In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, an important religious question was posed by American historian John Fea: “How did a crude-talking, thrice-married, self-proclaimed philanderer and ultra-materialistic businessman who showed virtually no evidence of a Spirit-filled life win over evangelicals in a field of qualified GOP candidates who self-identified — in one way or another — with this form of conservative Christianity?”
During the 2022 Senate race in Georgia, similar questions were again in play: How did a man who routinely lied about his education, his relationships with women, his business dealings, and his resume, who had difficulty making complete sentences, and who had little or no grasp of US policy manage to get over 1,700,000 votes?
Like all populist movements, a dominant theme controls the narrative: a holy but persecuted people are opposed by a powerful, almost invulnerable enemy. Populism can’t survive without a holy people and a devil. Evangelicalism must have an unending supply of enemies. A populist movement runs out of energy without enemies. And evangelical preachers have supplied enemies by the basket full over the last century.
Since the return of evangelicals from the fringe of American life in the 1970s, aided by Jerry Falwell, Sr., the enemy of the evangelicals has become Democrats. Falwell and Pat Robertson often attacked the liberals, socialists, the ACLU, feminists, abortionists, and gays. In the evangelical imagination, all these enemies have now morphed into one demonic enemy: Democrats.
The prevailing trope has become that Democrats are devils. How this works out for evangelicals can be outlined as follows: All Democrats are devils. All Republican candidates are better than the Devil. Or to put it another way: Not all devils are Democrats, but all Democrats are devils.
Evangelicals have not been subtle about this and have essentialized the enemy as everyone who is not them. They have blamed Democrats for every social ill no matter how far-fetched. As ludicrous as it sounds when David Barton says that SAT scores fell after the Supreme Court removed prayer from school, millions of evangelicals have believed Barton’s misinformation. And evangelicals, on an endless rhetorical loop, keep repeating the same lies over and over again.
This has become the most successful propaganda campaign in American politics. For all the fault lines, all the hypocrisy, all the wacky conspiracy theories that orbit the evangelical sun, none of them have as much impact as the trope, “Democrats are the Devil.” This has been so deeply embedded into the mindset of evangelical voters that it is no longer a subject for debate or question. Democrats are not like the Devil; they are the Devil. An evangelical voter goes to the polls and votes against the Devil. It doesn’t matter what their candidate stands for, has said, or done.
This argument gains even more strength when we factor in the Christian pedigree of Senator Warnock of Georgia. Even as a Baptist preacher, as the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and as the inheritor of the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Warnock was still cast in the role of the Devil. He was attacked as a “so-called” Christian and a “radical liberal.” Rep. Doug Collins, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, attacked Warnock for spreading “a lie from the bed of hell. It is time to send it back to Ebenezer Baptist Church.” Note the connection between lie/hell and devil. Then note the additional viciousness that equates Ebenezer Baptist Church with hell and the Devil.
We will never understand evangelicals until we understand the theological construction of the dominant metaphor that Democrats are devils. This campaign certainly didn’t start in 2016, but the intensification of labeling everyone who is not conservative as the Devil has escalated to warp speed.
Robert Jeffress, with utmost seriousness, said that “liberal Democrats are talking about an imaginary God they have created in their own minds: a god who loves abortion and hates Israel.” Evangelical pastor Perry Stone said that “Democrats are possessed by demons. Exorcist Catholic priest Father Chad Ripperger says Democrats are “possessed and in league with the Devil” in a wild rant. Charisma Magazine produced an article named “21 Ways the Devil Is Using the Democratic Party to Destroy America.”As John Amato points out, “extreme right-wing hate preacher Pastor Greg Locke told his flock that Democrats are God-denying demons that hate this country and that the real insurrection hasn’t begun yet.”
While framing Democrats as devils, evangelicals have also equated the nation with Christianity. As George Marsden observed, 19th-century fundamentalists combined Christianity with American ideas about morality. These religious/political values became the basis of a set of values that later evangelicals furiously believed had to be saved from the delusions of the Devil. Therefore, Democrats are not only destroying the faith, but they are threatening freedom, democracy, and the family. It should not be surprising that when evangelicals confront the Democrats, they assume that Democrats are not only attacking the Christian faith but also the United States’ identity as a Christian nation. In their minds, this has to be the work of the Devil. “An enemy has done this” is the only possible logical conclusion.
Reaching into the populist well that divides the rural people (God’s people) from city people, evangelicals have depicted Democrats as elitist urbanites, a bunch of global behemoths. They populate the vast urban centers, the epicenter of sin, wickedness, and crime. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago — all modern Sodoms. Evangelicals fear American historians, scientists, journalists, university professors, and liberal preachers. There’s a deep sense of dread about an immense intellectual and political influence that undermines “traditional” truth.
The evangelical populist movement slides along the same rails. They cry that they have been unfairly removed from their divine right to set the moral compass of the nation, their privileged position to determine what is right and wrong. They believe that their way of life has been taken away from them. Only an enemy could have done this. That enemy is the Democrats. The only way to take back America is through victory in a decisive battle. “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war” doesn’t have room or time for a language of reconciliation, accommodation, and forgiveness. And the candidate approved by evangelicals doesn’t need virtue or character.
The trope that Democrats are devils has an iron grip on conservative evangelicals.
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).