An (Evangelical) Voice in the Wilderness: The Modern Roots of Evangelical Engagement with American Politics

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Art, Media and American Studies


Today, evangelicals are almost exclusively associated with the right wing of American politics. Having supported in overwhelming numbers the election of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, and openly advocated, and in some cases achieved, socially conservative policy on issues including abortion, contraception, sex education, same-sex marriage, and women's rights, the association is unsurprising. The rise of the so-called Religious Right in the late 1970s has made it seem that the connection between evangelicals and the Republican Party was all but inevitable.

Look to the 1940s and 1950s, however, and the connection between evangelicals and Republicans was far from clear. Through their newly-formed organisation, the National Association of Evangelicals (founded in 1941), American evangelicals in those decades worked equally closely with the administrations of both Democratic and Republican Parties. This project uncovers a history in which, contrary to dominant popular rhetoric, religion and partisan politics were neither intertwined nor inevitable.

The absence of party politics in fact exposes the critical contradiction at the heart of evangelical activity: their very engagement with government at the same time as their emphatic public support for the separation of church and state. Untethering evangelical political engagement from support for the Republican Party means their activities cannot simply be defended as a legitimate expression of support for a Party; their deeper motives are exposed. The project thus uses this period of nonpartisan political engagement to explore, untainted by partisan concerns, how and why evangelicals engaged with government and how they rationalized their activities with their separationist stance. As such, the project speaks to the mid-century history of the evangelical movement but also to a deeper understanding of the roots of today's politically-charged evangelical campaigns.

Central to the project's exploration of the roots of the modern relationship between evangelicals and politics in the US are two key themes. First, the project traces exactly what influence evangelicals exerted in those areas of most concern to them: radio broadcasting, Christian education, and missionary activity and religious liberty abroad. Evangelicals' perception of success in these areas convinced them that continued engagement with government was beneficial and important. The project will thus analyse the extent to which evangelicals were successful in influencing policy, and with what consequences both at the time and in subsequent decades.

Second, the project assesses the legal and constitutional consequences of evangelical activity at mid-century. Today evangelicals accuse the US Supreme Court of discriminating against people of faith by adhering to a position of separation of church and state. Yet those decisions, from access to contraception to same-sex marriage, drew on fundamental principles established in the foundational rulings of the 1940s and 1950s, rulings which were, in part, influenced by the examples, arguments, and rhetoric of the newly-emergent evangelical movement which advocated separation. In uncovering and analysing evangelicals' contribution to the debates about church and state that played out in American public life in the 1940s and 1950s, the project provides not only a detailed understanding of the significance of those early rulings, but explores the ways in which those rulings have been reinterpreted and, arguably misappropriated, in more recent years.

In seeking to uncover, explore, and analyse the nature, extent, and significance of evangelical engagement with law and government in the two decades in the middle of the 20th Century, the project offers not only an understanding of that twenty year period but also an exploration of the roots of today's evangelical movement that many in that movement are currently unwilling to acknowledge.

Planned Impact

Recent changes by the government to A-Levels in the UK have led to a number of schools, especially in Norfolk, dropping their coverage of American politics as part of the Government and Politics A-Level despite widespread interest in the subject. This is, in part, the result of the changes themselves and of the relatively low provision of support in terms of teaching material and lesson plans offered by the main A-Level providers (especially in contrast with the material offered for the British and comparative politics strands). This project will work with local teachers and their students to develop a portfolio of primary sources, websites, accessible and appropriate scholarly material, and lesson plans to support teachers who are currently, or who wish in the future, to teach the US politics strand of the A-Level. The project will do so through a series of knowledge exchange events, drawing on the expertise and interests of teachers, and with conferences that will test the portfolio as it develops. The aim is that by the end of the project a dynamic, exciting, and workable portfolio of material, drawn in large part on the PI's current and past research projects, will have been produced that teachers in Norfolk are using as a regular part of their classes. In the longer term, the aim is to offer this portfolio at a national level, although the project envisions future research grant applications to support this expansion.

American Studies at UEA has a long history of working closely with the Second Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich, designed as a living memorial to the American military personnel stationed in Norfolk and Suffolk during World War Two and with the remit to facilitate greater understanding of the United States in the UK. Two series of public talks emerging from this research are planned which will be hosted by the Library: such talks will not only be of interest to the local public, which has already shown an interest in American-related talks at previous events, but also allows the project's PI to contribute to the Library's mission to deepen understanding of the United States in Norwich and the surrounding areas.


