(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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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”)