Why ‘the evangelical voter’ doesn’t mean anything (COMMENTARY)

Print More
A "Vote Here" sign on display in front of Westwood City Hall on Nov. 4, 2014, in Westwood, Kan. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

A "Vote Here" sign on display in front of Westwood City Hall on Nov. 4, 2014, in Westwood, Kan. Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

(RNS) It feels like stating the obvious to say that “evangelical voters” are not a monolith that can be reliably relied upon by any politician. But what should go without saying apparently needs repeating: To say “the evangelical vote” without any further specification is almost meaningless.

First, there are various ways to define “evangelicalism.” Sociologists ask “Who claims to be an evangelical?” and then look for common themes that unite those who say they belong to the movement. Others look at those who claim to be evangelical but are not recognized by the majority of evangelicals as “authentic.” Still others seek to list essential evangelical commitments.

Unlike many journalists covering evangelicals from a political perspective, the fiercest debates over evangelical identity focus on the center and boundaries of evangelical theology: What are the movement’s theological distinctives?


READ: Heaven and near-death experiences: Separating fact from fiction 


All these questions make the debate over evangelical identity a pressing one for evangelical churches and institutions. But these questions are primarily about doctrinal commitments, not political positions.

It’s not surprising, then, to see LifeWay Research partnering with the National Association of Evangelicals to offer a “belief-based research definition” for future surveys. Survey respondents must agree with these four key statements before being considered “evangelical”:

  • “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.”
  • “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their savior.”
  • “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.”
  • “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”

Note how each of these survey questions is focused on evangelical belief, not politics.

So, what does this mean for predicting what evangelicals will do at the voting booth? That question needs further clarification. What kind of evangelical are we talking about? White evangelicals vote differently than black evangelicals. Older evangelicals have different worries and concerns than younger evangelicals.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney leaves the home of Reverend Billy Graham (not pictured) with Graham's son Franklin, right, in Montreat, North Carolina on October 11, 2012. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GRAHAM-REPUBLICAN, originally transmitted on Dec. 22, 2015.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney leaves the home of the Rev. Billy Graham (not pictured) with Graham’s son Franklin, right, in Montreat, N.C., on Oct. 11, 2012. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-GRAHAM-REPUBLICAN, originally transmitted on Dec. 22, 2015, or with RNS-WAX-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Jan. 4, 2016.

When politicians or reporters treat the evangelical movement as a monolithic, reliable voting bloc, they are most likely taking one segment of evangelicals (usually, “white” and “older”) and defining the whole movement.

For example, Franklin Graham’s recent decision to leave the Republican Party and declare himself an independent does not mean “the evangelical vote” is somehow up for grabs this year.


READ: 3 reasons Christians should back religious freedom for all (COMMENTARY)


His departure may indicate a sense of dissatisfaction with the GOP among evangelicals who belong to his subset (white and older), but it says nothing of other subsets — such as the thousands of evangelical students at InterVarsity Fellowship’s Urbana conference last month, who, in supporting the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, would probably register complaints with the Republican Party for reasons completely at odds with Graham’s.

It’s true that, on abortion, evangelicals could rightly be described as a monolith. But that position is not unique to evangelicals: Catholics and Orthodox Christians have inherited a deep and enduring respect for human life that reaches back to the earliest days of the church, when Christians were known for rescuing babies left to exposure in the “throwaway culture” of the Roman Empire. Only a handful of mainline Protestant denominations have defected from the consistent witness of the church regarding the sanctity of human life.

A group of student involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group with 860 chapters in the United States. Photo courtesy of Sonoma State Star

A group of students involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical Christian group with 860 chapters in the United States. Photo courtesy of Sonoma State Star

But on other issues, it is hard to pin down “the evangelical vote.” On war, you find both pacifists and those who adopt some variation of “just war” theory.

On gun control, you have an evangelical leader encouraging people to carry handguns, and another counseling against such a practice.

On the Syrian refugee crisis, you find evangelicals “all over the place.”

On capital punishment, the National Association of Evangelicals last year changed its stance to represent the diversity of views among churches affiliated with the organization.

On race, there are evangelicals who believe the problems are largely a result of individual sin and responsibility and others who believe systemic issues of injustice need to be addressed.

On these and any number of issues, there is no one “evangelical voter.”


READ: Ed Dobson, retired pastor and onetime Moral Majority leader, dies at 65


Trevin Wax is managing editor of the Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

So here’s my advice at the beginning of an election year. Whenever news stories or pundits talk about “the evangelical vote,” ask what subset of the evangelical vote they are speaking of: “What kind of evangelical?” The answer to that question will determine whether the conversation has any meaning.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After”)

  • Pingback: Why ‘the evangelical voter’ doesn’t mean anything (COMMENTARY) - mosaicversemosaicverse()

  • Larry

    “Why ‘the evangelical voter’ doesn’t mean anything?”

    Because evangelicals by and large decided to jump into bed with the most extreme elements of conservative politics. Thus cheapening the alleged moral conviction of their stance. Becoming nothing more than a rubber stamp for the GOP fiscal policies. Evangelical political liberals are rare and not statistically significant.

    The GOP knows that the “social conservatism” of evangelical voters has zero chance of success at a national level and is largely unconstitutional. But they come out and vote for candidates who support corporatist and oligarchic policies which undermine the middle and working classes.

    As for “…consistent witness of the church regarding the sanctity of human life.”

