Who Are the Evangelicals?

Trump evangelical

Everyone (including me!) is trying to make sense of the so-called “evangelicals” who are supporting Donald Trump.  Even The New York Times is curious about this.  They have gathered four evangelical writers to discuss the meaning of the term “evangelical” and how it has been used in this primary season.

For example, Gabriel Salguero, the President and founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, begins his piece this way: “The term evangelical should not be reduced to a political category.” Salguero argues that “evangelical” is a theological category–something akin to the so-called Bebbington Quadrilateral.

Here is a taste:

But while the evangelical vote is not uniform, there are three strong theological tenets that broadly define what evangelicals — across racial, ethnic and political lines — believe: We have a high view of the authority of Scripture, we value sharing our faith (and building it within the community), and believe strongly in salvation through Jesus Christ alone. Our unity is around theological concomitants, not political priorities.

As I have argued before, there seems to be a slight distinction between evangelical voters and “values voters.”  On one level, nearly all evangelicals in the GOP are values voters.  In this election cycle they want voters who are pro-life, support traditional marriage, and defend the right of evangelicals to uphold these views without government interference (They call this “religious liberty”). If any of the GOP candidates were to reverse their positions on any of these issues, I think it is fair to say that they would not garner much evangelical support.

Evangelicals who think these values are non-negotiable make up a large subset of the Republican Party.  But within that subset, evangelical voters might prioritize different things.

Some evangelicals support Trump because of his business savvy, his anti-immigration and anti-Muslim positions, his economic plan (is there one?), or his tough talk on foreign policy.

Other evangelicals support Ted Cruz because the Texas Senator believes in limited government, defends the Constitution, is pro-Israel, or gives high priority in his stump speech to the replacement of Antonin Scalia.

More moderate evangelicals support John Kasich because they like his positive campaign and his compassionate conservatism informed by his Christian faith.

Some evangelicals might like Rubio because he is willing to stand up to Donald Trump.

I think the media is just starting to make sense of these differences among evangelicals. Some members of the media may be starting to realize that the paradigm they have used to understand evangelical voting habits is outdated.

When Jimmy Carter ran for POTUS in 1976 and told the nation that he was a “born-again Christian,” journalists had no idea what that meant.  When Newsweek declared that 1976 was “The Year of the Evangelical,” the magazine almost seemed to suggest that it had uncovered some strange creature from another planet.  And then Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority came along and turned conservative evangelicals into one or two issue- voters (abortion always being one of those issues).

Until this year, members of the media and political pundits who know a lot about politics but little about religion, have found this old narrative useful.  But with the arrival of Trump as a candidate who has managed to attract large numbers of “evangelical” voters, this narrative has become much more complicated.

Pundits and experts are no longer thinking about evangelicals as a monolithic voting bloc. They are now trying to dig deeper, analyzing evangelicals in terms of church attendance (or non-church attendance), class, and even race.  (I see the phrase “white evangelical” used in this election cycle more than I have in the past).

Stay tuned.  I am not done with this New York Times forum.

3 thoughts on “Who Are the Evangelicals?

  1. An interesting factoid from my nephew, a Liberty U. grad and Lynchburg resident. Despite the endorsement of Jerry Falwell, Jr., Trump performed horribly in the precinct that covers Liberty U. Campus, polling only 7.65% of the vote, a distant fourth place after Rubio, Cruz, and Carson.


  2. I think the issue of immigration may be the key to figuring out this new divide. Although this is by no means a scientific statistical observation, of those evangelicals (in the traditional political sense) that I know, they have not wavered on the two culture issues of abortion and marriage rights. But they have become convicted on the issue of immigration. I think in years past, it was easy for many evangelicals to point to their capacity for charity work as a means of counterbalancing a party stance that seemed to lack compassion towards our geographic neighbors. But now that portions of the GOP are no longer gesturing towards xenophobia but instead expressing explicitly, those who are truly compelled to vote in accordance with their convictions are stuck with a bit of a Sophie’s Choice.


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