As the evangelical Christian movement began to rise in politics before the 1980 election, there was a fork in the road that forced the self-described "Moral Majority" to make a decision in regards to which candidate they supported: the devout Christian Jimmy Carter, or the divorced Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan.
Writing for the Atlantic, Baylor University professor of humanities Alan Jacobs says it was the Moral Majority's decision to go with Reagan that "inaugurated the affiliation of white American evangelicals with the Republican Party that has lasted to this day."
While Carter's support for abortion rights played a significant role in evangelicals' choice to go with Reagan, it was the overall drift towards a more progressive stance on racial and sexual issues embraced by the Democratic party that alienated social conservatives, many of them in the South, as Jacobs writes.
But as the decades passed and American church leaders in almost all denominations became less interested in traditional Christian doctrines and more interested in what some scholars have come to call moralistic therapeutic deism, a larger and larger proportion of white evangelicals became what Pew Research calls “God-and-Country Believers.” These folks, almost all of whom are white, may not attend church often or at all, and they may not be interested in, or even aware of, the beliefs that have typically characterized evangelical Christians, but they know this much: They believe in God, and they believe in America, and they love Donald Trump because he speaks blunt Truth to culturally elite Power, and when asked by pollsters whether they are evangelicals, they say yes.
According to Jacobs, "God-and-Country Believers" are now married to the Republican Party, and as a result, the identity of evangelicals and Trump supporters now goes hand-in-hand. Now, the term "evangelical" has completely lost its meaning.
This transformation of evangelical from a theological position to a “racial and political” one is not just bad for serious Christians; it’s also a prime driver of the increasing hostility of liberals to religion in almost any form. Those who have insisted on yoking (a very vague notion of) God and (a very specific account of) country may soon find themselves dispossessed of both.
In the wake of Trump's election, Jacobs argued in a blog post that evangelicals need to take back their identity from the political ideologues who've stolen it. But in the months since, he's now starting to believe that may not be possible, thanks to a "strange and inadvertent conspiracy of Trump supporters and journalists" who've worked to "put an end to a useful term that once described a vital tradition in the Christian faith."