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Polling station“Evangelical Christians” were a frequent topic on Saturday night as election results from the South Carolina Republican primary rolled in. Seventy percent of South Carolina voters claimed to be “born again” or “evangelical,” and a large number of those voters gave Donald Trump a decisive victory over rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

But when you dig into the data, you see that Trump’s win among evangelicals took place in the counties where rates of church attendance lag behind others. J. D. Vance concludes:

The pattern generally holds across South Carolina: Cruz does well where people regularly go to church; Trump does better where they don’t. The so-called Evangelical split is just a mirage, a consequence of a country (and a state) that mostly self-identifies as Christian but manages to largely avoid the pews.

Does the data suggest that churchgoing evangelicals were more likely to choose Cruz or Rubio, while the “nominal Christians” were more likely to vote for Trump? Vance thinks so, but I find it hard to make a clear-cut case for that theory.

What surprised the pundits in the media was that so many self-identifying evangelicals went for Trump, a candidate who seems to be at odds with the kind of candidates evangelicals have rallied to in the past.

The results coming out of South Carolina last weekend lead me to make a few observations.

1. “Evangelical” sometimes means “cultural Christianity.”

The label “evangelical” in the South often reflects culture and politics more than theology. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is.

If we were to define evangelicals the way that LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals do, then the situation in South Carolina would probably look different.

As it stands, many voters today wear the “born again” or “evangelical” label even if they do not affirm evangelical doctrine or regularly attend an evangelical church. Here we see the “cultural Christianity” that has been the topic of so much discussion and debate among evangelical leaders.

2. Conservative, predominantly white evangelicals are divided among the Republican candidates.

Rubio

World Magazine has been taking unofficial surveys of “evangelical insiders” – dozens of evangelical leaders in various institutions. Each survey shows increasing support for Marco Rubio as the favorite.

What’s interesting is that the “insider” support for Rubio has not trickled down to evangelical churches. One reason for this is that, while insiders may lean toward Rubio, they rarely endorse him publicly, preferring to stay neutral on political matters for the good of their institutions.

Cruz

Meanwhile, LifeWay Research shows that Protestant pastors favor Cruz by a large margin. Donald Trump hovers at the bottom of the list. Cruz’s strategy of gathering pastors who support his campaign has been successful, even though a large number remain undecided.

But the same situation that applies to the “evangelical insiders” also applies to many Protestant pastors. The pastors lean toward Cruz but do not promote him, preferring to keep politics out of the pulpit and off their social media accounts.

Trump

And then, there’s The Donald. As we saw above, many of the evangelicals who support Trump do not regularly attend church. But this does not mean we should underestimate Trump’s support among rank-and-file evangelical church members.

The NPR show, This American Life, recently did a segment on a Christian talk show host in South Carolina who was shocked by the number of regular listeners supporting Trump. I’ve heard from a number of pastors who, for various reasons, are surprised that some of their members back Trump. And that leads me to the next observation.

3. Sunday morning is not the primary place where discipleship and worldview training takes place.

For years, I’ve heard from pastors who are worried about the political stances of some of their church members. Usually, it’s a pro-life pastor who is shocked that some of the pro-life members would vote Democrat.

Race sometimes plays a role here. On the one hand, I have white pastor friends who cannot fathom the devotion of African-American churchgoers to the Democratic Party. On the other hand, I have African-American pastor friends who believe white evangelicals are too willing to overlook substantive issues in their support for Republicans.

This year, the lines are all blurred. I’ve heard from African-American pastors worried about the positions of both parties, and for the first time ever, I’ve heard from white pastors who are aghast at the choice some of the people in their congregation are making on the Republican side.

Time for a good reminder: Discipleship and worldview training goes on every single day, not just in the pastor’s sermon or hour people spend at church.

Evangelicals understand the effect of Hollywood on worldview thinking, and that’s why so many analyze movies from a Christian worldview or seek to make film alternatives. Evangelicals know the power of teaching through song, and that’s why we’ve seen the rise of Christian contemporary music. Evangelicals also recognize the powerful influence of education on a person’s worldview, and that’s why there are so many Christian schools and colleges.

But let’s not forget Washington, D.C. One’s political activity and one’s sources of news and commentary on politics can be just as worldview-shaping as Hollywood, Nashville, or Harvard.

A 30-minute sermon once a week or a brief morning prayer are not nearly as formative as the hours and hours a congregant may spend watching cable news, or listening to talk radio, or frequenting conspiratorial websites, or sharing articles that fan the flames of fear and anger. Discipleship is happening everywhere, and it’s likely that a left-wing or right-wing website is a bigger influence on a congregant’s worldview than the most recent sermon they heard.

D.C. discipleship is alive and well. And that’s a good reminder for evangelical pastors. As we lead people to consider carefully the worldviews of the movies they watch, music they download, or education they receive, we should also make sure they know that King Jesus has something to say about their politics, too.


