Every election cycle, journalists and pundits talk at length about the “evangelical vote,” offering bold predictions and musing about this group’s likely influence. Ironically, many who speak so freely about evangelical voters know very little about the contours of American religion and have little understanding of the evangelical movement.

Since the 1980s, evangelicals have been a key Republican voting bloc in presidential elections. Yet this active political engagement and strong Republican partisanship is relatively new, and it masks the smaller — but still substantial — minority of evangelicals who align with Democrats. To appreciate the contemporary context requires briefly tracing the roots of evangelical political activism. This will also help us consider what can be learned from our history.

Evangelicalism as a Middle Path

Throughout the 19th century, many evangelicals were active in social and political reform movements. But rapid modernization and the emergence of new scientific ideas, including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, led to growing theological divides.

Tensions arose over differing views of human nature and conflicting interpretations of God’s work in history. Theological conservatives who called for Christians to focus on individual salvation and maintain the fundamentals of the faith created the movement called fundamentalism.

The 1925 Scopes Trial placed a spotlight on the Fundamentalist-Modernist conflict, highlighting growing tensions between different religious groups and their responses to scientific discoveries. Many fundamentalists retreated from the public square, forming schools, publishing houses and other institutions that reflected their religious values.

Not all theologically conservative Protestants chose this path. A small group of Christian leaders who were concerned that fundamentalists were too isolated met in 1941 and 1942. They founded an organization, the National Association of Evangelicals, and developed plans for like-minded Christians to work together for greater social engagement. The end result was a new movement that reclaimed the
label “evangelicalism.”

The Christian Right

The 1960s ushered in another set of rapid cultural and political changes. Local controversies over textbooks and sex education in public schools, the tax-exempt status of religious schools, and gay rights raised concerns. Activists motivated by their religious beliefs began grassroots efforts to promote their causes locally, and their efforts eventually captured national attention.

By the 1970s, high-profile Christian leaders began to talk more publicly about politics, and several founded organizations, such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the Religious Roundtable, and Christian Voice, to encourage theologically conservative Christians to get more involved. Over time, these organizations and activists became known as the Christian Right, a reference to their right-of-center political leanings.

From Issue-Based to Party Politics

Still, in the 1970s, evangelicals tended to support Democrats. Jimmy Carter’s successful presidential campaign in 1976 connected well with evangelicals who were growing more active on individual political issues but were not particularly active in party politics. Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher, spoke often about his faith and described himself as “born again.”

During the Carter presidency, however, evangelical support began moving toward the Republicans. Although evangelicals did not join the pro-life movement immediately after Roe v. Wade, by the late 1970s they saw the importance of the abortion issue and its connection to central Christian teachings. By the 1980 presidential election, abortion was a centerpiece of Christian Right politics.

Ronald Reagan’s campaign and the Republican Party recognized the importance of evangelical voters and actively sought their backing. Beginning in 1980, the Republican platform included planks supporting organized prayer in public schools and defining human life as beginning at conception, and the party began to embrace the term “pro-family” to describe its agenda. Evangelical voters responded, providing strong support for Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

By the end of the 1980s, evangelical voters had become an essential part of the Republican base. Republican candidates and party leaders actively sought evangelical voters, crafting issue appeals to win their support.

Emerging Organizations

The earliest Christian Right organizations were hierarchical, typically centered around charismatic — sometimes controversial — leaders. By the 1990s, more decentralized organizations were emerging that built strong networks of supporters and emphasized grassroots mobilization.

The most successful of these groups was the Christian Coalition, founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson after his unsuccessful 1988 presidential bid. The Coalition offered a more pragmatic approach to politics. In 1995, the Christian Coalition boasted 1.6 million members and 1,600 local chapters.

Although most of the largest and best-financed Christian advocacy organizations were ideologically conservative, other Christian groups, such as Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action, emerged offering an ideological counterpoint and raising more progressive concerns.

George W. Bush and Evangelicals

The election of President George W. Bush energized conservative evangelicals. His open discussion of his personal faith along with his positions on social issues and judicial appointments appealed to many. With Republicans in control of the presidency and Congress, evangelical leaders looked forward to many political victories.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, shifted the policy agenda in Washington. Domestic issues of greatest concern to the Christian Right were eclipsed by national security and foreign policy. In 2004, Christian Right leaders worked aggressively for Bush’s re-election, expecting that Bush would prioritize their agenda in a second term.

By the middle of Bush’s second term, some former supporters were openly criticizing him for neglecting domestic issues, especially battles against abortion and gay marriage. Some leaders openly questioned the effectiveness of their strong connections to Republicans, suggesting that the party was taking the evangelical voting bloc for granted.

Even as some older generation leaders were raising concerns, a new generation of activists was gaining influence in many issue advocacy groups. With backgrounds in politics, not religious leadership, they had a more pragmatic approach and sought to work alongside legislative staff. Their leadership style moved away from bold demands for change, looking instead for more incremental changes that had a greater likelihood for success. In the early 2000s, this approach led to a series of legislative victories, including the passage of three pro-life bills.

The God Gap

In recent elections, a new division between voters, often called the “God gap,” has emerged. Those who frequently attend religious services (regardless of faith background) are more likely to vote for Republicans, while those who rarely or never attend tend to vote for Democrats. As a consequence, candidates and parties consider religion as they design strategies.

Republicans seek to maintain and build their evangelical base without losing support from less religious voters, while Democrats try to expand their appeal by speaking about religion without alienating secular voters.

Future Prospects and Challenges

For many decades, evangelicals have sought to influence the political process with mixed success. Several lessons from these experiences can help evangelicals chart a positive path forward.

We can start by ensuring that biblical principles, not party or ideology, shape our political vision. Evangelicals should look to Scripture as they evaluate and prioritize political issues. Biblical values transcend party lines, so we should seek opportunities to build authentic alliances in both parties and space to speak meaningfully into political conversations.

Likely the biggest political challenge currently facing evangelicals is the growing tension between religious freedom and LGBT rights. In the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage, the cultural and political landscape is changing rapidly.

Advocates of gay and transgender rights are seeking legal and social changes — some of which threaten free exercise of religion and freedom of conscience. Evangelical leaders need to make a compelling case for the centrality of religious freedom for people of all faiths and seek a place at the table to preserve these fundamental human rights.

Although cultural concerns remain a priority, evangelicals have begun to address a broader range of issues, expanding the agenda to include Christian advocacy on issues such as poverty, hunger, immigration, criminal justice and the environment. This broadening agenda opens more opportunities for evangelical witness in the public square.

Because evangelical voters are an important voting bloc, politicians have many incentives to pander to them. We should critically evaluate candidates’ appeals and actions, testing their authenticity.

Pastors and theologians can contribute to the political discussion through theological education. In this time of rapid social change, church leaders need to train people in the pews on how to respond, helping them understand and embody the core commitments of the Christian faith.

The lure of influence is strong. In the process of seeking to influence political debates, it is easy to get caught up in the trappings of power and lose sight of our central calling as Christians. Political decisions matter, and governing institutions shape our lives in significant ways. But politics must always be subordinate to our ultimate allegiance to the kingdom of God and our ultimate calling to share the gospel.

This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.