ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, LIBERTY UNIVERSITY 1-8-16):PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE DONALD TRUMP: Were going to protect Christianity.
NARRATION: As the midterm elections approach, white evangelical Christians are a key part of the Republican coalition and have stuck with the president through a series of scandals.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 1-28-18):REPORTER: Do you care if your president had an affair before he was president?WOMEN: No.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 1-23-18):REVEREND FRANKLIN GRAHAM: I think hes president for a good reason. I think God put him there.
NARRATION: But 40 years ago, evangelicals were at the margins of American politics.
JERRY FALWELL, JR: I think the decision was made in 1979 that it was okay to be just like every other citizen and to get involved in politics.
RANDALL BALMER (PROFESSOR OF RELIGION, DARTMOUTH COLLEGE): We think of evangelicals today as a major force in American society, and certainly in American politics. But in the mid-1970s they werent. Evangelicals were not involved in politics, certainly not in any organized way. Many were not even registered to vote. They considered politics dirty and, kind of, beneath them
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-19-76):SINGER: Glory, glory hallelujah
RANDALL BALMER:until Jimmy Carter came along.
NARRATION: Jimmy Carters 1976 presidential campaign put faith at the center of the national conversation. He read the Bible every night, taught Sunday school, and had occasionally preached at Robert Maddoxs church.
REV. ROBERT MADDOX (WHITE HOUSE RELIGIOUS LIASON, 1979-81): Questions were coming up about what kind of religion he had. And he said, Well, Im a born-again Christian.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-19-76):JIMMY CARTER: The most important thing in my life is Jesus Christ.
ROBERT MADDOX: All throughout the press, and everybody else wanted to know what in the world that was, what kind of magic, what kind of-of a charade would he have gone through.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 3-23-76):JOHN CHANCELLOR We have checked on the religious meaning of Carters profound experience. It is described by other Baptists as a common experience, not something out of the ordinary. Being reborn does not mean having a vision or hearing the voice of God.
RANDALL BALMER:The press seized on this and made a big deal out of it. But for evangelical voters, it was an important moment. To have a presidential candidate talk openly about his faith, it was staggering.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-21-77):NEWS REPORT: As much as any American, Jimmy Carter made it respectable to be born again.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-19-76):SAM DONALDSON: There does seem to be a yearning for some kind of spiritual revival in this country. And planned or not, it could turn out that Jimmy Carters religion will be a net plus.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-21-77):JIMMY CARTER: I believe that I can be a better President, if I am elected, because of my faith.
NARRATION: Carter would become known as the first evangelical president.
ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS, CARTER INAUGURATION, 1-22-77):JIMMY CARTER: Thank you very much for helping me get hereand being the president of the greatest country on Earth.
NARRATION: But two years into Carters term, Reverend Maddox now working at the White House met with a group of preachers and got a surprising reaction.
ROBERT MADDOX: Immediately, from the floor, just-just erupted. Cat calls and boos and-and, you know, fists were shaking. He has told us hes religious, and hes not.I got back to the White House and began to say, friends, weve got a big problem out there.
CAL THOMAS (SYNDICATED COLUMNIST):For me and for many other evangelicals, there was a disconnect between, uh, his personal faith and public policy.
NARRATION: It turned out that some of Carters policies were more liberal than many evangelicals had hoped for.
CAL THOMAS: From a political standpoint they were turned off. One of his top aides was the woman who argued the Roe v. Wade case before the Supreme Court. He had a White House conference on families, plural, and included gays and lesbians.
JOHN FEA (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, MESSIAH COLLEGE): If you look at the world from the perspective of an evangelical Christian, you have Roe vs. Wade. We no longer pray in school. You have the desegregation of Christian colleges and academies. All of these things come together and create a great deal of fear about the loss of some kind of Christian nation.
ARCHIVAL (LIBERTY UNIVERSITY, 1980):REV. JERRY FALWELL: I believe in freedom of choice also, but I believe you ought to make the choice before you go to bed and commit sin.
NARRATION: Reverend Jerry Falwell would become the most well known of a new movement of conservative preachers, who wanted a strong defense policy abroad and traditional values at home.
ARCHIVAL (BILL MOYERS, 1980):JERRY FALWELL: We believe when a man marries a woman she is his obligation for life.
NARRATION: It was a movement that harnessed the power of television.
RANDALL BALMER: Televangelism really erupted in the 1970s. And Jerry Falwell was riding that wave.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-7-80):NEWS REPORT: Jerry Falwell turned a small Virginia church of 35 into a Christian communications empire.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-25-80):NEWS REPORT: A Virginia television preacher with an audience of millions.
NARRATION: As the 1980 election approached, Falwell stepped directly into politics and formed an alliance with a group of political operatives, including Paul Weyrich.
RANDALL BALMER: Weyrich makes a statement saying that there really is a moral majority of voters out at there that need to be tapped, need to be organized. And Falwell says, I think thats what we should call this new movement.We should call it Moral Majority.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-23-80):NEWS REPORT: Its a political action committee, registered as such just like those of labor unions or any other organization.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 8-19-80):NEWS REPORT: A new political machine thats anti-abortion, anti-ERA, anti-gay rights, and for what he calls a Moral America.
