 million, to double the group’s strength and political clout. And since North was “fond of talking to and about God,” he asked for prayers for the NRA.
“On one side are those who seek power, control, and domination, and on the other side are patriots like us,” Trump said. The president made his way through a checklist of likely topics, from immigration to the Mueller report to the prospect of arming teachers (“Who is better to protect our students than the teachers who love them?”), then he signed a document rejecting the UN Arms Trade Treaty onstage and threw the pen into the crowd. “We will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedoms,” Trump said of the treaty designed to regulate international sales of conventional arms.
Chris Cox was visibly pleased about Trump’s announcement. As he attempted to ready the room for the next speaker, Steve Scalise, people began to clear out. The main event was over, after all. Wayne LaPierre, the long-time CEO of the NRA, spoke, as well as Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. Each man stressed the irredeemable rift that lies between card-carrying members of the NRA and the people who want to take away their guns: the left, liberals, Hollywood, billionaires.
The roughly 50-year-old notion of “no compromises” on gun rights in the NRA has grown into a full-fledged cultural mindset that seems to need enemies to thrive. Unlike 100 years ago, when the only enemy the group fought against was the misuse of firearms, the NRA and its advocates keep a long list of current nemeses that must be battled like supervillains.
“The left and the press can’t make the fundamental distinction between good guys and bad guys,” Cruz said. “At the end of the day, this ain’t complicated. There are good guys and bad guys.” The implication was that everyone in the room — NRA members and representatives, at least — were the law-abiding citizens, the patriots, the “real Americans.” The good guys.
Photos by Nicholas Gilmore