Shenanigans: Evangelical identity and the evangelical brand (part 3)

Shenanigans: Evangelical identity and the evangelical brand (part 3) October 31, 2016

The key to a Republican victory in the race for the White House, some have argued, is finding and mobilizing the “missing evangelicals.” If those millions of “missing” white evangelical Christian voters had showed up in 2012, the argument goes, then Barack Obama would not have won re-election. And if those millions of missing evangelicals are motivated to turn up next Tuesday, then Donald Trump is sure to win.

Here’s a USA Today piece from last year discussing this theory. This is David Jackson reporting from a Texas mega-church:

Estimates suggest there were as many as 17 million “missing” evangelical voters in 2012, though some political analysts question whether the potential number is that high. …

Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, told the crowd that evangelical Christians made up 27% of the electorate in 2012, a presidential year, and 32% of voters in the 2014 midterm elections.

Yet as many 17 million evangelicals stayed home in 2012, he added, an election in which President Obama beat Mitt Romney by some 5 million votes.

John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics, is skeptical there are so many missing evangelical voters.

It all depends on how you define evangelicals, Green said. Turnout is already high among voters who strongly identify themselves as evangelical Christians, he said, and “to make the numbers big enough, you’ve got to include a wide diversity of people,” including voters who may not base their vote on religion or social issues.

Green has been studying white evangelical voters for decades and he knows his stuff. He and his long-time collaborators — James Guth, Lyman Kellstedt, and Corwin Smidt — are intimately familiar with the big, sprawling mass of American evangelicalism. So when you ask John Green how many evangelical voters there are, he’ll always respond that “it depends on how you define evangelicals.”

Green gets this question a lot during election cycles — mostly from people who, like Ralph Reed, are thinking of “evangelical” as a synonym for white Republican voters who “base their vote on religion or social issues.” That’s what they really mean when they ask him “how many evangelicals.” They mean how many white Protestant voters who vote strictly for Republicans because of abortion and gay marriage and the desire for a Supreme Court that will legislate from the bench to outlaw both of those things.

But Green and his colleagues also know that evangelicalism is bigger and messier than just that partisan voting bloc. Evangelicalism is a sprawling branch of Protestant Christianity that includes far more theological — and political — diversity than many people realize. More diversity than people like Ralph Reed want you to realize.

And once you look at the numbers — as Green and his friends have — you’ll realize that these “missing” evangelical voters can’t be found among the hyper-partisan white anti-abortion cohort Reed is talking about. “To make the numbers big enough” to find another 17 million non-voting evangelicals you have to expand your definition of evangelical broadly enough to include lots of other Protestant types who haven’t shown the same hyper-partisan litmus-test political habits. You’ll have to define “evangelical” as a theological category that encompasses millions of other people who don’t fit neatly into the white evangelical “values-voter” category that has become such a fixture of our partisan politics.

Donald Trump speaks at the white evangelical “Values Voter Summit” in September 2015.

This gets tricky even when we’re not talking about politics during an election cycle. Any discussion of evangelicalism always “depends on how you define evangelicals.” Some of those definitions draw the lines to exclude or to include various different (and competing) factions, meaning the choice of “how you define evangelicals” is often contested or disputed. Drawing those lines can be a way of asserting or acquiring power and control.

Choosing among the various available differences can also be a matter of expedience. Consider, for example, the long-running narrative contrasting the dynamic growth of evangelical churches with the gradual attrition of mainline Protestant denominations. Evangelicals love to talk about this. We’re growing; they’re shrinking. God is blessing us with growth and thereby affirming us. But the only way to support that claim in recent decades is by using an expansive definition of “evangelicals” that includes the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal/charismatic groups that many white evangelicals — speaking in other contexts — would want to exclude. Are name-it-and-claim-it “prosperity gospel” churches a legitimate part of evangelicalism? Depends why you’re asking.

This is why I call shenanigans on the “new definition” of evangelical endorsed by LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals. They’re trumpeting this new, expansive definition as a defense against the increasingly shameful realization that the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals support Donald Trump. This association and this lockstep, unshakeable support for a transparently dishonest demagogue is starting to harm the evangelical brand. Every time Trump is accused of assaulting yet another woman, or every time he retweets something racist, misogynist or anti-Semitic, that reflects back on the mass of white evangelicals who support him.

So now, in an attempt to redeem the evangelical brand from this tight-knit association with Trump and deplorable Trumpism, these folks are promoting a broader, more expansive, pseudo-Bebbington definition of evangelical that allows them to argue that not all evangelicals are hyper-partisans whose primary source of identity comes from politics rather than religion.

And that’s not wrong in itself. The shenanigans come in when we ask these folks other questions and watch them quickly abandon this new definition, reverting back to a fiercely exclusive set of boundaries that delegitimize anyone who isn’t a lock-step hyper-partisan Republican culture warrior.

Say, “Most evangelicals support Donald Trump” and they’ll say it’s unfair to deny the vast diversity of political and theological views that constitute the broader whole of evangelicalism.

Say, “It’s possible to be both evangelical and gay” and suddenly you’ll find that such diversity is not allowed. They’ll inform you that it’s impossible to be both gay and evangelical, and impossible to be both gay “affirming” and evangelical. Just as they’ll inform you that it’s impossible to be pro-choice and evangelical. And when you trace the lines of all these more exclusive, identity-protecting tribal boundaries, you’ll find that almost everyone left inside is a white person voting for Donald Trump.

“Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord,” Proverbs says. I won’t go so far as to say “abomination,” but I do call shenanigans.

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