Apocalypse Now : Throughline Evangelicals have played an important role in modern day American politics - from supporting President Trump to helping elect Jimmy Carter back in 1976. How and when did this religious group become so intertwined with today's political issues? In this episode, what it means to be an evangelical today and how it has changed over time.

Apocalypse Now

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Donald Trump won white evangelicals by a record 81%.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Eighty-one percent of evangelicals...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The white evangelicals make up a huge swath of the Republican Party, and Donald Trump can credit his victory as president of the United States, in part, by their overwhelming turnout.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I've done great with evangelicals, including here, where we won our primary big. But the evangelicals...

RUSSELL MOORE: There can be this assumption that evangelicals are kind of like cicadas that go into dormancy in between Iowa caucuses. And the entire identity is built around...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The issue of sanctity of life.

MOORE: ...What political movement they're involved in and who they're supporting.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Atop their agenda - composition of the Supreme Court and abortion.

MOORE: ...When that's just really not...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Roe v. Wade would get overturned.

MOORE: ...What evangelical Christianity is about.



You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


Where we go back in time.

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present. Hey. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And on this episode - American evangelicals.

ABDELFATAH: How did evangelical voters become such a powerful force in U.S. politics today?

ARABLOUEI: According to a 2018 Gallup report, about 36% of Americans identify as evangelical. But figuring out exactly what the term evangelical means is a little complicated.

ABDELFATAH: For many, the word evangelical has become a shorthand for voters who are Christian, Republican and white.

MOLLY WORTHEN: I do think that it is, functionally, a white word. Conservative Protestants of color are very reluctant to use that label because it is so loaded.

ARABLOUEI: This is Molly Worthen. She teaches history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

ABDELFATAH: Now, theologically, evangelicalism doesn't mean all that. Religious historian Randall Balmer...


ABDELFATAH: ...Who also happens to be an Episcopal priest, broke it down for us into three basic traits. First...

BALMER: Somebody who is an evangelical is a person who takes the Bible very seriously as God's revelation to humanity.

ABDELFATAH: And interprets it literally.

BALMER: Second...

ABDELFATAH: They believe in spiritual awakenings

BALMER: Or born again experience, to use a phrase from the third chapter of St. John in the New Testament.

ABDELFATAH: And third...

BALMER: An evangelical is someone who takes seriously the mandate to evangelize.

ABDELFATAH: In other words, to convert others and bring them into the faith.

ARABLOUEI: Over the past few decades, pollsters, politicians and activists have nonetheless helped transform the word into something political. Evangelicals have been an important part of American politics since at least 1976, the year Jimmy Carter, an evangelical himself, became president.

ABDELFATAH: Carter was a Democrat. But since then, evangelical voters have solidly backed Republican candidates, including Donald Trump in 2016, which leads us back to that popular assumption - Christian, Republican and white. While that shorthand risks oversimplifying a complicated story, there's also a reason for it.

ARABLOUEI: In this episode, we're going to focus on how and why white evangelicalism in particular came to be so linked to conservative political issues.

ABDELFATAH: Beginning with a roaming Irish pastor in the 1800s...

ARABLOUEI: Then moving to the tumultuous World War I era.

ABDELFATAH: ...And ending with a groundbreaking Supreme Court case in the 1970s, which, I guarantee, is not the one you're thinking of.


ARABLOUEI: Part I - Apocalypse Now.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As John Nelson Darby) The church is in ruins. The Christian is directed to turn away from evil and turn to the Scriptures.

ABDELFATAH: In the early 1800s, a young Anglican minister named John Nelson Darby was travelling from cabin to cabin across the Irish countryside, preaching the gospel. He lived a simple life - ate little, wore his clothes till they were nearly ripping at the seams. People began to see him almost as a saint, but Darby couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As John Nelson Darby) I felt that the style of work was not in agreement with what I had read in the Bible concerning the church and Christianity, nor did it correspond with the effects of the action of the spirit of God.

ARABLOUEI: At the time, the Church of England, which was Protestant, was exercising more and more influence over Ireland, a traditionally Roman Catholic country. This was not only a religious mission. It was a political one. Many of England's clergy thought the church and government should be intertwined. Darby didn't see it that way. He wanted Christians to come together to unite, but the church didn't seem to be doing that.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As John Nelson Darby) When I looked around to find this unity, I found it nowhere. If I joined one set of Christians, I did not belong to another. The church - God's church - was broken up and the members scattered among various self-formed bodies.

ABDELFATAH: Darby became more and more frustrated, unable to connect with the Christianity he saw around him. And then in 1827, he reached a breaking point.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As John Nelson Darby) An accident happened, which laid me aside for a time. My horse was frightened and had thrown me against a doorpost.

ABDELFATAH: OK, so it was a literal and figurative breaking point. He got in a horse-riding accident, was holed up in bed for months. And he spent a lot of time reading the Bible, dissecting it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As John Nelson Darby) After deep exercise of soul, I was brought by grace to feel I could trust the word of God entirely.

BALMER: And in that context, he came up with this new interpretation, this new scheme for reading the Bible.

ABDELFATAH: That new interpretation would lead to a major change within evangelicalism around the world.

ARABLOUEI: Darby concluded that denominations only divided people, and so he rejected them. He also suggested that there shouldn't be any formal ministers - no hierarchy - all in contrast to the Church of England, which had a very clear hierarchy - archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons. You get the idea. But Darby's most important and drastic rereading was of Christian theology itself.