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16 thoughts on “Evangelicals, the Voting Booth, and the Impact of D.C. Discipleship”

  1. Curt Day says:

    Why such a detailed breakdown of evangelical voting for Republican candidates and not the same for democratic candidates? After all, didn’t the article state that Black church members tend to vote democratic? And yet, there is no breakdown for those favoring Hillary and those favoring Bernie as there is for the breakdown for Republican candidates.

    There is a need and a danger for the Church to be more vocal regarding politcis. The danger, actually it is dangers, is that both Christian voters and the varying church institutions will sin. Christian voters can sin by being too involved in politics by being lured away from the faith. Christian churches can sin by making close associatons between the Gospel and a specific political party or ideology. There is also a danger in doing nothing in order to avoid the dangers just mentioned.

    But the need for the Church to speak propheticallly to society as an institution must include the need for the Church to speak to the politics of a society since politics often involves issues of justice.

    1. Peter Comrie says:

      Amen. As far as i can tell the only person with integrity in your presidential race is Bernie. The rest are just in the pocket of big business. My opinion only. Why “evangelicals” in the States get conned so easily by folk like Cruz and Rubio is baffling.

    2. Kurt Jensen says:

      A simple fact check showing how every candidate except Sanders has such poor integrity that they can not be trusted to do anything they say should be a wake up call to Christians. What good is any candidate who outright lies to you? You can not have faith that these people will do any of the things they profess when they are clearly lying for the purpose of getting your vote.
      Sanders acts like a better Christian than any of the others. He cares about people. Jesus cared about people. If Christians act like they care about people then I have a much easier time believing they are actually lovers of God.
      Apply Matthew 7:16 to your candidates people.

  2. Thanks for bringing this up! This was the week I gave using the term “evangelical” to describe myself. I did it after several years of fighting to hold on to a meaning that once represented the precious values I believe in namely: the authority of scripture; the need for and availability of a personal relationship with God through the sacrificial atonement of Jesus on the cross; the inability of human beings because of their sinful state to achieve this relationship apart from the grace of God being received by faith and; the call to share the news of this gift throughout the world.
    It certainly doesn’t mean the above anymore, at least in the public square. I am afraid, after chaffing at hearing the term by a number of news commentators from a variety of political stripes, that it even means far less more than “cultural Christianity” described in this article. At various times I believe I have hear it with the not-so-subtle meanings of “ignorant, racist, backwater and close-minded.”
    Even when not connected to such prejudicial overtones it almost always means “politically conservative.” Are these people even aware of the involvement of significant number of evangelicals in things like the abolitionist movement, the peace movement, the suffrage movement or the civil rights movements? Are they aware, as another comment mentioned of the number of evangelicals that are Democrats (and I agree, that the article seemed to assume that to be a faithful Christian means to be a Republican) and even take “liberal” stances on such things as capital punishment, war, wealth and poverty, etc.
    For many years I wished that basic courses in religion were required for journalists. Never has their ignorance of the subject been so clear and so distressing to me as now – when I have decided I must give up the term, even while I still stand on and for all it once meant.

  3. L. Chris Real says:

    I have been thinking similar thoughts myself for years–thanks for expressing it clearly and succinctly. The current political climate has cast a bright spotlight on southern “cultural religion” (I live in Oklahoma) and nationwide evangelical spiritual immaturity. Watching the seemingly blind devotion of followers of both Trump and Sanders, regardless of what they advocate, is too chillingly close to what we saw a generation ago in WW2. My emotions regarding this reality have ranged from disbelief, to anger, to discouragement and finally to prayer. This is not “chicken little” thinking, it is reality. I pray the present situation gives many Christian leaders a renewed vigor to make disciples.

  4. Marc Burnett SR says:

    I appreciate the comment about the “Democrat” Christian and churches. That is a topic that is avoided like the plague when it comes to these discussions because of the race fear that goes along with any comments. Something else we must consider is the major failure of the Republican conservatives for years… we still have abortion etc. If they really believed it, they would have “died on their swords” to change many issues. I find that people no longer have faith in the conservatives because they are either unelectable because they are so ideological, or they are in bed with big business and never come through with their litmus test values. Who do you think let Jeb Bush flush over 100 million “for the cause?” The appeal of Donald Trump is the John Wayne affect. He tells it like it is, harsh or nice and people believe him. He does not owe anyone anything so has less chance of being corrupted like the others have plainly been. When we elect a President, we are not electing a pastor so they look past some of his flaws. If the same standard was applied in battle leadership in the military, in business opportunities, in home loans etc. etc. etc. we would have to admit that most of the leaders fail the test. Donald Trumps ideas spoken by another candidate with a more polished delivery would be hailed as the greatest thing since Reagan. But because of his past marriages and former liberal positions, none of that counts. People I talk to are sick of politicians who lose or never deliver, and people criticizing them because they are not as “conservative” according to some immeasurable standard. He is a fighter for what he believes in and people respond to that. The bottom line is they are so worried the Hillary or Bernie will be elected, which will spell an end to America as we once knew it, that they will look past Trumps less than perfect record to prevent it. I would vote for ANY Republican to stop Hilary or Bernie, so in the end I might have to join them and vote for Trump… and I am a conservative pastor.

