On a Sunday morning in 2006, Chad Connelly’s life began to unravel. As he tells it, he came home from a church service with his two sons in tow, ages nine and five. Upon entering the house, he found his wife of 18 years on the kitchen floor, lifeless. He sent his boys to their room and held her body. “I literally challenged God,” he recalls. “If all things work together for good to them that love God,” he prayed, “you’ve got to prove it.” The following weeks were a blur. He fainted in the casket room. He hadn’t arranged for a headstone — “Nobody ever told me you had to go pick out a tombstone,” he recalls. He ached for his sons, who lost one parent to suicide and seemed to be losing another to distress. He agonized over his career as an engineer and a businessman. But he felt a nudge. “Sometimes in the lowest places, God says, ‘I’m not done with you,’” he says. “I believe he’s tapped us on the shoulder and said, ‘Now it’s your turn, go fix what’s going on in this nation.’” Here in his story, Connelly says that he decided to follow the voice. Now, nearly two decades later, he works as one of the most influential evangelical powerbrokers in American politics.

If Connelly had his way, every Christian in the country would vote. The country, as he sees it, is barreling toward a precipice: away from the Bible, away from conservative values, away from God. He believes that if he can train enough pastors to vote the “right way,” they can train their congregants. “Political people walk into my meetings, and they see 42 pastors,” Connelly says. “I see 6,000 people, 8,000 people. They don’t know the multiplier effect.”

“I believe he’s tapped us on the shoulder and said, ‘Now it’s your turn, go fix what’s going on in this nation.’”

Connelly isn’t a pastor. He’s not a big-money donor. Aside from a stint as the Republican Party chair in South Carolina, he’s never held elected office. But within his nonprofit organization Faith Wins, Connelly has amassed a following of some 16,000 evangelical pastors, who look to him as a mentor as they navigate political issues. He speaks with an assuredness — a charm. And with conviction. To them, Connelly is the nonpartisan guide equipped to help them combine their faith with their politics. All he asks in return is they register their congregants to vote and teach them to vote “Biblical values.” Faith Wins has pastors involved in all 50 states, though the highest concentrations are in early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Before the Iowa caucuses, Connelly blitzed the state with a group of pastors, hosting “caucus training” meetings in churches, where he guided congregants on where to vote, how to register and which values should drive their candidate choice. In New Hampshire, he held pastor briefings on issues like Israel and abortion. In South Carolina, he held closed-door meetings with Republican candidates themselves.

To Connelly, his work is an essential bridge between church and politics. But not everyone sees it that way. Many Americans are uncomfortable with religious leaders operating in the political sphere. Trust in clergy hit a new low in a recent Gallup survey. In his new book, “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism,” journalist Tim Alberta writes of the melding of the political right and the evangelical church. A new form of Christian nationalism, Alberta writes, allows evangelicals to embrace a “Christian America that puts them at odds with Christianity.” They are able to replace their worship of God with the worship of a state: “They have allowed their national identity to shape their faith identity instead of the other way around,” he writes. Connelly doesn’t escape Alberta’s pen. Connelly is “warm and self-deprecating,” he writes, but by bringing politics into the sanctuary, he’s doing inextricable damage to the church. “Did Connelly worry, in the context of campaigning inside houses of worship, about a blurry line between engagement and idolatry?” Alberta writes.

It is believed the term “kingmaker” traces back to 15th-century Britain. The first was Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, who — through a fortuitous combination of military prowess and familial prestige — helped remove both Henry VI and Edward IV from the throne by assassination.

In American politics, kingmakers operate with money and influence, not swords. There are the media magnates, like Rupert Murdoch. There are the billionaires — George Soros, the late Sheldon Adelson. There are webs of big-name advisers and big-money donors — the Koch brothers, Tom Steyer, Paul Singer. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that clergy became kingmakers in American politics the way we recognize them today. Some pastors had always preached politics, to a degree — in colonial times, it was the custom in several New England states to “open each year’s session of the legislature with an annual election sermon,” according to archives from the American Antiquarian Society. But they were rarely entwined in the world of partisan politics. First, it was Billy Graham, working behind the scenes trying to sink John F. Kennedy for being Catholic. Then it was Jerry Falwell, diving headfirst into Republican politics with his “Moral Majority” movement.