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Description This study explored the creation and early work of the first cross-denominational evangelical organisation, the National Association of Evangelicals, as a way to better understand the political engagement of American evangelicals in the mid-20th Century, Using the organisation's archival records, the project looked to answer key questions about the place of political engagement in their work, their aims insofar as political engagement was concerned, the ways in which NAE leaders understood their political activism, and, linked to all of these, how the organisation could at the same time advocate for the separation of church and state, criticise others for engagement with government, and yet become increasingly embroiled in political activism itself. This last proved important in understanding evangelical self-identity in the 1940s and 1950s.

Because the final stages of the project were delayed by the Covid-19 shutdown, the research is currently continuing and findings are still emerging. However there are a number of key areas which have become clear from the research as it stands.

Evangelicals were deeply engaged in what we would consider political lobbying in the mid-20th Century. The project explored areas of well-known evangelical interest such as government funding for education, battles over separation of church and state, and issues relating to radio broadcasting. However, it also uncovered political activism in some less familiar areas such as missionary work and early debates about international religious liberty, congressional testimony on legislation covering issues as broad as alcohol advertising, the post office, and indecent literature, and a deep involvement in seeking to defeat John Kennedy at the 1960 election. As such, the project helps to reveal the depth and breadth of evangelical political engagement.

At the same time, the NAE were at pains to deny any accusations of lobbying. While on the surface this appears to be hypocritical, further study revealed that it was linked to how they understood their engagement with government and politics. The various roles they understood themselves to be undertaking within the evangelical community allowed them to see their political activity through a lens of service and support rather than politics. Understanding these roles helps to shed more light on evangelical self-understanding as they emerged as a self-conscious religious movement within American Protestant Christianity. As such, the project argues that political engagement was not just something in which evangelicals engaged but was deeply rooted in their self-identity at mid-century.

What emerged from this study was that, although no less politically active than their successors (those who in the 1980s came to be known as the Religious Right), mid-century evangelicals' political engagement was noticeably different. It was less consciously political and far less driven by political, policy aims. It was also non-partisan: the NAE worked with both Democratic and Republican Administrations and, until 1960, remained very deliberately outside the partisan political debate. Both findings suggest that contemporary evangelical political engagement, which is both partisan and deliberate, was a conscious choice, one which needs understanding in those terms.

A third, surprising, finding was the extent to which evangelicals engaged with other groups in their activity. Mainline, liberal Protestants and conservative evangelicals in this period are often considered separately and as groups with little engagement between them. This was fuelled by harsh evangelical criticism of the mainline from the time. But closer consideration of their work shows that their rhetoric did not necessarily influence their practical activities. The project showed that evangelicals and mainline Protestants were in regular contact through a range of organisations including the less well known (Layman's Commission on Indecent Publications, All-American Conference to Combat Communism) and the much better known (Americans United). This challenges us to think about these connections and how they shaped religious and political debates.

One of the major elements of the project was an international interdisciplinary conference, bringing together scholars from around the world with an interest in religion in the US. This took place in July 2019 and involved scholars from disciplines including history, politics, literature, media studies, religious studies, and cultural studies. Those scholars ranged from postgraduate students to tenured professors, encouraging debate not only across disciplinary boundaries but between those at different levels of seniority. An edited collection from the conference has received strong feedback from an American university press and we are hopeful for a forthcoming publication.