ABDELFATAH: At the time, most Christians believed that...

MATTHEW SUTTON: God is going to establish a new kingdom on Earth, and it's going to run for a thousand years of peace and prosperity. So that's...

ABDELFATAH: So basically, Jesus Christ would only return to usher in the end of times after the world experienced a thousand years of peace, and the general state of things would be pretty good. This idea was called...

BALMER: Postmillennialist.

ABDELFATAH: ...Postmillennialist. That's when Jesus would come - after a thousand years. So most evangelicals...

BALMER: They believed that if they worked hard enough to reform society according to the norms of godliness...

ABDELFATAH: Then Jesus would return.

ARABLOUEI: But Darby flipped that idea. According to his reading of the Bible, Jesus Christ would return before this thousand years of peace. Darby's rereading became known as premillennialism.

SUTTON: The second coming of Christ is imminent; that we're actually moving towards this horrific battle of Armageddon.

ARABLOUEI: This is Matthew Sutton. He teaches history at Washington State University. His latest book is called "American Apocalypse: A History Of Modern Evangelicalism." Darby foreshadowed that the world will just keep getting worse and worse until the apocalypse arrived, so there was no real point in hoping and working for peace.

SUTTON: If you look back to one of Jesus's sermons in Matthew, in - Jesus' disciples ask him, how will we know that the end is coming? What will be the signs?

ARABLOUEI: Darby predicted one of the biggest signs was...

SUTTON: ...That Jews will return to Palestine, and the nation of Israel will be restored.

ARABLOUEI: Now, remember. This is the early 1800s, so Israel wasn't even on the map.

SUTTON: And so evangelicals become some of the staunchest Zionists, even before American Zionism has really taken hold among very many American Jews. They're the ones who are advocating for the creation of a new Jewish state in Israel and, first, a return of Jews to Palestine and then, ultimately, a Jewish state.

ABDELFATAH: Another major sign - the world would become hellish, filled with misery and suffering, culminating in something Darby called the rapture.

SUTTON: The rapture is this idea that Jesus is going to take all true Christians off the Earth. They're just going to sort of disappear and be in this nebulous space until he returns to defeat evil; to battle the Antichrist.

ABDELFATAH: This idea was another innovation of John Nelson Darby.

BALMER: I call this sometimes a theology of despair because it says there's nothing we can do to make this world a better place. The only thing we can do is get our own house in order, try to bring as many others as possible into our circles - that is to convert them or to evangelize them - and then wait for Jesus to come and make everything all better.


ABDELFATAH: This end of times philosophy wasn't entirely new. Almost every generation since the birth of Christianity had some group of people who believed the end was near - all of whom eventually faded into obscurity when the world didn't end. It often helped people make sense of the world when things didn't seem to be going their way.

ARABLOUEI: In Darby's case, his frustrations with the Church of England drove him to seek out a different approach. And that approach tapped into what a lot of people in Ireland felt at that time; that they were losing control. The world seemed to be changing against their will, so his fatalistic view began to gain steam. Darby wrote pamphlets and circulated them throughout the country, then he began preaching across Europe.

MARIE GRIFFITH: You know, he managed to publicize his writings widely.

ABDELFATAH: This is Mary Griffith. She's a professor at Washington University.

ARABLOUEI: So Darby traveled to dozens of countries around the world. And in the early 1860s, he traveled...

GRIFFITH: To North America.

SUTTON: He came to the U.S. and led a series of revivals.

BALMER: And says, look. You guys have been interpreting the Bible all wrong.

SUTTON: And initially, he wasn't - it wasn't super popular. It wasn't like Americans were clamoring to him, but he was able to, essentially, plant some foundations, lay some seeds.

ABDELFATAH: So why didn't Darby's ideas immediately catch on in the U.S.? Well, one big reason was the Second Great Awakening - a Protestant revival movement that took hold of the country in the early 1800s. Let me set the scene a bit. The U.S. was a young country. It was buying new territories and expanding west. The possibilities of manifest destiny seemed endless, so it was a pretty hopeful time, at least if you were a white landowner. And the Second Great Awakening channeled that spirit. It was characterized by infectious enthusiasm and really big conversion meetings, and people across the country were swept up by it.

LISA SHARON HARPER: There was no differentiation at that time between mainline Protestant and evangelicals.

ABDELFATAH: Can you just introduce yourself?

HARPER: (Laughter) Sure. My name is Lisa Sharon Harper.

ABDELFATAH: She's written several books on Christianity, including "Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith In Politics." So at the time, most of the country was Protestant.

HARPER: It was literally almost pretty much everybody. The only, like, bifurcation would have been Protestant Catholic.

ABDELFATAH: The Second Great Awakening also pushed a lot more people to get involved in social issues of the time.


BALMER: Their involvement was huge. They sought to reshape society.

ABDELFATAH: The issues people advocated for were different depending where they lived - north or south. Keep in mind this was antebellum America.

BALMER: They were involved in the abolition of slavery, obviously in the north. They were engaged in prison reform, public education, women's rights and voting rights for women, which, in the 19th century, was a radical idea. And they were also highly critical of capitalism.

ABDELFATAH: So at its core, the Second Great Awakening embraced a more hopeful, more progressive view of the future and encouraged Christians to express their faith through engagement with society.

