God at the Grassroots 2016

The Christian Right in American Politics

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Editor(s): 
Mark J. Rozell, Clyde Wilcox
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , November
     2017.
     210 pages.
     $38.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781538108925.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

God at the Grassroots 2016: The Christian Right in American Politics is another take on a puzzle that many of us sense hasn’t been adequately solved: whether and how Donald Trump’s 2016 election to the presidency happened because of, not in spite of, religious American voters. Editors Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox are invaluable contributors to this conversation, and it is a relief to see their names on the cover of a book on this topic. This is the sixth iteration of God at the Grassroots and the first one in fourteen years. The project began in 1994, when the Republican Revolution shifted Congressional power to the GOP for the first time in nearly two generations, in part because of the influence of revitalized religious conservatives. Rozell and Wilcox led the charge again in 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2004, and then the project went on hiatus. It was reawakened in light of the unusual results in the most recent US presidential election, results that—perhaps—point to another rising of Religious Right voters. Indeed, the editors argue that this election illustrates the “resilience of this movement and of its enduring importance” (vi). 

The collection brings together eighteen scholars of religion and US politics, including researchers who have been studying the Religious Right since its inception. The findings they share skew toward the quantitative, making God at the Grassroots 2016 a relatively unique edited collection that is particularly helpful to those who want to read quantitative scholarship on voting in a single text rather than digging through journal articles across religious studies, political science, and sociology. It is organized around two major questions: What was happening in the Religious Right in the 2016 election in general? What was happening on the state level?

Broadly, Rozell notes in his solo-authored contribution to the collection, a number of factors explain Trump’s win among religious conservatives: significant gains for the GOP candidate among Catholic voters (5), promises of conservative policies and pro-life judges (8), decreasing demands from evangelical voters that candidates display personal morality or piety (9), and their embrace of “consequentialist ethics” (10). But, suggests Ted G. Jelen in his analysis of the election, this is not particularly surprising. Indeed, Jelen argues in “Evangelicals and President Trump: The Not So Odd Couple,” the answer is a bit simpler: Trump was the GOP candidate, and the Religious Right consistently votes for the GOP. Political identity—basic partisanship—drove them to select him in the voting booth. Rather than being an unusual election, 2016 was “normal” (24) in that conservatives voted Republican. The expectation that religiously conservative voters who impeached Bill Clinton over a sex scandal (an impeachment led in part by future Trump Supreme Court appointee Brett Kavanaugh) would show similar disgust for an adulterous pornography-promotor with a long list of sexual violence accusations against him was misinformed. As Jelen explains, “[social identity tends to promote both positive attraction to the in-group and negative assessment of the out-group. Partisanship conforms to this dynamic by acting as a perceptual screen, coloring individual opinions. So even if Trump was flawed, he was by virtue of being a Republican assumed to be closer to evangelical values and norms. Both his ethno-nationalism and his outreach were acceptable because they came with a partisan label that was deeply embedded in the consciousness and culture of evangelical Protestantism,” (25).

In other words, the election result wasn’t so much about the candidate but the electorate, who were going to figure out a way, no matter what, to support their candidate because he was their candidate. In their analysis of the election in Minnesota, Christopher P. Gilbert, Joseph Cella, and Alexander Jensen find quantitative evidence for this claim, saying that “evangelicals do not behave like religious partisans—they simply are partisans” (105). If the public was surprised by the level of support for the GOP candidate, it was because the public expected religious conservatives to behave “better”—that is, placing belief and behavior above partisanship—than other voting blocs. 

Other scholars write about how the election played out in eight states, each with a different Religious Right history and location on the Religious Right landscape today. Virginia, the headquarters of Jerry Falwell’s empire, rejected Trump. Local changes in Colorado, including the legalization of recreational cannabis and a dramatic influx of young, educated workers, both reflect and push changes in a state that is now solidly blue but also the home of Focus on the Family. South Carolina, in contrast, has continued to absorb the Religious Right into the state’s Republican party. In Ohio, the Religious Right seems to be on the decline, perhaps a victim of its own success: state-level politics are relatively conservative, so the Religious Right has little to rally against. The Ames Straw Poll and Iowa Caucus remain important indicators of conservative Christian values and voting, though these voters are so different from the rest of the US (they approve of Trump at significantly higher rates than the general electorate) that they may not predict the eventual primary or general election winners. Corwin E. Smidt and Mikael Pelz’s analysis of Michigan results indicates that the state’s support of Trump did not help other Republican candidates in the state. Florida, a religiously, racially, ethnically diverse state, is the second home of Trump (the “Southern White House” at Mar-a-Largo”) and has become, since his installment in the White House, a place he visits regularly, strengthening his relationship to Religious Right Floridians who see him as representing their interests in the federal government. Taken together, these state-wide studies show a diversity of trajectories for local Religious Right movements and groups.

Scholars with interests in religion, politics, and social movements will find God at the Grassroots 2016 to be a helpful addition to their understanding of the most recent presidential election. Because, as Clyde Wilcox observes in his concluding essay, “The Last Temptation of the Christian Right,” “[the end of the Trump presidency is unlikely to mean the end of the Christian Right as a powerful social movement and interest group” (189), we can expect, I hope, a 2020 edition of the book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University. She is the author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas 2016), as well as articles about conservative religion and politics that have appeared in Contention, Youth & Society, Journal of Hate Studies, Religion and Popular Culture, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. 

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark J. Rozell is Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Clyde Wilcox is Professor of Government at Georgetown University.

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