With the Iowa caucus, the "First in the Nation" New Hampshire primary, and South Carolina's primary now behind us, the field of contenders for the Republican nomination continues to shrink. I've watched with great interest as the spectacle rolls on and a parade of non-Romney's (Non-Roms, going forward) rhythmically rise and fall. What is perhaps most interesting about the current frontrunners is the lack of an obvious evangelical candidate. For all the talk that we hear about the importance of the evangelical vote, one would suspect at least one of the potential nominees to be, you know, an evangelical.
But Michele Bachmann is out of the race after a promising start in the Iowa straw poll. Perry, whose entrance into the race as a more "electable" evangelical candidate may have contributed to Bachmann's quick downfall, all but eliminated himself in a number of now infamous debate flops. That leaves one not particularly religious Baptist, two Roman Catholics, and a Mormon. Rick Santorum, a Catholic, is perhaps the most socially conservative and thus the most evangelical-looking of the Non-Roms, but many evangelicals have a deep mistrust of Catholics, so it is doubtful that, as they did in Iowa, evangelicals will support him despite his Catholicism.
So what happened here? Back in 2004, when talking about the evangelical vote was all the rage, one could presume that evangelicals were a unified political front—that denominations or non-denominations within evangelicalism didn't matter, theological differences were moot, and ending abortion was enough to tie them all together. The problem with this presumption is that it was never true. There was never one kind of evangelical. If there was, self-identified evangelicals wouldn't have to add a definition or disclaimer every time they identify as such.
It is not coincidental that the 2012 Republican presidential primaries are bringing this truth to light. A precursory scan of the contemporary landscape of evangelicalism reveals a splintered, disconnected culture in which any interpretation is up for grabs. Even looking at some of the presumed figureheads of evangelicalism reveals just how many different versions there are. Are you an evangelical like Mark Driscoll, who believes in an overly hip, tough-guy Jesus? Or like Benny Hinn, who, with Zionist John Hagee, recently prayed that God would lead the United States into war on behalf of Israel? Or perhaps you identify more with John Piper, whose extreme reformed theology says that some are chosen and others, unfortunately, are just not. I could go on; there's the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen, the socially conscious evangelicalism of Jim Wallis, or the libertarian faith of Marvin Olasky. When Rick Santorum recently said that "we always need a Jesus candidate," which Jesus did he have in mind?
The problem here, of course, is that far too many manifestations of American Christianity have been lumped into the grouping of evangelical. As I typed each of the names above I could hear a chorus of evangelical detractors shouting, "But, he's not an evangelical!" Further, many of those who are described as evangelicals in the media wouldn't self-identify as such, but, time has shown, neither minor nor major theological differences matter when a quick identifier is needed. But, rather than argue over what constitutes evangelicalism, or who can rightly be called an evangelical, this moment in time is a perfect opportunity for American Christians to pause and consider the ways in which Christianity is being remade in the image of ourselves.
Of course, this process of splintering and remaking Christianity has been a long time coming. I would argue that, among others, the author and devout Roman Catholic Flannery O'Connor identified it way back in 1952. Her first novel, Wise Blood, tells the story of Hazel Motes, the grandson of a travelling preacher who is often mistaken for a preacher himself. In response, Motes, an atheist, decides to start a church of his own, The Church Without Christ. In the absence of a deity to direct his steps, Motes trusts his own "wise blood." Thus, O'Connor, in her brilliant way, highlights the absurdity of what she saw as a growing individualism and antinomianism resultant from the melding of modernism with American Protestantism.
And so, here we are. In 2012, there is no explicitly evangelical candidate where, just four short years ago, Republicans chose John McCain, whose evangelical street-cred was bolstered by his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate, and gave second billing to Mike Huckabee, an evangelical pastor. But today it is even more difficult to define evangelical and thus we should not be surprised that no Non-Rom can hope to embody evangelical concerns. Better we abandon the label, take stock of the contemporary religious landscape, and look again in 2016.