ARABLOUEI: And it's in this context that John Darby came along with his pessimistic, fatalistic ideas.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As John Nelson Darby) Instead of permitting ourselves to hope for a continued progress of good, we must expect the progress of evil. We ought to expect evil until it comes so flagrant that it will be necessary for the Lord to judge it.

ARABLOUEI: It's no wonder his ideas didn't immediately take off, but Darby kept returning to the U.S. And those seeds he planted began to grow because during that time, the U.S. faced more and more challenging problems.

BALMER: Look at this labor unrest. Look at the rapid industrialization of American society. Look at the urbanization of American society, the influx of non-Protestant immigrants...

ARABLOUEI: Mainly Catholics and Jews from Europe.

BALMER: ...Who don't share our views on temperance.


ARABLOUEI: And the biggest problem - the problem of slavery - led to the Civil War.

GRIFFITH: The Civil War, of course, had a profoundly demoralizing impact on the whole nation. The death and destruction - we can't even really imagine it anymore from our historical distance, I think, how many families lost sons and fathers and loved ones to that war. It was so bloody and so devastating. For many evangelicals...

ABDELFATAH: Especially white evangelicals in the south.

GRIFFITH: They felt chastened by the war. This horrific thing had happened. The world seemed to be in shambles in some way. And so this sort of premillennial view began to make more sense.

ABDELFATAH: So on the heels of the Civil War, Darby's view that the world was getting worse, hopeless, darker and that evangelicals should disengage and wait for Jesus to return...

GRIFFITH: His theology sort of takes off.

ABDELFATAH: By the time Darby died in 1882, his premillennialist theology was on the rise across the U.S. Some evangelical pastors began popularizing Darby's ideas and molding them into a distinctly American movement. They published magazines and journals and organized conferences to study prophecies in the Bible. Still, not all evangelicals were on the same page.

ARABLOUEI: Especially on the issue of race. Remember. Before the Civil War, evangelicals were a mix of all sorts of people, but it was still the era of slavery.


HARPER: Every single denomination in the United States split around that time based on the question of slavery. So the Baptists split. The Methodists split. The Presbyterians split. Everybody is splitting because of this question of slavery. Can you own slaves and be a Christian?

ARABLOUEI: And the reality was, while many white and black evangelicals shared similar theologies, they almost never worshipped together.

GRIFFITH: There were black evangelicals all along the way. But oftentimes, because of the racism of the white denominations, they had created their own denominations. So that's the genesis of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and many others.

ARABLOUEI: In the postwar Jim Crow era, that racial divide became even more stark.

GRIFFITH: Across any political divide among white evangelicals, you know, whiteness was sort of a presumption. I mean, even the abolitionists were often what we would very much consider racist and had a strong view, you know, of white supremacy over blacks.

HARPER: They were for freedom but not for friendship. They were for freedom but not for equality.

SUTTON: There are a number of African Americans who share the same theology with them, but they're explicitly excluded. They worship separately; that rather than building an interracial network over shared theology, race becomes more important. It's still Jim Crow America.

ARABLOUEI: Basically, the same thing that was happening across the country after the Civil War happened in the church. People divided along racial lines. The nation was entirely segregated.

HARPER: And it's the southern evangelicals that never did repent of having slaves. In fact, they were the ones who picked up muskets and fought to maintain slavery in the South. And it's that church that becomes - it's the southern evangelical church that becomes the heartbeat of the segregationist movement in the Jim Crow era. And that unleashed 90 years of terror for black people until the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which were products of the black church that had the depth of spirituality to face violence - to face violence.

ARABLOUEI: We could make a whole episode about the evolution of black evangelicalism from this point on, but that's a story for another day. The important thing to note for now is that white evangelicals, regardless of their political views before the war, became their own distinct group.

ABDELFATAH: But white evangelicals had a bunch of things to sort out among themselves. For starters, many just didn't buy into Darby's theology. In fact, people who did were considered, quote, unquote, "radical evangelicals." And liberal evangelicals tended to disagree with radical evangelicals on more than just theology. The world was rapidly changing and industrializing, which was completely disrupting the American way of life. And there was a lot of debate over whether to embrace those changes or reject them. Then there was the question of whether to engage with the world - to get involved in politics and social issues - or to disengage.

ARABLOUEI: The battle among white evangelicals over all these questions would play out over the course of the next century.


ABDELFATAH: Part II - at the edge of the world.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) The night was marvelously clear and still, the stars shining with exceptional brightness and the sea perfectly smooth. Near midnight, the steamship Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank with the greater part of her passengers and crew at about 2 o'clock.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I walked forward to my window and saw a grayish-white mass drifting by.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Then when the water rushed into the boilers, there was a terrible explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: And I saw that ship break in half and the forepart went down nose-first on the other.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) The steamer Carpathia, then about 90 miles away, received a message by wireless telegraph asking for assistance. She at once altered her course.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: And I had a life jacket on. And I hit the water with a true crash.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) The survivors in the various lifeboats, mostly women, were taken aboard. It was doubtless the greatest cargo of human misery...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: I seemed to be all by myself.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) ...Ever brought to port.

ABDELFATAH: On April 15, 1912, Philip Mauro was sailing across the Atlantic aboard the Carpathia, the ship that rescued survivors of the Titanic. He was a radical evangelical and one of many evangelicals in the early 20th century who would bring Darby's ideas into American life with greater force.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) Here we have a most pertinent lesson.