NARRATION: Cal Thomas, a journalist in Washington, went to work for Falwell.
CAL THOMAS: He invited me down to Lynchburg, Virginia, saying, were going to lead a movement thats going to change America. Now, who couldnt be involved in something like that? We were hoping to accomplish the political organization of evangelicals, fundamentalists, conservative Jews, and conservative Catholics into a large voting block that would elect like-minded people to public office and restore a sense of patriotism and love for the country.
ARCHIVAL (REAGAN LIBRARY, 9-1-80):RONALD REAGAN: We can, and so help us God, we will, make America great again.
NARRATION: The candidate they backed was a twice-married former Hollywood actor, who signed a liberal abortion law as California governor.
RANDAL BALMER: There was great deal of reservation about Ronald Reagan. The turning point was a gathering of a group called the Religious Roundtable.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, STREAMLINE, 8-27-80):REV. JAMES ROBISON: Im sick and tired of hearing about all the radicals and the perverts and the liberals and the leftists and the communists coming out of the closet. Its time for Gods people to come out of the closet, out of the churches, and change America!
RANDALL BALMER: And Reagan stood up and, he said famously, I know this group cant endorse me
ARCHIVAL (RELIGIOUS ROUNDTABLE, 8-27-80):PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: But I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you and what youre doing.
CAL THOMAS: That rippled throughout churches and religious establishments throughout the country. It was like, come up out of the catacombs, you know?You dont have to be silent anymore.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 9-25-80):REPORTER: As in no election past, the evangelical right wing is up in arms out in force this year.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-29-80):NEWS REPORT: 175,000 worshipers sang, prayed and marched around the Capitol mall. They said their purpose was to call the national leadership back to God.
ARCHIVAL (BILL MOYERS, 1980):JERRY FALWELL: We have a threefold primary responsibility, number one, get people saved, number two, get them baptized, and number three, get them registered to vote.
CAL THOMAS: They hadnt participated in the political life of the country for a long time. And Jerry gave them permission to do that again.
NARRATION: Reagan and the Republicans pledged to appoint pro-life judges and support prayer in public school.
RANDALL BALMER: For really, the first time in any, significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party.
ARCHIVAL (BILL MOYERS, 1980):VOTER: Looking at the Democratic platform and the things that Jimmy Carter supports, Im not sure that Jesus Christ – well, I know that Christ would not support that platform.
NARRATION: But in the end, Reagan didnt follow through on many of the issues evangelicals cared about. Cal Thomas, who left Moral Majority after a few years, came to feel that the organization was too concerned with maintaining access, and that political influence wasnt the best way to change the country.
CAL THOMAS: Evangelicals liked George Bush.They liked Ronald Reagan. Theyve liked other Republicans in the past.But they never seem to be able to close the deal on the issues that evangelicals care about. In the long-term, things have not really fundamentally changed. Theyve gotten worse in their view. Weve gone from same sex marriage to transgenderism, 60 million abortions.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, VALUES VOTERS SUMMIT, 2018):PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected
CAL THOMAS: And then along comes Donald Trump, the antithesis of everything that evangelicals stand for multiple affairs, crude language, you name it. And, a lot of them, them have made a bargain that it didnt matter anymore.
ARCHIVAL (LIBERTY UNIVERSITY, 1-8-16):JERRY FALWELL JR.: Dad explained that when he walked into the voting booth, he wasnt electing a Sunday school teacher or a pastor.
JERRY FALWELL JR. (PRESIDENT, LIBERTY UNIVERSITY): It was just as tough a sale with evangelicals to get them to vote for somebody like Ronald Reagan, who had been married twice, as it was for me to get people to support Trump.It was the same dynamic.It was like history repeated itself.
NARRATION: Today, Jerry Falwell, Jr., leads the university his father founded, and has emerged as a prominent evangelical voice in support of President Trump.
JERRY FALWELL JR.: I think Jesus made it clear that you use your common sense and your God-given brain to decide who will be the best political leader. I dont look to the teachings of Jesus for what my political belief should be. I dont think he wanted us to.
ARCHIVAL:PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Remember the attacks on merry Christmas?
JERRY FALWELL JR.: We need somebody tough, we need somebody who has the right position on the issues.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, CONSERVATIVE POLITICAL ACTION CONFERENCE, 2-22-18):VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: He promised to appoint strong conservatives to the federal courts at every level and President Trump came through. He appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
JERRY FALWELL JR.: Hes not only done everything he said he was going to do, but hes done more.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 12-6-17):ANCHOR: The president is preparing to reveal his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israels capital.REPORTER: The announcement fulfills a campaign promise for President Trump and is popular among evangelical Christians.
JERRY FALWELL JR.: I think hes going to be end up being our greatest President since George Washington.
NARRATION: While Trump still has the support of more than 70 percent percent of white evangelicals, some worry that what started as a religious movement is now seen as just another political constituency.
CAL THOMAS: The evangelicals are missing a greater point. If youre not careful, the political activism overwhelms the primary message, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only thing that is able to truly change a life and by extension change a nation. And no politician can fill that role.