To the astonishment of his rivals and the dismay of a growing number of influential voices in the evangelical world, Donald Trump continues to be the candidate of choice for Protestant Republicans in this election’s primaries and caucuses. Trip Gabriel, a writer for the New York Times, summed up the evangelical support for Trump as “One of the prime paradoxes of the 2016 election: A twice-divorced candidate who has flaunted his adultery, praised Planned Parenthood and admitted to never asking for God’s forgiveness is the favorite of the Christian right.”
The emergence of Christian conservatives as a force in Republican politics traces to the Moral Majority movement of the 1970s led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who helped put Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush into office. and Pew Research Center calculates that it remains true today, with 56 percent of them identifying as Republican while just 28 percent as Democrat. In fact, evangelicals are more Republican now than in 2007, when 50 percent were Republican and 34 percent were Democrat.
On Super Tuesday, Trump went on to claim victories in Georgia, Alabama, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia, and Arkansas. This dealt a devastating blow to Ted Cruz, who was relying heavily on the evangelical votes found in the “Bible Belt.” Overall, nearly half of all people (47%) in the 12 Super Tuesday states that identify with the Republican Party are evangelical Protestants. With Trump winning several of these strong evangelical states, Ted Cruz—who campaigned strongly for and relies on the evangelical vote—is forced to accept a large number of second place finishes, severely hampering his campaign run.
Another Pew Research poll says that the results of Super Tuesday were to be generally expected, showing that half of white evangelical voters (52%) think Trump would be a good/great president, while only 3 in 10 think he would be a poor/terrible president (29%). It now seems to be the case that Trump is correct in his boasting that “I love the evangelicals, and they love me.”
“Social conservatives are taking a look at Trump and saying he’s not with me on all these issues, but the overall larger imperative for us is to tear down this system that has not served us for a very long time,” said Gregg Keller, a former executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
However, despite these polls, two Protestant authority figures are attempting to more accurately define “evangelical.” Leith Anderson is a leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Ed Stetze is a lead researcher at LifeWay Research. Anderson and Stetze say that this research matters because “The desire to survey white evangelicals to determine their political interests inadvertently ends up conveying two ideas that are not true: that “evangelical” means “white” and that evangelicals are primarily defined by their politics. […] Surveys that focus on white evangelicals shape the way our non-evangelical neighbors see evangelical believers. So they often perceive us primarily as political adversaries or allies, rather than people primarily motivated by beliefs.”
“You never hear about black evangelicals,” Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, said last year. “Watch the 2016 election. When they talk about evangelicals again, they won’t go to Bible-believing black evangelicals. They’re going to talk to white people.”
Anderson and Stetze find a problem with the way polling is currently done towards Christian voters, asking people to identify with general labels that do not accurately present one’s beliefs. “For example, many Christians hold evangelical beliefs but don’t call themselves evangelical; many Christians call themselves evangelical yet don’t hold evangelical beliefs. And denominational ties don’t always predict what someone actually believes.”
This study reveals a gap between belief and belonging. As a result, when pollsters refer to “evangelicals,” it usually represents a smaller, self-identified subset that fails to take into account legitimate evangelical beliefs.
Anderson and Stetze crafted a research definition of “evangelical” based on the famed Bebbington Quadrilateral, developed by David Bebbington of the University of Stirling in Scotland. Bebbington claimed that these four specific characteristics were what evangelicals held to in 18th-20th century England, where evangelicalism rose most prominently: biblicism, a love of God’s Word; crucicentrism, a focus on Christ’s atoning work on the cross; conversionism, the need for new life in Christ; and activism, the need to live out faith in action.
Questions asked regarding those four positions yielded poll results showing about 30 percent of all Americans have evangelical beliefs. Broken out by ethnicity, 29 percent of whites, 44 percent of African Americans, 30 percent of Hispanics, and 17 percent of people from other ethnicities have evangelical beliefs.
Anderson and Statze say that we need to contextualize our definition of evangelical, and that one cannot be identified as evangelical without appropriate qualification. “We need to distinguish between a self-identified evangelical, a person affiliating with an evangelical denomination, or someone with classic evangelical beliefs.”
“We hope that as this tool is used, more Americans will see through the unfortunate cultural and political stereotypes and recognize evangelicals as a diverse people of faith who have given their lives to Jesus Christ as their Savior.”