ARABLOUEI: After this experience, he wrote a book called "The Titanic Catastrophe And Its Lessons." That's the reading you're hearing. And in Darby-esque (ph) style, Mauro warns that Christians should disengage with the world and accept the inevitable.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Reading) So in the spirit of the spiritual, when the hour for judgment comes, it will be found that human strength, human goodness, human ingenuity avail nothing against the waters of death.

SUTTON: So he sees the sinking of the Titanic as this huge message, essentially this, you know, blinking, red light from God, telling humankind that everything that they've built, everything they've done, all of their accomplishments are really paling in comparison of the threat that's looming on the horizon.


ABDELFATAH: And just two years later...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: War, war, war. The nations of Europe battle and unconsciously prepare the way for the return of the Lord Jesus to establish his kingdom upon the Earth.

ABDELFATAH: ...World War I - the Great War - begins, which only reinforced Mauro's apocalyptic vision. Sixty-five million soldiers fought. Some 20 million people died. Whole cities were destroyed.

ARABLOUEI: The war literally reshaped the world. New countries were formed. Old empires crumbled. It was a time of intense and painful transition.

SUTTON: You know, on top of that, you have Jews returning to Palestine in increasing numbers. The British are going to support making Palestine a homeland for Jews. And so for these radical evangelicals, everything seems to be falling into place.

ABDELFATAH: As the war came to an end, radical evangelicals who embraced this apocalyptic outlook were starting to have the upper hand over liberal evangelicals.

SUTTON: And so that's why World War I becomes so critical to this story because it really undermines everything they thought they were doing and where they thought history was going. And it does just the opposite for these radical evangelicals. For them, it becomes proof that what they had been saying was actually right.

ABDELFATAH: The narrative that radical evangelicals had been pushing since Darby arrived decades earlier - that the world would end any day now and Jesus would return - seemed to be playing out in real time. So within evangelical circles, many radical evangelicals were rebranded as fundamentalists; a term that had been used before but was now emerging as a broader movement.

SUTTON: They define themselves as fundamentalists because they argue that they're going to contend for the fundamentals of the faith, that they believe that they are the ones who understand true Christianity and that liberal Protestants have abandoned the faith.

ARABLOUEI: The movement was led by a guy named William B. Riley aka the Grand Old Man of Fundamentalism.


WILLIAM B RILEY: (Unintelligible) knowing that it's short and that...

ARABLOUEI: Riley was a tall, handsome man with a striking white hair and a captivating voice. And unlike other pastors, he dressed like a banker, always in a suit and tie. Initially, he'd wanted to pursue a career in law but changed his mind and instead attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He established a huge fundamentalist church in Minneapolis and then began spreading fundamentalism more widely.


RILEY: As I've reflected upon the past, (unintelligible).

ARABLOUEI: Riley wanted fundamentalism to drown out the voices of liberal evangelicals who were less bothered by modernism and its impact. He had a big problem with the changes he was seeing in American life - changing roles of women, civil rights, urbanization, but especially the secularization of college campuses. There were more women around, discussions about humanism and Freud replacing discussions of the Bible. And that terrified Riley.

Unlike Mauro and Darby, Riley's instinct was not to disengage or retreat. Instead, he took a more proactive approach. He founded an evangelical college called Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School in Minnesota, which would become one of the largest Bible schools in the world. He also built a network of fundamentalist pastors across the country.

SUTTON: And around 1918, 1919, he decides it's time to organize them together.

ARABLOUEI: Riley organized the first meeting of the World's Christian Fundamentals Association, which brought together leaders from all the major Bible schools across the country. He called it more historic than the nailing up at Wittenberg of Martin Luther's 95 theses, an event which launched the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. And after the conference, Riley took singers and speakers on a massive cross-country tour, publicizing his fundamentalist vision. He hoped that if he could move enough evangelicals towards fundamentalism, he'd eventually be able to grow that community into a political movement.

ABDELFATAH: Around the same time, a bunch of other fundamentalist pastors were breaking into mainstream pop culture and helping to spread a similar vision, sort of like televangelists for the radio age. Like Riley, they pushed the movement towards engagement with American society. They were all really charismatic and enthusiastic, able to draw a crowd.

GRIFFITH: And no one better exemplifies that than Aimee Semple McPherson.

ABDELFATAH: Aimee Semple McPherson.

SUTTON: Yeah. McPherson is one of my favorite people in American history. She was amazing. She...

GRIFFITH: She was a very colorful woman - you know, very dramatic preaching style.

ABDELFATAH: Here's how McPherson described the moment she found her calling. Quote, "The entire atmosphere seemed stretched taut in the clear, cold air, like the strings of an overstrained violin. The very stars were singing in a high-pitched tremolo. Upon the gem-arched Milky Way, the radiant moon was gliding lazily. Venus winked at Saturn. The Big Dipper ladled out stardust in the bowl of its smaller sister. It was as though a master musician beat exacting time with a directing baton, and the orchestra of the universe moved and played, chimed and swayed in unison."


ABDELFATAH: For seven years, McPherson traveled from coast to coast, preaching in parks, cotton fields, tents, auditoriums.


AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON: You're drifting away from prayer, drifting away from the Bible.

SUTTON: Preaching about the end times, she sees the signs coming.

ABDELFATAH: She was all about putting on a good show.


