Who’s an evangelical and who gets to decide?

Who’s an evangelical and who gets to decide?
President Donald Trump speaks before boarding Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, N.J., on Aug. 15, 2019.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner. This particular column is a commentary from Religion News Service.

(RNS)— The most often repeated story about religion and politics these days is the evangelical love affair with Donald Trump.

Virtually every week we get another story of how evangelicals love President Trump, no matter what he does. Pundits likewise offer much analysis of the reasons for evangelicals’ undying fidelity. New York magazine recently averred, for instance, that evangelicals like Trump because of his “hatefulness.” The Washington Post similarly advised “white evangelicals” that it was time to “panic” because they had sold their birthrights for a mess of Trumpism.

There is no doubt that certain Republican evangelical insiders, including Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham and First Baptist Dallas’ Robert Jeffress, have gone “all in” on Trumpism.

It’s true, too, that millions of practicing white evangelicals have seemingly gone with them. These white Christian traditionalists voted for Trump either as the “lesser of two evils” over Hillary Clinton, or out of genuine enthusiasm for the president. The 81% of self-identified evangelical white voters who supported Trump in 2016 are not a mirage. They reflect a reality about white evangelicals’ allegiance to Trump’s GOP.

Nevertheless, the vitriol of recent months has created misunderstandings about evangelicals themselves. To outsiders, it may seem as if Falwell, Graham, and Jeffress define the evangelical movement. But the idea that Fox News-watching religious Republican voters are a stand-in for all evangelicals is ludicrous. The mere impression that they might encompass what it means to be an evangelical shows the paucity of our religious understanding and global insight.

Even within white traditionalist evangelicalism, an outspoken group of leaders registered opposition to or grave concern about Trump in 2016. These included Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, John Piper of Desiring God Ministries and Beth Moore of Living Proof Ministries, all of them far more visible on the evangelical conference circuit than the Republican insiders.

More importantly, those evangelicals represented in the media are hardly representative. Nonwhite evangelicals, especially African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos, were less enthusiastic about Trump. Polls often exclude such nonwhite evangelicals by design, as stories about “evangelicals and politics” typically only look at “self-identifying evangelical white Republicans and politics.”

This leads not only to misconceptions, but curious absences in news about evangelicals. Probably the most fascinating topic about evangelicals and politics is one rarely discussed: the allegiances of Hispanic evangelicals, who are up for grabs between the Republicans and Democrats. We don’t hear about them, in part, because polls often have no category for Latino Protestants (almost all of whom are evangelicals).

Another group of missing evangelicals are the millions who do not vote, even in presidential elections. Though evangelicals have been more likely to vote than other Americans since 1980, a strong minority of evangelicals in America don’t vote at all, in spite of decades of brow-beating by Republican insiders who say that not voting is sinful.

Is a nonvoting evangelical still an evangelical? One would get the impression from coverage of evangelicals that the nonvoters are aberrant or nonexistent. This shows just how politicized our definition of “evangelical” has become.

The absence of these evangelicals in the political debate points up a wider problem with polls: The internet and cellphones have gutted the efficacy of traditional polling. Landlines, and people willing to answer them, were essential to the heyday of American polling a half-century ago. Now they are vanishingly rare. Response rates of 80% to 90% used to be common for pollsters; 5% or less is now routine. Pollsters try to account for this deficit, but the people polled are rarely a representative sample in a traditional sense.

Even when a pollster gets someone on the line, the category “evangelical” itself is rather vague. Political polling about evangelicals, which began in 1976 with the candidacy of the born-again Jimmy Carter, has almost always depended on self-identification. Pollsters ask respondents if they are evangelical or born again (two terms that can get strikingly different results, depending on one’s ethnicity). If a person says “yes” to either, especially if they are white, then the pollster asks about the person’s political behavior.

It is uncommon for the pollster to ask what a respondent means by saying they’re evangelical or born again. Do they go to church? Which one? How did they become an evangelical? We usually don’t know.

When pollsters do match evangelical self-identification with denomination and attendance, oddities appear. For example, it has become standard for pollsters who do ask more probing religious questions to allow a category for “nonchurchgoing evangelicals.” And in spite of evangelicalism’s historic relationship with Protestant churches, you find small but notable populations of Catholics, Mormons and even Eastern Orthodox believers who say they are evangelicals.

The absurd outcome of these factors together is that a tiny slice of the global evangelical community—white, GOP-centered self-identified evangelicals—is now the image we have of the whole.

