How Politics and Polls Killed the Term ‘Evangelical’

The media was buzzing this week with news from Pew Research that 78 percent of white ‘evangelicals’ plan to vote for Donald Trump this fall. (It is not clear whether the addition of Mike Pence as his running mate will help or hurt, since Pence is by all accounts an evangelical himself, but he caved in to critics in the 2015 controversy over Indiana’s religious liberty law.) Although evangelicals do not seem overly enamored with Trump, this survey confirmed that the Religious Right is alive and well, and it remains beholden to the Republican Party, whomever the GOP might nominate.

However, a number of key evangelical leaders remain opposed to Trump, even as an alternative to the equally unacceptable Hillary Clinton. So who are these rank-and-file Trump supporters who tell pollsters that they are an ‘evangelical’? What do they believe? Do they attend church? Do their lives reflect a transforming experience of grace?

I would suggest that these poll results point to a wholesale watering-down and politicization of the term ‘evangelical.’ We probably can’t do without the term, and historically it was quite a valuable one. But in American pop culture parlance, ‘evangelical’ now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.

George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by this development. These early evangelicals were fighting specifically against cultural Christianity, which was politicized in state churches. In their day, if you lived in Britain or its colonies, and had been baptized as an infant, you were regarded as a Christian. No questions asked.

Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening preached against nominalism and national faith, declaring that you must be born again. The born-again believer would find a radically different, Kingdom-minded way of life in the community of the redeemed.

Much has changed since the 1700s, and the change seems to have accelerated since the 1980s. I would point to three key factors in the corruption of the term ‘evangelical.’

1. The success of the evangelical movement itself. From its origins on the fringe of Anglo-American Christianity, evangelicalism in the 1800s turned into the de facto established religion of many parts of the South and Midwest. By the mid-twentieth century, many Americans could grow up imagining that they were ‘evangelicals’ because that term seemed, in some quarters, equivalent to Protestant ‘Christian’ or even ‘American.’ You were now born an evangelical, not born again as one.

2. The political alignments of the 1970s and 1980s. In those decades, evangelicals began gravitating away from candidates with personal evangelical backgrounds, like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, to those like Nixon who defended the ‘Silent Majority.’ This tendency culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who knew many evangelicals but who was not one himself. Reagan mastered the art of talking like evangelicals and promising progress on issues like school prayer and abortion. But when he got in office, actual progress on those issues was fairly meager, with notable exceptions such as the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986.

From then on, self-identifying white evangelicals have often been ok with candidates who learn evangelical lingo, and who promise good Supreme Court appointments, whatever the candidate’s other positions and background. This meant that the media, who are puzzled by the concept of evangelicalism anyway, could disassociate evangelicals from theology, or affinity with other evangelicals, and link them inextricably with GOP politics.

3. Modern political polling. Political polling has become remarkably accurate at predicting electoral outcomes, even when everyone believes the numbers can’t possibly be true (see Trump in the primaries). But pollsters stink at understanding the people they’re polling. The most serious problem with understanding ‘evangelical’ political behavior, then, is letting respondents define their own religious affiliation.

We see this difficulty all over the religious map. For example, Baylor research has shown that when you dig deeper with a certain fraction of the people who say they have ‘no religion’ in polls, you find that those people attend church regularly. (They are the ‘nones’ who say, “I am not religious, I have a relationship with Jesus.”)

Likewise, time-strapped pollsters just let people tell them that they are evangelicals, without probing what that means. In the primaries, some evidence suggested that ‘evangelicals’ who did not attend church were more likely to support Trump! For those who have a deeper understanding of the term’s meaning, there can be no such thing as a non-churchgoing evangelical (unless the evangelical in question is imprisoned, incapacitated, or similarly detained). But polls can’t account for these sorts of nuances.

I suspect that, tragically, many of these supposed American evangelicals have no clear understanding of the term ‘evangelical,’ or of the gospel itself. They figure, “I’m conservative [another ill-defined term] and a Protestant, therefore I am an evangelical.” Or maybe they think, “Well, I watch Fox News, so I must be an evangelical.” Or, “I respect religion, and I vote Republican, so I must be an evangelical.”

These vague associations have turned ‘evangelical’ into a term that luminaries like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield would not recognize. And, more problematically, they represent a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism, and politicization. That is a gospel that certainly cannot save.