SEMPLE MCPHERSON: (Singing) Give me a burden for souls, Lord. Give me a love for the lost.

ABDELFATAH: She'd sing, play piano, speak in tongues. Onlookers would weep, faint, even roll on the ground. And she drew really big crowds.



ABDELFATAH: In 1923, McPherson started her own church - the Foursquare Church in Los Angeles. And like McPherson herself, it was unconventional.

SUTTON: She built it as a theater. I mean, it's in the round. It's got a - you know, two balconies. It's got a stage.


SEMPLE MCPHERSON: This magnificent building, the largest seating capacity church in the American continent.

SUTTON: And she draws on all the tools and the talents of people in Hollywood to perform these elaborate sermons. And so she called them dramatic sermons where she would act out the Christian faith, and she always was the star. She always played a starring role. But she had actors. She would borrow animals from the Los Angeles Zoo. And she was likely the first woman in the country to own her own radio station and one of the very first evangelists to use radio.


SEMPLE MCPHERSON: The glory of God has shown round about until he fell to the earth and cried, Lord, what shall I do, and was gloriously converted.

SUTTON: She also created a Bible institute. She also had a magazine. She had everything that all the other fundamentalists were doing to try to build her movement.

ABDELFATAH: Despite all that, McPherson faced resistance from some fellow fundamentalists.

SUTTON: Her gender kept her, always, a little bit apart from the mainstream fundamentalist movement. Most fundamentalist leaders were not comfortable with a woman leader.

ABDELFATAH: And some disagreed with her over-the-top, dramatic style, which not all evangelicals found appropriate as an expression of the Gospel. But whether they gave her the credit or not, McPherson helped make fundamentalism much more mainstream. This wasn't about politics or platforms for her. This was just about gaining wider acceptance in American society and challenging the liberal evangelical wing of the movement.

And thanks to McPherson, as well as other fundamentalist leaders in the post-World War I period, fundamentalists eventually won the battle against liberal evangelicals. Radical evangelicals were no longer considered so radical.

ARABLOUEI: For William Riley, the grand old man of fundamentalism, that wasn't enough. Remember, his end game had always been political. Now that fundamentalists were in the mainstream, Riley set out to create a political movement and push his anti-modernist agenda.

Unlike John Nelson Darby, the father of the rapture who thought there was no point in engaging with the issues of the world, Riley believed that if Christians shaped society according to their beliefs, they could cause the apocalypse to come sooner. He said, quote, "When the church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then it ought to be in politics and as a powerful influence."

ABDELFATAH: His biggest concern was a new idea that was sweeping through the country - Darwin's theory of evolution.

SUTTON: Fundamentalists - many of them were critical of Darwinian evolution. They didn't believe that humans were the product of survival of the fittest or of natural selection. They believe that humans were created in the image of God.

ABDELFATAH: Riley saw evolution as the real lynchpin of modernism, and refuting it became his top priority.

SUTTON: There were a lot of Americans, whether they were fundamentalists or not, who were uncomfortable with Darwinian ideas of evolution as they understood them. And they often didn't understand them very well. But they simply reduced evolution to the idea that humans came from monkeys. And humans were, essentially, just animals. And that made them uncomfortable because that seemed to contradict the idea that humans had free will and that humans were a distinct creature that had a soul.

ARABLOUEI: Riley and members of his organization - the World Christian Fundamentals Association - traveled across the country, rallying support for laws that would prohibit teaching evolution in public schools.

SUTTON: Because they were convinced that evolution was undermining children's ethics because, really, if we're all just animals, why not do whatever we want? - was their logic.

ARABLOUEI: That angered a lot of liberal groups who saw this as anti-scientific and a violation of free speech.


ABDELFATAH: The question of whether to teach evolution in public schools came to a head in the now-famous case the State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: In 1925, biology teacher John Scopes spiraled to fame in the legal...

ABDELFATAH: Or as you probably know it...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Known as the monkey trial.

ABDELFATAH: The Scopes Monkey Trial.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Whether a man was descended from the monkey or just making a monkey out of man.

ABDELFATAH: On one side, there was John Scopes, a high school biology teacher charged with illegally teaching the theory of evolution. He was represented by well-known attorney Clarence Darrow.


CLARENCE DARROW: There's a cause for all sorts of human conduct just exactly as there's a cause for all the physical action of the universe.

ABDELFATAH: And on the other side, the state argued that teaching evolution was unconstitutional. Riley helped get a political superstar as the prosecuting attorney - William Jennings Bryan, who was a three-time Democratic candidate for president. Bryan became the face of this fundamentalist crusade.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: As the world, waited hundreds jammed the courtroom to see if man's intelligence and beliefs could be controlled by law.

ARABLOUEI: The trial lasted just eight days. Bryan argued that if evolution wins, Christianity goes. Darrow mocked Bryan repeatedly for his very literal reading of the Bible and cornered him into admitting that he didn't know much about science. There was a lot of mudslinging back and forth, all happening in the public eye.

GRIFFITH: It gets national attention. I mean, it's just enormous news.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: The press and public listened with unprecedented interest as the legal brains of both sides...

ABDELFATAH: This was the culmination of Riley's hard work; the moment that might launch white evangelicals as a political force.

ARABLOUEI: In the end, the jury deliberated for just nine minutes before Bryan, Riley and the fundamentalists won the trial. Scopes was forced to pay a hundred-dollar fine, although the decision was later overturned on a technicality.

