Donald Trump met with hundreds of evangelical leaders in New York last Tuesday. Shortly after the meeting, James Dobson, the founder of the group Focus on the Family, claimed Trump recently “[accepted] a relationship with Christ,” adding, “I know the person who led him to Christ.” His statement was first brought to public attention by the historian John Fea, and then picked up in The New York Times and other publications. Dobson later issued a statement identifying the person who reportedly converted Trump as the prosperity-gospel televangelist Paula White. The Trump campaign refused to comment on the report.
Whether Trump later claims to be born again or passes over the question is irrelevant. Dobson’s statement of hearsay says nothing about Trump’s faith, but it reveals a lot about how some evangelicals are trying to steel themselves to vote for Trump in the fall.
Despite the enthusiasm of the leaders who met with Trump, the real-estate mogul has stirred up significant opposition from those evangelicals who have vowed, “never Trump.” (Evangelicals’ support for Trump in the primaries has probably been overstated, too.) They find that his crudity, womanizing, narcissism, and connections to gambling, not to mention his racism and inconsistent pro-life position, fall far short of their standards. Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is an outspoken critic of Trump and the evangelicals who support him. Moore recently said his “primary prayer for Donald Trump is that he would first of all repent of sin and come to faith in Jesus Christ.”
That is precisely what Dobson claims Trump has done. Evangelicals have distinctive ideas about what constitutes religious conversion, which they call being “born again.” To be born again, one must make a decision to pray, repent sins, and accept Jesus’s salvation. Most evangelicals look to such a conversion as the decisive mark of whether someone is Christian or not; some regard Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants who have not been through this experience as not really Christian. Being born again is a matter of the heart rather than intellectual assent or institutional affiliation. Being born again can happen instantly, much like the biblical conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. And just as Saul was an enemy of the church who became Paul the Apostle after his conversion, evangelicals believe the new birth can utterly transform anyone.
The evangelical idea of conversion has a long history in America, and that history shows why evangelicals care whether Trump has been born again. While the term “born again” comes from the Bible, the idea of new birth came to prominence during the colonial revivals of the 1730s and 1740s. Ministers like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennent preached the need for the new birth and “heart religion” as opposed to mere “formal” Christianity. These awakenings were the beginning of the movement that became evangelicalism in the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world.
The evangelical revivals of the 1830s and 1840s continued to develop the idea of conversion as new birth. The lawyer-turned-revivalist Charles Grandison Finney preached that sinners could exercise their wills and be converted instantly by praying to God. Religious publishers such as the American Tract Society published an enormous number of tracts spreading that message. These brief pamphlets were distributed to non-Christians to encourage them to convert to Christianity and show them how to do so. Drawing on biblical models, the ATS gradually learned to end its tracts with a brief “sinner’s prayer.” The potential convert was instructed to repeat this prayer as the decisive act by which he or she became a Christian.
Over the 19th century and into the 20th, evangelicalism moved into mainstream American religious and cultural life. While today’s conservative Christians often claim the United States was founded as a Christian nation, in fact, it took a great deal of missionary effort to evangelize the United States during the 19th century. And wherever home missionaries, Sunday school teachers, tract publishers, and revivalist preachers pressed the evangelical gospel, they brought the idea of conversion as new birth through a sinner’s prayer.
By the 1950s, evangelicals had routinized and institutionalized this process. The young evangelist Billy Graham preached to tens of millions of Americans over the following six decades. His sermons taught people how to be converted, then called them forward to pray and receive Christ. In 1952, the evangelist Bill Bright wrote a tract that he called “The Four Spiritual Laws.” It ended with a sinner’s prayer and promised “you can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer.” According to the organization Bright founded, at least one billion copies of that piece of writing have been distributed worldwide.
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.