The stakes in the presidential election could not have been higher.

The American economy was stagnant. Several years of the worst inflation in decades made each trip to the grocery store a painful experience. Federal spending was out of control. Drug use was on the rise. The country was in a tense standoff with both Iran and Russia, with no resolution to either conflict in sight.

But Christians were especially worried about the nation’s morals. Abortion and divorce rates were on the rise. Views of sexuality and gender were changing rapidly, and pornography use was rampant.

The incumbent president was no help. The White House was occupied by a churchgoing Democrat who was seen by many politically conservative evangelicals as weak and ineffective. He was more influenced, they thought, by secular liberals in his administration than by anyone with a biblical worldview. He wouldn’t stand up to forces of evil in the world, evangelicals decided. In fact, he was letting secular humanists persecute American churches and jeopardize Christians’ First Amendment rights.

It was time to stand up for freedom. It was time to stand up for God. And it was time to “make America great again,” in the words of the campaign slogan of the Republican candidate most of them came to support.

This Republican challenger also professed Christianity. But he went to church a lot less than the Democratic incumbent, and he’d been divorced. He “was not the best Christian who ever walked the face of the earth,” one of his supporters conceded, “but we really didn’t have a choice.” When it came to choosing candidates, evangelical Christians had once cared about character first and foremost, but now they couldn’t afford to be choosy. In a crisis, issues mattered more than religious devotion. They didn’t want a Sunday school teacher in the White House; they wanted someone who could deliver results.

And so, they voted for … Ronald Reagan.

Despite eerie parallels to the present, the year I’ve described is 1980, not 2024. But the moral calculations evangelical voters made as they chose Reagan over the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter, set the stage for the political dilemmas Christians are wrestling with today.

At the heart of those questions is whether evangelicals should vote as a bloc, uniting behind whichever candidate is likely to deliver our legislative or judicial agenda. Does advancing that agenda justify voting for a morally compromised candidate? Are evangelicals obligated to vote for the candidate who shares our views on abortion, religious liberty, and LGBTQ issues?

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In 1980, leaders of the Christian Right said yes. Issues mattered more than candidates’ personal characters, they believed. Christians had not just the option but the duty, they said, to vote for the candidate who would deliver the best results, not the one who would make the best pastor.

This argument may seem very familiar today, but it was novel among evangelicals in 1980. Only four years earlier, nearly all evangelicals who had commented on the 1976 election—regardless of whether they supported Carter or the Republican, Gerald Ford—had said that what mattered far more than any position was a candidate’s personal faith and moral character. And they hadn’t necessarily thought Christians would or even should vote as a bloc for one party or contender.

“Christians in particular ought to be concerned about the ethical and religious convictions of those who aspire to the presidency,” Christianity Today declared in April 1976 in a statement typical of the time. “The basis upon which a leader makes his decisions is more important than what side he takes in current transient controversies.”

CT cared about political issues, to be sure. In 1976, the magazine published several editorials expressing great concern about abortion and other moral issues. In Eternity magazine, the theologian Carl Henry wrote a list of signs of national moral decay that he hoped the next president would address. But ultimately, the editors of Christianity Today and several other evangelical magazines (including Moody Monthly, Christian Life, and Eternity) concluded that character and faith mattered more than discrete issues.

Evangelicals in 1976 were especially concerned about “ethical and religious convictions” because they felt they’d been duped in 1972. That year, more than 80 percent of white evangelical voters had supported Richard Nixon, only to learn that his talk of “law and order” and the need for public morality weren’t accompanied by personal moral integrity or respect for the law. Four years later, they most wanted a candidate with a clear moral compass and accordingly sought to avoid policy litmus tests.

Thus, there was no united evangelical voting bloc in 1976. The evangelical vote was evenly divided between Ford and Carter, with northern evangelicals more likely to pick Ford and those in the South more inclined to support their fellow southerner. Both men, after all, could make a plausible claim to personal faith and moral integrity.

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To some politically minded evangelicals, however, this division felt like a wasted opportunity. The evangelical vote was a “sleeping giant,” one analyst wrote; if evangelicals would only unite behind a single candidate, they could swing the election.

The dream of a political takeover was hard to resist, especially with the country experiencing a seemingly inexorable moral decline. “We have together, with the Protestants and the Catholics, enough votes to run the country,” Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson declared of evangelicals in 1979. “And when the people say, ‘We’ve had enough,’ we are going to take over.”

To “take over,” Christians needed to be able to dictate a legislative agenda in Congress, which meant they couldn’t rely on “nice guys” who maintained a squeaky-clean lifestyle but voted the wrong way. They had to behave like any other political interest group.

When their newly formed political action committees (like the Moral Majority PAC) donated to campaigns, they wanted some assurance that their contributions would buy the right votes. They wanted something more than good people in Washington; they wanted results. “Christians must keep America great by … getting laws passed that will protect the freedom and liberty of her citizens,” Jerry Falwell Sr. declared in 1980.

In the short term, the strategy seemed to work. Evangelical votes helped put Reagan in the White House and gave control of the Senate to Republicans for the first time in a quarter century. Over the next 40 years, Republicans won more presidential elections than Democrats did and controlled both houses of Congress more often than they had since the early 1930s.

But most of the Christian Right’s agenda remained unfulfilled. And even when conservative evangelicals did get laws or court decisions they wanted, they felt frustrated in their inability to change the cultural direction of the country. Even the reversal of Roe v. Wade (1973) in 2022 appears not to have lowered abortion rates in most states.

Politically, with several decades of hindsight, evangelicals’ decision to prioritize policy over character has produced mixed results. But it has had a profound effect on the church, because it turned evangelicals into a voting bloc. That’s how evangelicals are increasingly perceived outside the church, and it’s often how we perceive ourselves as well.

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The only way Christian Right leaders could marshal millions of votes from 1980 onward was to treat the church as a political machine. With that model in place, it was inevitable that politicians—even fellow Christians—would begin treating evangelicals not as citizens of a heavenly kingdom or as members of a church purchased by the blood of Christ but as a political interest group whose votes would be delivered to whichever candidate checked the right boxes on a policy questionnaire.

This dynamic has also exacerbated racial divisions among American Christians. It quickly became apparent that the vast majority of Black Christians wouldn’t make the same partisan voting choices as white evangelicals. Today, in any political conversation, evangelical typically means “white,” though many evangelicals are not white.

It’s not too late to revisit the choice that Christian Right leaders made in 1980. We can still choose a different path this year. Whatever politicians or the media may say about the “evangelical vote,” we don’t have to treat the church as a voting bloc. We don’t have to boil our concerns about our nation’s spiritual and moral health down to a small handful of policies that might not pass even if our candidates win.

After all, the policy goals that prompted many evangelicals to support Reagan in 1980 were elusive after his election and indeed remain so to this day. Evangelicals began to operate as a voting bloc, but America’s moral crisis couldn’t be solved by a political platform. The same will prove true this year, however the election turns out.

The more we reflect on the gospel, the more we’ll realize that for citizens of a higher kingdom, no approach to voting can produce the moral renewal that can only come from Christ and his church. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote. But it does mean it’s okay if we make different choices on Election Day. Many important things are at stake in this election, but the survival of the kingdom of God most assuredly is not.

Daniel K. Williams teaches American history at Ashland University and is the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.