    Christian notions of sanctity of life have a nasty habit of ending at anyone not Christian (or their type of Christian), the poor, women, gays, and racial minorities. Religion is no measure of moral thinking.

  • G Key

    Re “It’s true that, on abortion, evangelicals could rightly be described as a monolith. But that position is not unique to evangelicals: Catholics and Orthodox Christians have inherited a deep and enduring respect for human life…”:

    Mr. Wax, not all people of any given faith have honest claim to that assertion, let alone exclusive claim. In fact, many people of no faith at all “have inherited a deep and enduring respect for human life”.

    For many of us, that includes a deep & enduring respect for what human life means — including boundaries, beliefs, belongings, bedrooms, bodies, & business, not to mention, rights, privacy, equality, & choice.

    What a woman legally does with her own body is neither the choice nor the business of anyone else. Not yours. Not mine. Not some religion’s. And not the government’s.

    A fetus may be a potential person, but a woman already is a person, with her own life to live, according to her beliefs & values, not anyone else’s….

  • G Key

    … It might (emphasis) be different if a stranger offered to pay for her reduced-hours wages & maternal leave, medical costs & transportation, parental costs (including surrogate parenting wages if she wasn’t ready, willing, or able to be a parent), through the child’s 20th year (including food, clothing, medical services, school & college, room & board, automobile & fuel, maintenance, insurance, & all other child care costs), pain & suffering, loss of professional & other opportunities during all those years, inconvenience fees, & whatever additional remuneration she might demand for agreeing to cater to a stranger’s personal beliefs & values instead of following her own equally sacred & inviolate beliefs & values, just so that stranger could feel better about what that woman did with her life. Yes, it might be different then. But only if she accepted the offer.

    And that would be every bit as much her exclusive choice as are contraception & abortion.

  • Jack

    G Key, the writer was not taking a position on abortion so much as stating the church’s position on abortion through the ages.

    But since you insisted on shifting the subject……You sound like someone who doesn’t want to be lumped in with heartless and depraved Roman pagans from 20 centuries ago on the life issue, but that’s exactly where you are if you’re for abortion all the way to birth. All the empty rhetoric in the world won’t change that.

    You’ve chosen to turn the civilizational clock back 20 centuries by your position if it’s as absolutist as it sounds. You have embraced the forces of reaction instead of progress. Supporting unrestricted abortion is about as progressive as supporting chattel slavery, witch doctors, blood letting, and burning widows.

  • Jack

    G Key, yours is a valid argument for birth control but totally useless for abortion because by definition, abortion ends a life rather than prevents it from beginning.

    Such is the case with most absolutist arguments in favor of abortion. They make a medieval assumption that life magically begins at birth and not a second earlier. A simple look at a sonogram reveals otherwise.

  • G Key

    Jack, some people believe contraception ends life, since contraceptives generally prevent attachment of a fertilized egg to the uterine wall.

    Some believe any attempt to interfere with spermatozoa and ova is wrongful, since it interferes with the process of creating life.

    Some believe the right to abortion is not absolute all the way to full-term birth. I am one of those, despite your sure assertions about someone you don’t even know. (How offensive.)

    My points, which I wish you’d address, are that (1) not everyone believes a zygote or fetus is yet a rightful human life; (2) their beliefs are as protected and sacred as ours; (3) the decision to commit a woman’s body to bear a fertilized egg to term couldn’t possibly be more personal, private, and exclusive to that woman; (4) forcing your beliefs on her is “absolutely” unconscionable; and (5) the most — and very least — you could do is offer to pay her, in the event that her choice to abort is financially driven.

  • I think that Trevin underestimates the roll over that past evangelical voting trends have on today. Yes, evangelicals have more diverse views now. On the other hand, we can still safely say that evangelicals still tend to vote Republican and adhere to conservative political ideologies overall. At the same time, times are changing and that is where we see a diversification that Trevin was pointing to.

  • Jack

    The problem, GKey, is, again, that human life doesn’t magically begin at birth.

    In order to believe that, you have to toss science and sonograms aside.

    Courtesy of science, we know too much and all the euphemisms and obfuscations and rhetorical tricks won’t change that.

    You can built a big bonfire and burn every science book on earth that mentions fetal development…..but it will not wipe out the knowledge contained therein.

    Ideologues — from religiously fanatical theocrats to secular totalitarians –have tried this with other forms of knowledge they deem dangerous throughout history. It doesn’t work because you can’t erase the memory of what is and what has already been learned.

    If you burned every book in the world that says 2 and 2 make 4, you would never erase the knowledge that it does. If you shamed, bullied, and cowed every person who accepts this fact into stone-cold silence, it would not wipe out the reality of it.

  • G Key

    All your facts, beliefs, and odd tangents about this stranger’s “secular totalitarianism” (That’s a good one!) skip the point:

    What a woman does with her own body, and her moral judgment, and her rightful choice, are none of your business.

    If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one.

  • Jack

    Way to ignore the obvious, G Key.

    And way to ignore the fact that if you’re advocating abortion any time, any place, and for any reason, more than half the women in this country disagree with you and strongly.

    Find me a gender gap on abortion, G Key. There is none. Women in at least equal numbers as men completely disagree with your contention that abortion is an absolute and unconditional right at every step in the pregnancy.

  • Pingback: PowerLinks 01.07.16 | Acton PowerBlog()