ABDELFATAH: But the more important impact of the case was that the media circus around the trial hurt public opinion about fundamentalists.

GRIFFITH: It really, ultimately, makes the fundamentalists look stupid to a lot of people outside that tradition.

ABDELFATAH: Dealing a real blow to Riley's vision for political engagement. After the trial, white evangelicals largely stepped away from American politics.

BALMER: For most of the 20th century, evangelicals were not involved in politics, at least not in any organized way.


ARABLOUEI: Instead, many evangelicals sought to shield themselves from the pressures of the modern world and the unnerving, some would say, apocalyptic politics of those decades - World War II, the Cold War, communism, the spread of nuclear weapons.

BALMER: Evangelicals began to withdraw from the larger world, the larger community, and construct what I call a subculture, which was this vast and interlocking network of congregations, denominations, Bible schools, Bible camps, Bible institutes, seminaries. So it was possible - and I can attest to this personally - to grow up within that subculture and have very, very little commerce with anyone outside of that world. It was a closed society in many ways.

ABDELFATAH: This isolationism made Riley's mission nearly impossible. Eventually, he passed the baton to a pastor named Billy Graham, who Riley persuaded to become president of the college he'd founded. Riley also passed on his political mission, although Graham took it in a different direction, choosing to mostly stay out of public debates while providing counsel to many presidents, both Republican and Democrat. But while Graham didn't create a political movement...

BALMER: He is the person who starts to re-engage evangelicals with the larger culture and the larger society.

ABDELFATAH: And it wasn't until the 1970s, long after Riley was gone, that evangelicals really got involved in politics. And he began with a court case that brought to the surface a long-ignored and uncomfortable reality.


ARABLOUEI: Part III - the moral majority.


ABDELFATAH: If there's one issue that defines white evangelicals today, it's, without a doubt, abortion. Evangelicals are seen as the heart and soul of the pro-life movement, and Roe v. Wade is seen as the thing that launched it all. Here's how the story usually goes - January 22, 1973.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Good evening. In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court today legalized abortions.

ABDELFATAH: The U.S. Supreme Court decides in a 7-2 vote that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: The nine justices made abortion largely a private matter and ordered the states to make no laws forbidding it, except possibly during the final months.

ABDELFATAH: The story goes evangelicals, who had been politically passive for decades, are so morally outraged by Roe that they become hellbent on overturning it. The quote, unquote, "religious right" and a Republican political action group called the Moral Majority are born. But Randall Balmer says that after digging deeper...

BALMER: I've spent more years than I care to tally hunting this down in various archival sources and talking to many individuals.

ABDELFATAH: He found that story to be mostly a myth.

BALMER: The abortion myth is the fiction that the religious right began as a political movement in direct response to the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion coming down from the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973.

ARABLOUEI: Balmer says before Roe, evangelicals were more or less indifferent to abortion.

BALMER: In fact, 1968, Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, together with another evangelical group called the Christian Medical Society, met for a conference to discuss the morality of abortion. At the end of several days of convening - these are the top-flight evangelical theologians at the time - they issued a statement saying, we can't really decide whether or not abortion is morally wrong, but we want to leave open the possibility of abortion and the availability of abortion to women.

ARABLOUEI: And in 1971...

BALMER: The Southern Baptist Convention. Not exactly a redoubt of liberalism.

ARABLOUEI: The largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.

GRIFFITH: The Southern Baptist Convention is one of the most conservative denominations.

ARABLOUEI: It was formed during the antebellum period when Southern Baptists split with Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery.

BALMER: The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion, a resolution they reaffirmed in 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade, and again in 1976.

ARABLOUEI: OK. You're probably thinking...

GRIFFITH: How did that happen?

ARABLOUEI: Like, it doesn't add up.

MOORE: Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Testing. One, two three.

ABDELFATAH: The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is sort of the PR machine for the Southern Baptist Convention, overseeing a lot of its outreach and communication efforts.

MOORE: If one looks at what evangelicals were saying about abortion in the late '60s, early '70s, most of it was framed in reaction to Roman Catholicism.

GRIFFITH: They are, or they were, profoundly anti-Catholic, as were most American Protestants generally, right? They were very suspicious that Catholics wanted to take over the country.

ARABLOUEI: Again, Marie Griffith.

GRIFFITH: So anything Catholics were for, (laughter) you know, Protestants tended to be against.

ARABLOUEI: And abortion was seen as a Catholic issue, which meant most Protestants, including evangelicals, didn't take it up as their issue.

ABDELFATAH: All right. Logical next question. If abortion wasn't the thing that really pulled white evangelicals into politics, what was?

BALMER: It really begins with a court case in 1971 that's decided by the district court at the District of Columbia. A case called Green v. Connally.

ABDELFATAH: The case was about desegregation in schools. Keep in mind, this is late in the civil rights era, and segregation had been outlawed more than a decade earlier, in 1954, with the case of Brown v. Board of Education. But changes on the ground were really slow...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Communities in our southern states have instituted public school plans for gradual progress in the enrollment and attendance of schoolchildren of all races...

ABDELFATAH: ...And complicated.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: ...In order to bring themselves into compliance with the law of the land.

HARPER: White supremacy is threatened at the deepest level. It's an existential threat.

ABDELFATAH: Again, Lisa Harper.

