It feels like stating the obvious to say that “evangelical voters” are not a monolith that can be reliably relied upon by any politician. But what should go without saying apparently needs repeating: To say “the evangelical vote” without any further specification is almost meaningless.
First, there are various ways to define “evangelicalism.” Sociologists ask “Who claims to be an evangelical?” and then look for common themes that unite those who say they belong to the movement. Others look at those who claim to be evangelical but are not recognized by the majority of evangelicals as “authentic.” Still others seek to list essential evangelical commitments.
Unlike many journalists covering evangelicals from a political perspective, the fiercest debates over evangelical identity focus on the center and boundaries of evangelical theology: What are the movement’s theological distinctives?
All these questions make the debate over evangelical identity a pressing one for evangelical churches and institutions. But these questions are primarily about doctrinal commitments, not political positions.
It’s not surprising, then, to see LifeWay Research partnering with the National Association of Evangelicals to offer a “belief-based research definition” for future surveys. Survey respondents must agree with these four key statements before being considered “evangelical”:
- “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.”
- “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their savior.”
- “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.”
- “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”
Note how each of these survey questions is focused on evangelical belief, not politics.
So, what does this mean for predicting what evangelicals will do at the voting booth? That question needs further clarification. What kind of evangelical are we talking about?