By David Eagle
As a white evangelical and a scholar of religion, I’ve listened with dismay as media outlets time and again repeat the mantra “white evangelical Christians are some of Trump’s most loyal supporters.” Plain and simple, this is wrong. In the media, the term evangelical has become synonymous with a toxic brand of right-wing Republicanism. But this isn’t the whole of the evangelical movement.
Aided by surveys and polls, the evangelical label has become as much a political as a religious marker. According to Pew Research Center, upwards of 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016; exit polls suggest similar numbers supported the president in 2020. However, if you peel back the layers, these statistics oversimplify the voting patterns of white Christians who are part of the evangelical movement.
Who are evangelicals? Historian David Bebbington describes them as Christians who have a high regard for the Bible, focus on the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, believe in the necessity of conversion and emphasize living out the gospel. The National Association of Evangelicals offers a similar definition. Unfortunately, the ways in which evangelicals get counted tends to capture Trump’s allies — think people like Paula White, Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham — but miss some of his sharpest critics, like the progressive activist Shane Claiborne and the writer Sara Billups.
Researchers, polls and surveys crude use measures to count evangelical Christians. They generally follow one of two approaches — sorting people by denominations or asking simple “yes or no” questions. Both approaches have problems.
Pew’s large Religious Landscape Surveys, key sources on political and religious trends, sorts Protestants into groups according to the denomination with which they identify. These surveys only count evangelicals as people who attend churches that are non-denominational or part of conservative denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention. Social scientists, including many who get quoted in the press, use the same denominational approach.
The problem? These churches and denominations have policies and belief statements designed to filter out more progressive evangelicals. I sit somewhere inside Bebbington’s definition. With a few caveats, the major tenets of evangelicalism describe my religious beliefs. However, because I don’t belong to a conservative church, I don’t get counted as an evangelical.
The right wing of the evangelical movement is defended by institutions that shut out people like me, people who believe a more diverse array of sexual relationships deserve the church’s blessing and favor fewer restrictions on access to abortion. The Mennonite Brethren Church, the evangelical denomination where I once served as a pastor, revoked my credentials because I challenged their stance against marriage equality. An evangelical seminary in Vancouver, Canada dis-invited me to an on-campus interview for those same views. As an evangelical with inclusive views on gender and sexuality, I cannot find my home in the institutions of the evangelical right. Instead, denominationally I belong to the Presbyterian Church (USA), and professionally I work in the non-sectarian halls of Duke University.
Counting evangelicals based on church membership filters out people based on their political proclivities. As long as the evangelical label is attached to Christians through their institutional affiliation, then no wonder white evangelicals are President Trump’s most loyal voting bloc — almost by definition this has to be true. It’s akin to defining a gun owner as someone who belongs to the NRA and then claiming the vast majority of gun owners voted for Trump.
Yet the “yes or no question” approach, employed by most election pollsters and by organizations like the Public Religion Research Institute, also has problems. In this approach, pollsters ask simply, “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born again’ or evangelical Christian?” Many evangelicals, especially younger ones, reject blending Christian beliefs with right-wing politics. And because the phrase “evangelical Christian” has become so strongly associated with right-wing politics, many progressive evangelicals, when given the choice of a simple “yes” or “no” with no opportunity to explain further, will answer “no” — thus, ironically, shutting themselves out of the count.
It is immensely frustrating to see the evangelical movement defined only by its rightward flank. The evangelicalism I know is a much more diverse and dynamic movement than its critics allow. And this is more than an academic exercise. First, if those who are not religious recognized this, it might allow creative political alliances to form, especially around issues such as climate change and immigration policy.
More broadly, our deeply divided country desperately needs fewer polarized relationships. As others have written, the demonization of evangelicals does nothing to reduce the partisan heat in this country.
A group of Pharisees once accused of Jesus of drawing his power from the Devil. Jesus responded by saying, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Those words should resonate for us right now, as acrimonious political divisions reach epidemic proportions. We Americans must challenge ourselves to approach one another more generously, avoiding superficial labels and remaining open to unlikely friendships. Pollsters and observers of American religion have done evangelicalism a major disservice. We need better ways of delineating the major U.S. religious traditions.
Whether you are a pollster, a professor or an ordinary voter, applying simplistic labels to evangelicals only drives us further apart.
David Eagle is an assistant professor of Global Health at Duke University who studies how the changing nature of religion in America is affecting congregations and clergy.