The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Polls show evangelicals support Trump. But the term ‘evangelical’ has become meaningless.

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Thursday, July 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Take a cursory glance and all would seem to be well between evangelicals, Donald Trump and the GOP. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the huge evangelical Liberty University, gave a prime-time address Thursday, the grand finale of this week’s Republican National Convention. And a recent Pew Research poll showed that 78 percent of white “evangelicals” — and an overwhelming majority of evangelicals are white — plan to vote for Trump this fall.

However, polls that look into voter attitude show that many Trump-supporting evangelicals are far from enamored with Trump. And Falwell is one of the few prominent evangelicals – aside from a few “prosperity gospel” pastors, as well as old-guard types Tony Perkins and James Dobson, who joined in Thursday night – advocating publicly for Trump.

So what’s going on here? Who are these rank-and-file Trump supporters who tell pollsters that they are “evangelical”? And what does the label mean, anyway?

I would suggest that something more complicated is going on, something that may have given a generation of Americans the wrong idea about evangelicalism – and U.S. politics. What has happened is nothing short of a watering-down and politicization of the term “evangelical.”

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We probably can’t do without the term, and historically it was quite a valuable one. But in American pop culture parlance, “evangelical” now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican. And due to polling definitions, it doesn’t fully include millions of African Americans and Latinos, confusing our understanding of how religion and politics mix.

Early evangelical leaders such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by the way we use the word “evangelical.” Those original evangelicals were fighting against the idea that Christianity is mostly cultural or political – not primarily about one’s relationship with God. In their day, if you lived in Britain or its colonies, and had been baptized as an infant, you were regarded as a Christian. No questions asked. They were fighting that.

Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening of the 18th century preached against the idea of an in-name-only affiliation, declaring you must be born again.

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Much has changed since the 1700s, and the change seems to have accelerated since the 1980s. I would point to three key factors in the corruption of the term “evangelical.”

The success of the evangelical movement itself. From its origins on the fringe of Anglo-American Christianity, evangelicalism in the 1800s turned into the de facto established religion of many parts of the South and Midwest. By the mid-20th century, many Americans could grow up imagining that they were “evangelicals” because that term seemed, in some quarters, equivalent to Protestant Christian or even “American.” You were now born an evangelical, not born-again as one.

The political alignments of the 1970s and 1980s. In those decades, evangelicals began gravitating away from candidates with personal evangelical backgrounds, such as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, to those such as Nixon who defended the “Silent Majority.” This tendency culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who knew many evangelicals but who was not one himself. Reagan mastered the art of talking like evangelicals and promising progress on issues such as school prayer and abortion. But when he got into office, actual progress on those issues was fairly meager, with notable exceptions such as the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986.

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From then on, self-identifying white evangelicals have often been okay with candidates who learn evangelical lingo, and who promise good Supreme Court appointments, whatever the candidate’s other positions and background. This meant that the public could disassociate evangelicals from theology, or affinity with other evangelicals, and link them inextricably with GOP politics.

Modern political polling. Political polling has become remarkably accurate at predicting electoral outcomes, even when everyone believes the numbers can’t possibly be true (see Trump in the primaries). But pollsters stink at understanding the people they’re polling. The most serious problem with understanding “evangelical” political behavior, then, is letting respondents define their own religious affiliation.

Time-strapped pollsters just let people tell them that they are evangelicals, without probing what that means. In the primaries, some evidence suggested that “evangelicals” who did not attend church were more likely to support Trump. For those who have a deeper understanding of the term’s historic meaning, there can be no such thing as a non-churchgoing evangelical (unless the evangelical in question is imprisoned, incapacitated or similarly detained). But polls can’t account for these sorts of nuances.

Polls often don’t find ways to properly categorize African American, Hispanic or other kinds of evangelicals of color. They often wind up in categories such as “Historically Black Protestant” or “Protestant” because of how “evangelical” has become associated with being white and Republican. But whatever their religious commitments, Hispanics and especially African Americans are overwhelmingly against Trump. Some key black evangelicals, such as Washington, D.C., pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, are openly advocating that evangelicals vote for Clinton as the lesser of two evils.

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As illustrated by Falwell and his plum speaking role, I realize that some real evangelicals do actually support Trump. But I suspect that many of these supposed evangelicals in the polls have no clear understanding of the formal definition of “evangelical,” which calls for true conversion and a devout life. They figure, “I’m conservative [another ill-defined term] and a Protestant, therefore I am an evangelical.” Or maybe they think, “Well, I watch Fox News, so I must be an evangelical.” Or, “I respect religion, and I vote Republican, so I must be an evangelical.”

These vague associations have turned “evangelical” into a term that luminaries like Edwards and Whitefield would not recognize. And, more problematically, they represent a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism and politicization. That is a gospel that certainly cannot save.

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of books including “George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father” from 2014. A version of this essay originally appeared on the Gospel Coalition website.