At the same time, evangelicalism became politicized and connected to the Republican Party in a new way. Billy Graham became the minister and confidant of U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon on. Yet even as they gained more power, evangelicals felt increasingly estranged from mainstream politics, not least because of Supreme Court decisions about school prayer. School desegregation in the 1950s shook Southern evangelicals’ solid ties to the Democratic Party. Richard Nixon's “Southern strategy” further won evangelicals toward the Republican Party in the ’60s. As evangelicals cared more about issues such as abortion in the ’70s and ’80s, they cast their lot with the GOP. By the time of Ronald Reagan’s election, evangelicals were a solid bloc for the Republicans.
These voters increasingly wanted their political candidates not just to have good moral character, but to be born again. Only two presidents offered firm evidence of their evangelical conversions: Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, and George W. Bush. White evangelical voters thus became accustomed to making peace with Republican candidates who fell short of their religious standards, but who knew what they had to say to get evangelical votes. Ronald Reagan, for instance, was divorced at a time when that shocked evangelicals, but he told a group of Christian organizations, “You can't endorse me, but ... I want you to know that I endorse you and what you are doing.” George H. W. Bush originally supported abortion, but switched to a pro-life position to secure conservative evangelical votes. Despite the shortcomings of these Republican candidates, evangelicals managed to find a way to support them.
Evangelicals have a long history of rehabilitating even their enemies by circulating stories that they had been converted. Most recently, a Christian author has written a book claiming the outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens considered converting to Christianity at the end of his life. Before Hitchens, evangelicals described the deathbed conversions of the French philosopher Voltaire and the British scientist Charles Darwin, to take just two examples. These narratives have currency not because evangelicals are gullible; plenty of evangelicals are skeptical of them. Rather, they are a sign of evangelicals’ optimism—or better, faith—that God’s grace can transform any individual, even if they are set against Christianity.
All of which connects to Dobson’s claim about Trump’s supposed conversion. It is plausible that Paula White could have “led [Trump] to Christ” by reciting a sinner’s prayer while Trump remained oblivious to its meaning as a feature of evangelical conversion. Or Dobson and White could have made the conversion up. Regardless of its truth, the claim seems like an attempt to make Trump more palatable to conservative Christian voters and re-secure their now-tenuous grasp on political power. Many evangelicals will be unable to cast a vote for the Republican presidential candidate with an untroubled conscience. If trusted leaders like Dobson can convince them that Trump is born again, some may find it easier to vote for him in November.
Evangelicals sing of conversion as being “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” but Dobson’s attempt is more akin to a whitewashing. If the doctrine of new birth is the birthright of evangelicals, leaders like Dobson would have them trade it for a mess of pottage.