White evangelicals once admitted they were wrong about Nixon. Will Trump come next?Roundup
tags: Nixon, religious history, evangelicals, Trump
Anja-Maria Bassimir is a scholar at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies in Mainz, Germany.
Elesha J. Coffman is an assistant professor of history at Baylor University.
White evangelicals voted 84 percent for Richard Nixon in 1972 and 80 percent for Donald Trump in 2016. And many of the leaders stood by Nixon as scandals swirled around him, just as they have with Trump.
The late evangelist Billy Graham was the public face of that support for Nixon, insisting on the eve of the Watergate impeachment inquiry that “mistakes and blunders have been made,” some involving “moral and ethical questions,” but that he had “no proof that the president did anything illegal, and I would have no ecclesiastical power over him to do anything about it if I did have proof.” Now the public faces of support for Trump include Graham’s son Franklin and the rest of the clique that Messiah College historian John Fea calls the “court evangelicals.”
Eventually, though, some evangelicals found an off-ramp from their love of Nixon. They didn’t react all at once to an evidentiary smoking gun, and they did not yield to outside pressure. Instead, they slowly heeded voices within their movement. It was a noteworthy, if fleeting, example of what they claim as a tenet of their faith: repentance.
While Graham enjoyed private chats in the Nixon White House and urged his fellow citizens to rally around the flag at Honor America Day, another prominent evangelical, then-Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), warned that a bad graft between religion and politics was turning gangrenous. “We would always rather hide our wounds than heal them,” he said at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in Chicago in May 1973. “It is always more comfortable to believe in the symbols of righteousness than to acknowledge the reality of evil. This is especially true in our national political life. And we have become adroit at manipulating religious impulses in our land to sanctify this political life.”
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