Evangelical Voters and American Civil Religion

American civil religion.

If you’re not familiar with the term, don’t feel bad. I wasn’t either, until today.

I stumbled across a piece by Donald Woolley, a senior research associate with Duke University.


Mr. Woolley’s article was featured at The Hill today, and after reading it, it was like an “A-HA!” moment for me.

Not necessarily in a good way, but something very familiar.

For those who have followed my writing here for any length of time, you’ve probably caught one or two of my pieces about my disappointment with the evangelical community, and how I wholeheartedly believed support of Trump would only serve to hurt their witness to the world.

You cannot hold your Bible in one hand, and a signed copy of Trump’s Playboy cover in the other, then expect a lost and dying world to embrace Christianity as anything short of hypocrisy.

For me, with my own flaws and shortcomings, it was disheartening on a whole new level.

I’m still broken over the issue, although I accept God’s will.

Examining Woolley’s perspective and definition of “civil religion,” I grasp a new perspective, however.

Woolley begins:

If you still can’t understand how the thrice-married, foulmouthed President Trump convinced so many Christian evangelicals to vote for him, you should consider the role civil religion played in turning him into a secular deity.

Speaking right at me, aren’t ya, Mr. Woolley?

But my research has shown that while political beliefs and party affiliation are still the biggest factors in choosing a president, it is American civil religion — and not the religion of churches — that has the next greatest effect. And it can help explain Trump’s broader-than-expected voter base.


Woolley goes on to point out President Bill Clinton’s “indiscretions” while in office.

A familiar phrase, first coined during the Clinton years was, “We elected a president, not a pope.” However, according to Woolley, we sort of did elect a pope, as the president serves as the “high priest” of the American civil religion.

From his research, Woolley determined that the more civilly religious a person was, the more outraged they were at Clinton’s actions.

Trump, on the other hand, fashioned himself to be the ultimate high priest of American civil religion.

Trump knows how to put on a show. He knows how to use symbols and rituals as shorthand to get an idea across. While civil religion and patriotism are not the same thing, they are closely related, and patriotism can be the outward manifestation of inner civil religious beliefs. By surrounding himself at his election rallies with flags, songs and people who symbolized American values, candidate Trump evoked a sense of priestly leadership that many found appealing.

You probably haven’t even heard of civil religion — the concept of a religion-like unifying force that creates cohesion among relatively disparate people. Many countries have a traditional national religion, like Catholicism in Italy or Anglicanism in England. But America has never had a national religion, so we essentially created one to take its place.


It’s not really a new concept, or one completely unique to America. Woolley points out that French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau broached the idea in 1792, to describe the moral foundations of modern societies.

Sociologist, Robert Bellah, discussed the topic in a 1967 journal article, as well, while discussing President Kennedy’s 1961 invocation of “God” in his inaugural address.

Academics see it as an inherent trait in most all of us, no matter what our personal faith systems may be, or even if we hold to one. It’s engrained in us.

Woolley points to places like Independence Hall and the site of the World Trade Center as “holy places,” and the flag, the American bald eagle, Fourth of July parades, etc… as symbols of our civil religion.

I get it. I absolutely get it, and before anybody attacks Mr. Woolley for targeting patriotism as a bad thing, I don’t think that’s what he’s doing, at all.

He’s pointing to a movement that drove evangelicals and non-religious to the polls to vote for Trump.

I found that voters were three times more likely to favor the candidate who appeared more civil religious and 2.5 times more likely to vote for the candidate whose civil religious views matched their own.

My work has also shown that American evangelicals tend to associate with a more priestly strain of civil religion. Donald Trump was perfectly poised to take advantage of this priestly association.

When evangelicals looked at candidate Trump, they did not see someone who shared their Christian beliefs. They did, however, see someone who they thought could represent their civil religious beliefs better than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. That may have made all the difference.


I can agree with that. My argument was never that Trump did not make a more appealing candidate to stand up for America, in comparison to his opponent.

My concern, unfortunately, is highlighted by Woolley’s findings, in that I feared evangelicals put their “civil religion” ahead of their relationship to Christ, trusting in a manmade system more than God’s promise.

I’m still praying I’m wrong.


Join the conversation as a VIP Member

Trending on RedState Videos