There is no 'evangelical' vote
(That headline was on the column in the Amarillo Globe-News. It doesn't exactly reflect the column. --Mike H.)
By Mike Haynes
With the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses behind us and the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary coming up, a term we’ve heard a lot is “the evangelical vote.”
Most pundits said it was an important factor in the Republican race in religiously conservative Iowa but won’t be as crucial in New Hampshire.
You hardly hear the term in relation to Democrats.
I asked members of my Sunday school class last week what they think “evangelical” means, because I believe it’s thrown around a lot with a simplistic or hazy definition.
Some replies: “Churchgoers.” “The Christian vote.” “Nondenominational, independent, Christian person” and “Born-again Christians who have a relationship with Jesus.”
In a brief discussion before we dived into I Peter (amid jokes that Donald Trump would call it “One Peter”), we agreed that many people, educated or not, lack a clear understanding of the word, “evangelical.” One man pointed out that questions about the evangelical vote usually come from news people, many of whom have little first-hand involvement with religion.
“They don’t know what they’re asking,” he said. “They think evangelicals are non-enlightened people.”
Indeed, I contend that most Americans would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” The latter term often is used in a derogatory way, and I believe many journalists and political experts lump “evangelical” into the same category.
One of my classmates said he believes fundamentalists are seen as “staunch, rigid, by-the-book, the people who don’t take their kids to the doctor.” If that’s a common perception, I think many outsiders would say the same about evangelicals.
I dug up a 2004 column in which I quoted Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary defining “evangelical”:
“Member of a Bible-based Protestant church emphasizing personal salvation solely through being born again and through uncompromising commitment to the person of Jesus Christ. Emphasizing the doctrine of sin, repentance, grace, salvation and saving faith.”
Back then, I pointed out that a fundamentalist probably would agree with those positions and that the main difference is in practice, not belief. Fundamentalists seem to preach more of the “don’t’s,” while evangelicals tend to focus on the “do’s” of the Christian faith. I proposed that in my view, Jerry Falwell was a fundamentalist while Billy Graham was an evangelical.
Last week, our Sunday school teacher said he had read that evangelicalism is a flexible middle ground between fundamentalism and mainstream churches, which tend to have a more liberal approach to Christianity.
So what do the definitions tell us about who will vote for whom? Not much, but they reveal that there may not be a solid evangelical voter block. When Jerry Falwell Jr. endorses Trump, who identifies with the mainline Presbyterian denomination and seems to mention religion only because he has to, who can predict which candidate “evangelicals” will support?
Someone in my class last Sunday guessed that half of our church membership will vote Republican and half Democratic. Our church is solidly evangelical (see definition above), so I’m not sure about that prediction. Not many Democrats call themselves evangelical, although some, such as Fox News’ Kirsten Powers, do.
However the election turns out, I like what a woman in our class said:
“I want us to be known as people who trust God, have faith in his Word and know that it’s real.”
I don’t know whether a president has to have those qualities, but for me, it would be a plus.