HARPER: Because up to this point, up till the Brown v. Board of Education decision, never before had there been a judicial ruling, especially from a Supreme Court, that had placed people of color as equally deserving of protection of the law.

BALMER: In Holmes County, Miss., the first year of desegregation, the number of white students in the public schools decreased from 700 some to 28. The second year of desegregation, the number of white students in the public schools in Holmes County decreased to zero.

ABDELFATAH: So where were these white students going? Well, they enrolled in private segregation academies run by evangelical leaders as tax-exempt religious schools.

BALMER: And a group of parents in Holmes County, Miss., said, this isn't right.

ABDELFATAH: And this becomes the crux of the Green v. Connally case. The parents of black students in Holmes County wanted the IRS to rescind the school's tax-exempt status because the schools were discriminating based on race. And they won.

BALMER: And the gist of the decision was that any organization that engages in racial discrimination or racial segregation is not by definition a charitable institution, therefore it has no claims on tax-exempt status.

ABDELFATAH: That decision didn't sit well with many white evangelical leaders, who relied on those tax exemptions to operate their private, segregated schools. There were tons of these segregation academies across the country, mostly in the South, in places like Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Virginia.

BALMER: The alarm begins to grow among various evangelical leaders, including Jerry Falwell, who of course had his own segregation academy in Lynchburg, Va.

ABDELFATAH: The name Jerry Falwell might sound familiar because he'd go on to become one of the architects of the Moral Majority.

ARABLOUEI: Randall Balmer says the Green v. Connally loss mobilized a lot of evangelical leaders like Falwell. They said they'd established these segregation academies on religious grounds and they felt entitled to those tax exemptions.

HARPER: They lost the bid to protect white space once again.

GRIFFITH: It's very difficult to separate out white evangelicalism from these racial views in those eras. I mean, for them, these were sort of seamless parts of a whole worldview.

ARABLOUEI: Around this time, a conservative political activist, named Paul Weyrich, was trying really hard to grow the Republican Party base.

BALMER: And he's the person who understood the electoral potential of white evangelicals. And he set out to mobilize them.

ARABLOUEI: But the problem was...

BALMER: Many evangelicals regarded politics as beneath them and unworthy of them.


PAUL WEYRICH: So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome - good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now.

ABDELFATAH: After the Green v. Connally loss, Weyrich realized that many evangelical leaders were ready to mobilize politically. But what about the average evangelical, who was politically apathetic?

BALMER: Weyrich understood that racism - and let's just call it what it is - was unlikely to be a galvanizing issue among grassroots evangelicals.

MOORE: I think, though, when it comes to what made the shift when it comes to evangelicals, I think there's a simplistic narrative that says, well, it's because of desegregation.

ABDELFATAH: Matthew Sutton says there was a larger anxiety at play, that many evangelicals were wary of government overreach and began to see the state as the enemy.

SUTTON: You can't trust the state. The state's out to get you. The state is going to clamp down on your religious freedoms and your religious liberties.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile...

MOORE: All sorts of questions came together to say where is society moving?

ABDELFATAH: There was the sexual revolution, which led to changing roles for women.

ARABLOUEI: The gay rights and free speech movements.

ABDELFATAH: Vietnam, Communism, television, marijuana.

WORTHEN: The story here is not just one issue, one controversy. It's a critical mass, a kind of explosion of crises of authority on a number of different fronts at the same time.

ARABLOUEI: Again, Molly Worthen.

WORTHEN: And it's happening not just in the secular culture. So it's not possible for evangelicals to say, well, we can batten down the hatches, and the world outside our churches is going to hell in a handbasket but we're staying true to the Gospel.

ABDELFATAH: But then in 1976...


JIMMY CARTER: Thank you.

ABDELFATAH: ...Something unexpected happened.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Good evening. Shortly before dawn, Jimmy Carter reached the end of his improbable two-year...

ARABLOUEI: Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist evangelical and Sunday school teacher, was elected president of the United States. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention remembers that moment very clearly.

MOORE: I was 5 years old when he was elected. I was in kindergarten. And I remember everyone that I knew was exuberant because one of us had finally been elected president.

ARABLOUEI: It didn't matter that Carter was a Democrat. Evangelicals weren't yet loyal to a single party.

MOORE: At the time, you didn't have that kind of sorting.

ARABLOUEI: Newsweek magazine called 1976 the year of the evangelical and ran a cover story with the headline "Born Again: The Evangelicals." Yet even as Carter became the face of evangelicals, he quickly began to lose support among them.

BALMER: This is the great paradox surrounding Jimmy Carter and his career, is that he's the person who begins to mobilize evangelical voters, or at least to awaken them about the political process. And then of course, through the machinations of Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell and others, the same group of people turn radically against Jimmy Carter four years later.

ABDELFATAH: Carter didn't share a lot of their conservative views. While campaigning for president, Carter supported universal health care, advocated cuts in defense spending and criticized the tax code as, quote, "a welfare program for the rich." His views were activist and progressive, a departure from the premillennialism that had come to dominate evangelical theology. So during Carter's presidency, Randall Balmer says that Weyrich continued searching for that holy grail of issues, the thing that had the potential to really unite evangelicals around the Republican Party. And in 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade, it finally hit him.

BALMER: I was reading through Weyrich's papers, midterm election 1978, and it's almost like the papers begin to sizzle (laughter) because Weyrich said, I found it - this is the issue that's going to work for us in order to mobilize grassroots evangelical voters.