Falwell’s overtly partisan maneuverings were concerning, even to Graham. “Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person,” he said. “We have to stand in the middle to preach to all people, right and left.” That was a common position, at the time. At the height of Watergate, when prominent evangelicals were in Nixon’s corner, Barry Goldwater — the boisterous Republican senator — warned of religious influence in his party. “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the (Republican) party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem,” he told a journalist. “... Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise.”

But Falwell’s Moral Majority proved both influential and lucrative: The massive conservative lobbying group pushed Reagan into the White House in 1980, riding the support of over two million donors. By the early 1990s, the Moral Majority splintered. Cal Thomas, a conservative columnist, warned against the corrupting influence that power had on the organization’s original intentions. “In the 1980s, people were led to believe that changing government leadership would keep their teenage daughter from getting pregnant, would clean up television, would reduce drug use, and restore ‘morality’ to America,” he wrote. “They believed it because we in the Moral Majority knew they wanted to believe it, so we convinced them it could happen. Many books were sold with quotations from the past, suggesting that the time of the Founders was more moral than the time of Carter and Clinton. (Somehow Republican presidents got a free pass even when they failed to do what we wanted.) But those of us who criticized liberal attempts to use government to impose what we regarded as an unrighteous standard were trying just as hard to use government to impose a righteous standard.”

“They have allowed their national identity to shape their faith identity instead of the other way around.”

Connelly sees his work as different from the old Moral Majority, as well as different from the Christian Coalition and other groups. Instead of spending each evening on television himself, he’d rather empower the local pastors to “do the work themselves.” But Connelly has made a career out of his influence. Even before his wife died and he pivoted his career, he’d already begun curating a public image as a motivational speaker and author. In the early 2000s, he began writing a book about “the solid values that once formed the bedrock of American society.” In 2013, Connelly became the Republican National Committee’s first-ever director of faith engagement. He hit the road, meeting with some 80,000 pastors (in his estimation) in the three years preceding the 2016 election, asking pastors: All things are spiritual, including so-called political issues. So why aren’t your congregants turning out to the polls? Come November 2016, evangelicals did turn out, in record fashion: 80 percent of white evangelicals backed Trump, the highest proportion for a Republican candidate ever recorded. Connelly was praised as the “unsung hero” of Trump’s election. Evangelicals made up over one-fourth of the 2016 electorate; it was Trump’s victory in a handful of evangelical-heavy swing states — Iowa, Florida, Ohio — that secured him the election.

This year, Connelly can’t formally endorse a candidate and maintain nonprofit status with Faith Wins. He’s instead resorted to encouraging his pastors to vote according to “Biblical values,” as he calls it. “I can take you to the scripture on life, marriage, Israel, religious liberty, sovereign borders,” he says. “We want to link arms on the issues that matter — that are biblical, basic, common sense, conservative issues.” While a growing number of evangelicals are skeptical of Trump, Connelly says he would be doing the same work if there were an election this year or not. “You think this is about an election? No,” he says. He wants to see pastors and congregants involved in their communities. But, right now anyway, the pastors Connelly has trained aren’t meeting with local city councils or county mayors or even governors — they are focusing on a presidential election. Perhaps it’s a symptom of a broader American fixation: a creep toward all politics becoming national, and a dissolution of interest in building strong communities from the inside out. When asked if he will see his work as a success if the pastors he’s coached are active in their local communities, but the more liberal presidential candidate wins the election, Connelly takes a beat. “(The election) is a piece of the puzzle. And policies always have an impact. But getting these guys involved locally is a whole lot bigger deal to me.”

This story appears in the April 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.