During the presidential campaign of 1800, Christian opponents of candidate Thomas Jefferson warned he “abhors the Christian system” and if elected, might send troops to seize Christians’ Bibles.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln’s election was thought by some Southern Baptist leaders to threaten fundamental American liberties. A century later, the presidential campaign elicited the Chicago Sun-Times headline “Southern Baptists Tell Why They Are Attacking Kennedy.“
These and other interjections into presidential politics by followers of Jesus have led a Baylor University church historian to note that Christians’ at times heated rhetoric surrounding the Clinton-Trump presidential campaign may not be unprecedented.
“Christians have routinely forecast the ominous consequences of the election of certain candidates throughout American history,” Thomas Kidd, distinguished professor of history at Baylor and a blogger for The Gospel Coalition, told Baptist Press (BP) in written comments. “The election of those candidates has almost never led to anything as dire as what people predicted.”
Through the years, Christians’ political rhetoric has been reasonable at times and unreasonable at times. Their predictions about the consequences of electing particular candidates have at times been accurate and at times inaccurate.
Yet a common theme through two centuries of presidential elections has been passionate opining by Christians of all denominational stripes – especially before the 1954 Johnson Amendment prohibited 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations like churches from endorsing or opposing candidates.
Jefferson & Lincoln
In 1800, Baptists widely supported Jefferson because they saw him “as the great champion of religious liberty,” Kidd and fellow Baylor historian Barry Hankins wrote in their book Baptists in America. But other Christians predicted, Kidd told BP, that Jefferson “would inaugurate anti-Christian terror like that seen in radical phases of the French Revolution.”
As Jefferson campaigned, one pastor called him “a confirmed infidel” known for “vilifying the divine word, and preaching insurrection against God,” according to historian Robert MacDonald’s book Confounding Father. For his alleged lack of church attendance and skepticism regarding some biblical accounts, other ministers denounced Jefferson as a “howling atheist” and among the “fraternity of infidels.”
Lincoln’s candidacy drew particular concern from Southerners, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s second president John Broadus. In 1893, Broadus recalled in his Memoir of James Petigru Boyce that at the time of Lincoln’s election, the candidate’s stated intention of restricting slavery “to the states in which it already existed” was “regarded as a menace, not only to the institution of slavery, but to state rights and the fundamental principles of American liberty.”
Leading up to the 1860 election, North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder newsjournal rightly predicted, “A stormy time likely awaits the country.”
In 1928, the candidacy of Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith, who was defeated by Herbert Hoover, drew strong opposition from fundamentalist leaders, in part because of Smith’s Roman Catholic faith.
J. Frank Norris, also known for his harsh criticism of Southern Baptists, traveled full time during the summer and fall of 1928 campaigning against Smith, according to Hankins’ book Jesus and Gin. Seizing on anti-Catholic fears, Norris claimed Catholics would slaughter Protestants in the U.S. if they amassed enough political power.
Evangelist Billy Sunday said he was not opposed to Smith as a Catholic but denounced his opposition to prohibition, declaring in a sermon that “crooks, cork screwers, bootleggers [and] whiskey politicians … shall not pass – even to the White House,” according to Hankins.
New York fundamentalist leader John Roach Stratton criticized the Democratic Party for nominating a presidential candidate whose position on prohibition ran contrary to the official party platform.
In nominating Smith, the Democratic Party made “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” Stratton said according to Hankins.
JFK & LBJ
When Kennedy, another Catholic, became the Democratic nominee in 1960, many Southern Baptists voiced their objection.
Then-Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Ramsay Pollard of Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis said he could not “stand by and keep my mouth shut when a man under control of the Catholic Church runs for the presidency of the United States,” according to Daniel Williams’ book God’s Own Party.
Pastor W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Church in Dallas warned in a July 3, 1960, sermon that Kennedy’s election could begin a slippery slope to Roman Catholic control of America.
“The Roman Church wins most of its victories with the weapon of time,” Criswell said according to a transcript of the sermon at WACriswell.com. “Kennedy, in today, with strong [stated] emphasis … on separation of church and state, and the door is open for another Catholic leader who gives the Pope, his ambassador, the church schools state support; and finally, recognition of one church above America.”
Among the concerns of some Southern Baptists was that Roman Catholic doctrine seemed to oppose full religious liberty and Kennedy might act in accordance with his church’s teaching, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Such concerns were voiced in sermons, Baptist state papers and informal discussions, the paper’s Robert S. Bird reported Sept. 25, 1960.
Leading up to the election, the SBC adopted a resolution that did not name Kennedy but seemed aimed at his candidacy.
The resolution expressed concern about any candidate for public office whose church “maintains a position in open conflict with our established and constituted American pattern of life as specifically related to religious liberty, separation of Church and State, the freedom of conscience in matters related to marriage and the family, the perpetuation of public schools and the prohibition against use of public monies for sectarian purposes.”
A month before the election, the Dallas Baptist Association adopted a resolution that echoed much of the same language, BP reported at the time.
Former President Harry Truman, himself a Southern Baptist, entered the fray and critiqued Baptists for opposing Kennedy. Under the Oct. 14, 1960, headline “Truman Blasts Baptists; Baptists Return Fire,” a BP story whose author was unnamed quoted Truman as saying those who voted for Kennedy’s opponent Richard Nixon “ought to go to hell.”
When President Lyndon Johnson ran against Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Baptist Standard newsjournal of Texas solicited comments from each candidate on whether federal aid should be given to parochial schools. Johnson’s statement appeared to oppose such aid while Goldwater’s seemed to leave open the possibility.
The Standard printed both statements in its Sept. 9 issue along with an editorial arguing federal support for parochial schools was “the number one domestic issue in the November election.” Without specifically endorsing Johnson, editor E.S. James said offering aid to parochial schools “could well be the American Armageddon beyond which there will be no place to fall back.”
Clinton vs. Trump
Half a century later, at least some evangelical leaders have begun to articulate a different message regarding elections. Ethics & Religious Liberty President Russell Moore warned in an Oct. 24 lecture against “the sort of apocalyptic language that presents every presidential election as an Armageddon, from whence one cannot recover.”
“Religious conservatives will need a robust religion and a sense of what is in fact to be conserved,” Moore said according to Christianity Today. “This will mean abandoning the idea of a moral majority or a silent majority within the nation and building instead collaborative majorities, often issue by issue. It will mean institutions which have the vision and the financial resources to play a long game of cultural renewal and persuasion, not driven merely by the populist passions of the moment.”
Kidd offered counsel for voters in 2016 in light of the historical record.
“Obviously, Christians will bring serious moral concerns into the voting booth with them, wanting to choose candidates with integrity, and candidates who support the right to life, religious liberty and other important issues,” Kidd said. “But we should also remember that no candidate or political party will do the church’s work for it, and that the Lord remains sovereign regardless of who wins.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)