That slice, it must be said, looks nothing like what most of the world knows as an evangelical. On the global stage, evangelicals are thriving in Latin America, Africa and east Asia. (Even in America, the growth areas for evangelical and Pentecostal denominations are among Hispanic Americans and recent immigrants from Central America, the Caribbean and Africa.)

The political concerns of a Chinese house church attendee are far different from those of a white voter in Robert Jeffress’ congregation. Yet if we understand evangelicals as a spiritual category—as Christians who believe in being born again, the authority of the Bible and a believer’s daily walk with God—that Chinese believer is absolutely an evangelical. Such Chinese believers (and others like them around the world) represent the demographic future of global evangelical faith, a future that is not centered on Donald Trump’s GOP. 

The Banner has a subscription to Religion News Service and occasionally re-publishes articles of wide Christian interest, according to the license. The original story can be found here.

About the Author

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and the author of “Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service

See comments (5)




Evangelical is a word to describe anyone who is super enthusiastic about something. You might meet an evangelicalChristian or an evangelical cheerleader, or even an evangelical Christian cheerleader.

Evangelical is an adjective originally used to describe a relationship to a particular school of Protestantism. More generally, evangelical is used to describe a strict belief in the Christian gospel and an emphasis on personal conversion to Christianity. Outside of church, the adjective evangelical can describe someone who is an extremely enthusiastic or zealous about a particular cause. An evangelical supporter of something will speak passionately and try very hard to get you to convert to their cause.

Just Maybe

Just maybe the 81% of evangelicals who voted for Trump saw something different – something far more loving for those in need.

Maybe they saw seven million individuals moving from welfare to fulfilling employment.

Maybe they saw the possibility of protection for the unborn.

Maybe they saw the appointment of judges who support Christian values.

Maybe they saw the lowest unemployment ever.

Maybe they saw reduced taxes as allowing many more to send children to Christian Schools.

Maybe they saw an Education Department headed by someone who really cares.

Maybe they saw a cesspool of corruption in Washington that needed to be cleaned out.

Maybe they saw someone who made promises and could afford to keep them.

Just maybe the 81% saw something that no one else could have delivered on – a much more loving and compassionate government.

And just maybe the 81% are thanking God every day for Donald J. Trump.

[Editor's Note: This comment has been edited to fit within our community guidelines.]

I've been uncomfortable with the label "evangelical" long before Trump descended down the escalator. As a Reformed Christian, not only was I uncomfortable with the political beliefs held by many who call themselves evangelicals, but their theology: human-centered, semi-Pelagian, low view of the sacraments, complementarian, dualistic, heaven-focused, etc.

As a result, when people ask if I am an evangelical, I tell them, "No, I am confessional."

Language shifts, and the term "evangelical" has come to mean something different to secular society than it does to those of us within evangelical religious communities.  

That being said, the term within secular society refers to what is primarily a stereotype, and though we know that stereotypes are usually wrong and certainly don't apply to most of us, there are people who live up to that stereotype within our circles.  

In every community or organization, there are always going to be those people who are loud, obnoxious, uneducated, and who follow ideology blindly.  It doesn't matter if you're left or right, religious or not, from this state or that, or from a particular age group or class, those people exist.  Unfortunately, that is the stereotype that is now being associated with the term "evangelical", and their loudness confirms the stereotype.  

So the question is, should the church address it when these people are running around loudly confirming the stereotype that we want to shake?  Or do we, for the sake of unity, just let them keep doing their thing and quietly hope that no one will think we are associated with them?  

God alone knows who is a true Christian and who is not.  In general, it is not a good practice for anyone to attempt this elusive determination.  This is because the Bible instructs us not to judge others and because it is not objectively knowable or clearly ascertained.  But in the case of Donald Trump, there is an exception.  Donald Trump admitted in an interview with Frank Luntz in Ames, Iowa on 7/18/15 that he has never asked God and does not make a practice of asking God for forgiveness. Trump confirmed this a few days later with Anderson Cooper.  Then in January of 2016 Jake Tapper asked Trump if he regretted making that claim and Trump said he did not.  Given the indispensable and foundational role asking God for forgiveness has in the Christian Faith I maintain that we can be as certain as is possible that Donald Trump until stating otherwise is not a Christian.  If any doubt remains, we need only reflect on the president’s words and deeds in light of the fruit of the spirit as defined in Galatians 5:22-23. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control;.    I will leave it to the reader to decide if being a Christian is essential to be an Evangelical.