A second element of the project, a schools conference focused on US politics, was postponed as a result of the UK lockdown which began the day before the event was scheduled. Subsequent plans to run the individual sessions as online webinars were also postponed following feedback from teachers about the pressures of working under Covid-related circumstances. Those plans, however, remain in place, to be activated when advised by teaching colleagues that pressures have eased.
Exploitation Route There are several areas in which this research can be taken forward, suggested by themes that emerged unexpectedly from the project. Understanding how the service-based, non-partisan political engagement of mid-century evangelicals became the deeply partisan, consciously policy-oriented activism of the Religious Right might be explored further. Although some scholars have looked at this area, understanding it as a shift in the nature of the political activism rather than as the emergence of political activity offers a different perspective. There is also more to be explored about evangelical missionary work in this period. Much recent work on this subject has rightly emphasised the ways in which international experiences made evangelicals more open-minded and outward looking than they have traditionally been credited for. But this project shows that in one key area (evangelical anti-Catholicism) missionary work reinforced rather than altered evangelical activism, with consequences for their domestic activities. There is real possibility in exploring this area further. A third area for further study relates to evangelical engagement with the Protestant mainline through organisations such as Americans United. This has the potential to add deeply to our understanding of the full scope of American Protestantism in the mid-20th Century and to challenge long dominant narratives, often expressed by evangelicals themselves, of a deep chasm between them.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The impact element of this project was the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and the shutdowns which resulted. A key aim of the project was to develop a deeper engagement with local schools and teachers, helping to support those wishing to teach American politics as part of their A-Level curricula. Key events leading to this fell victim to the pandemic. For example, a one-day schools conference, scheduled for the day after the UK's first lockdown began, had to be cancelled and has, to this point, been impossible to reschedule. Initially this was a result of social distancing requirements. More recently it has proven challenging for a variety of practical reasons on the part of both local schools and the university. However, it remains important to note that although these things have been delayed, the preparation for them has continued. Connections with teachers have continued and been strengthened in the planning and discussions around these events and the changing circumstances, and the early stages of a network remain in place, allowing for ongoing engagement beyond the end of this project. This was a critical aim of the project. Impact remains somewhat delayed but the foundations for the work remain strong and will continue to provide opportunities for engagement work. An early example of this engagement work took place in November 2020 when the PI undertook an online schools event for the 2020 presidential election. The discussion drew on the historical context of evangelical political engagement to explore the contemporary evangelical support for Donald Trump and its potential impact on the 2020 election. More recently, in 2022 the PI engaged in an online session for local schools which drew on similar material and added the role of some religious groups in the Capitol Riots of January 6, 2021 to explore the ongoing influence of religion in US politics.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Education
Description "Louis Theroux, Religion, and Free Speech in America," Factual America podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This podcast explores the history and contemporary experience of the link between religion and politics in the USA. Using Louis Theroux documentaries, "The Most Hated Family in America" (2007) and its sequel, "America's Most Hated Family in Crisis" (2011), as a starting point, the discussion covers the Founders' aims, the links between free speech and religious freedom, and the role of religion in recent and contemporary American politics. Drawing on research undertaken for "An (Evangelical) Voice in the Wilderness," the podcast considers the role of evangelicals in American political life, especially their role in the 2016 election which saw Donald Trump take the presidency. The aim of the podcast was to provide a generally accessible discussion about the role of religion in American life and politics, drawing on recent examples and familiar representations in popular culture to explore further the nature of the connection. The aim was to reach a wide, general audience with a passing interest in the US and its political life but perhaps with little or no background knowledge. Since the podcast was originally aired I have received a small number of requests for further information and clarification.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description "Why Donald Trump still appeals to so many evangelicals," The Conversation UK, 24 August 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Opinion piece exploring the role of evangelicals in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Argues that the evangelicals of the 1940s and 1950s were rather different in their approach to politics than those evangelicals who claim their mantle today. The article prompted a significant number of comments and discussions with colleagues and non-academic audiences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Channel Talent Schools Event: Election Day Special with Dr Emma Long 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This was an hour-long webinar, taking place on the day of the 2020 US election, looking at the election campaign and the possible outcomes. It began with a short presentation which looked at how some of the major issues from the 2016 presidential campaign were reflected in the 2020 campaign. A large element of this presentation focused on the role of religion and particularly US evangelicals, drawing on historical research undertaken for "An (Evangelical) Voice in the Wilderness" and thinking about its contemporary relevance. The presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session with the students and teachers taking part. As well as providing an opportunity for engagement for students learning from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, the event looked to support the work of schools teaching US politics by providing opportunities for further discussion of things learned in the context of an ongoing event. A key aim was to encourage discussion and critical thinking about the election and its key themes and events.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Religion in American Life Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Forty scholars working in fields relating to religion in the United States attended a conference at UEA in July 2019. Speakers included MA and PhD students as well as academic colleagues at all levels. Attendees also included some undergraduate students. The event sparked cross-disciplinary dialogue about the place of faith and belief in American life, discussions which have subsequently continued. Early discussions about the possibility of follow up events also took place.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019