ABDELFATAH: After years of searching for the perfect issue, Weyrich was convinced that the issue that would mobilize evangelicals into a voting bloc for the Republican Party was abortion. Because while many evangelicals weren't initially all that bothered by Roe v. Wade, a few years on, the number of legal abortions had begun to climb, which made some evangelicals kind of uneasy.

MOORE: I think that evangelicals really didn't expect abortion to be a common practice.

ABDELFATAH: Weyrich saw that uneasiness as an opportunity.

ARABLOUEI: He teamed up with some prominent anti-abortion activists, including a guy named Frank Schaeffer. While today Frank Schaeffer is a progressive Christian activist and a vocal critic of the anti-abortion evangelical platform, back in the 1970s, Schaeffer was not only anti-abortion, he was on the front lines, touring the country, trying to popularize the issue. He circulated a film series...

BALMER: Called "Whatever Happened To The Human Race?"

ARABLOUEI: It features his father...

BALMER: Francis Schaeffer, who is arguably the godfather - the intellectual godfather of the religious right.

ARABLOUEI: ...And a doctor named C. Everett Koop, who would later become the surgeon general under Ronald Reagan, talking about the miracle of reproduction and stages of pregnancy.


C EVERETT KOOP: Traditionally, in Western culture, the life of a human individual has been regarded as very special.

ARABLOUEI: There are a lot of shots of babies and mothers, accompanied by a dramatic, uplifting music score...


ARABLOUEI: ...And discussions about the horrors of abortion.


KOOP: My question to the pro-abortionist, who would not directly kill a newborn baby the minute it was born, is this - would you have killed it a minute before that or a minute before that or a minute before that? You can see what I'm getting at.

ARABLOUEI: The film series made waves in evangelical circles and helped amplify resistance to abortion. With help from people like Schaeffer, Weyrich pushed this issue among evangelical voters, seeing it as the future of their political engagement.

ABDELFATAH: And it turns out he was right. In 1979, the Moral Majority was officially formed, headed up by folks like Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, whose son, Jerry Falwell Jr., now runs Liberty University and is a prominent supporter of President Trump.

The Moral Majority's first objective - to get the Republican presidential nominee for president - Ronald Reagan, a divorced actor - elected over the incumbent president - Jimmy Carter - who, remember, was a devout evangelical. Reagan promised to fight against big government and took conservative positions on social and economic issues, which tapped into the frustrations many evangelicals felt at that time.

MOORE: Much of what I think evangelicals liked in Reagan - at least white evangelicals liked in Reagan - is similar to what other Americans liked in Reagan.

GRIFFITH: This kind of manly man in Hollywood - I think a lot of people were drawn to him - again, the charisma and the handsomeness.

MOORE: Now, people often point to the fact that Reagan had been divorced. Yes, he had been divorced, but he was somebody who had lived for decades in a faithful, committed sort of marriage with Nancy Reagan.

BALMER: But when I was growing up, if someone was divorced within evangelicalism, that person was ostracized, if not expelled, from the evangelical community.

MOORE: Most evangelicals have people in their churches who have been through divorces that they regret and who are now living in marriages that are stable and faithful. That wasn't that unusual.

ARABLOUEI: The highly organized efforts of the religious right to rally evangelicals to Reagan's side paid off. And in 1980...


RONALD REAGAN: Let me just say, first of all...

ARABLOUEI: ...Reagan won.


REAGAN: ...This has been - well, there's never been a more humbling moment in my life.

GRIFFITH: I see it, in part, as a very calculated choice to go for policy over, you know, Christian identity.

ARABLOUEI: Since then, white evangelicals have overwhelmingly supported conservative political causes and Republican candidates, which brings us back to where we started.

ABDELFATAH: In 1980, partisanship and white evangelicalism became fused together. And in 2016, that fusion was reinforced. Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

ARABLOUEI: There is, however, some tension among evangelicals over this commitment to party at whatever cost.

ABDELFATAH: People like Russell Moore saw Trump as a sort of breaking point. They couldn't support him. But for many evangelical leaders, their support for Trump remains unwavering.


SAMUEL RODRIGUEZ: You don't want to write off access to a president who can impact religious liberty, who can impact the sanctity of life.


JOHN KILPATRICK: What's happening right now in America is witchcraft's trying to take this country over. I am not being political, but I don't see how President Trump bears up under it. He's as strong as I have ever seen a man be.


LEIGH VALENTINE: And every word he speaks, I see the hand of God upon it.


LANCE WALLNAU: You need to understand that God put a pause button on the destruction of America.


JIM BAKKER: God spoke to me the other night. He said, I put Donald Trump on Earth to give you time - the church - to get ready.

The Christians will finally come out of the shadows.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This show was produced by me...

ABDELFATAH: And me and...




N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: (Laughter) OK. Smizing and somber - N'Jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Original music was produced for this episode by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Lu Olkowski.

ABDELFATAH: Anya Grundmann.

ARABLOUEI: Ayda Pourasad.

ABDELFATAH: Sarah McCammon.

ARABLOUEI: Jason DeRose.

ABDELFATAH: Casey Herman.

ARABLOUEI: And Conor Creaney.

ABDELFATAH: If you liked the episode, please write us at throughline@npr.org, or find us on Twitter @throughlineNPR.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.


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