  5. Ben M says:

    In defense of the original post, it is understood that the majority of devout evangelicals favor the Republican party. The Democrat party alienated (white) evangelicals long ago and unfortunately very little effort has been made by Democrats or by evangelical leaders to reach out to each other. Since this article is intended to be indicative rather than imperative, I have no complaint with the focus on these three candidates.

    That being said, any discussion about how devout evangelicals ought to vote should go beyond these three candidates. There have been many articles written and commented on about the qualities we should be looking for in a candidate, but I do want to comment briefly about two other candidates not talked about above.

    Bernie Sanders – Now, I don’t expect to convince many evangelicals to vote for him, but I think if I can convince some people that he’s not the devil incarnate, that will be a small victory. You can argue all day long about his policy proposals, but one thing that he undoubtedly has is integrity, which is a virtue sorely lacking in Washington. He doesn’t seek to pound his opponents like some politicians. Quite the opposite, he tries to reach out to those whom he disagrees and find common ground. If you haven’t read his speech at Liberty University (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/14/bernie-sanders-liberty-university-speech-annotated/), you should, its very good, even if you don’t agree with him on everything. Don’t let the fact that he’s non-religious scare you off either. I’d rather see a virtuous pagan in the white house than a Christian with no virtue.

    John Kasich – Sure, he’s not the most ideologically pure candidate, but then again, when did ideological purity become a virtue? What he is, just about the most humble politician I’ve ever seen (except for maybe Ben Carson who I like a lot too). He’s not afraid to let the Bible tell him when he’s wrong politically, nor does he use the Bible in a self-serving or pandering way. He leads by example and seeks to restore America by restoring culture and community and emphasizing people as relational beings. He’s given hope (real hope) to many people. He lives the gospel in a way that is rarely seen in politicians.

    Just my thoughts

  6. Doug says:

    Evangelicals also recognize the powerful influence of education on a person’s worldview, and that’s why there are so many Christian schools and colleges.

    Apart from the quantity of schools, it would be instructive to see statistics on public school vs. Christian school/homeschool attendance among children of Evangelicals. My suspicion is that a majority of Evangelicals place their children in the public schools, which as established by legislation, are the embodiment of Romans 1:25, “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” We should expect to see a direct correlation between this behavior and the behavior we see evidenced in our political elections, since the verse adds, “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions.” The political link is stated clearly in Proverbs 28:2 “By the transgression of a land many are its princes.”

    1. Doug says:

      Found some stats from the NCES:

      Public school attendance has been trending up. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cga.asp

      “Between 2000–01 and 2012–13, public school enrollment increased by 2.6 million students, reaching a total of 49.8 million students.” —NCES

      Private school attendance has been trending down. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgc.asp

      “In school year 2011–12, some 5.3 million students were enrolled in private schools…The percentage of all students in private schools decreased from 12 percent in 1995–96 to 10 percent in 2011–12.” —NCES

      1. Bobbi Brown says:

        Both of my children attended public school in the 90’s. At home we had many discussions about scripture. I also prayed with Moms in Prayer (Touch) groups. God blessed us with children and grandchildren who chose Jesus. Now I’m praying for my grandchildren with a Moms In Prayer group.

        1. Doug says:

          PTL Bobbi! However, we must be careful not to let our personal experiences of God’s grace override principles of God’s word, and thereby lead others into harm’s way. Christ has called us to make disciples, which entails training individuals to see and remake the world on God’s radical terms. The public school is fundamentally and legally opposed to this. Therefore, we must press on to see that our children and grandchildren do more than just choose Jesus. Our prayers and our strivings must be toward the goal that they radically transform all areas of life and relationships into conformity to the will of God. In the context of this post it means not only that they create demand for godly rule, but that they create demand for godly structures of government. We should be producing Christians that transform the voting booth and our nation. The public schools have already transformed them both.

          1. Bobbi Brown says:

            Yep, God has sent us out like sheep among wolves. We must do what God leads us to do in the spiritual battle that we fight. There were many complaints about the last Christmas program at my granddaughter’s school–no Christmas carols or anything to do with Christianity. The music teacher ended up canceling the winter concert. We are praying for her heart. God will lead her to make a choice some day. Meanwhile the Moms in Prayer group sent the teachers a card and a basket of goodies to tell them we are praying for them. We shall see what God will do.

  7. Bobbi Brown says:

    I believe that God is leading the U.S. off of the global stage. When we are no longer a “Christian” nation it will be easier for the antichrist to take over. I’m praying that all those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior will study the Bible and become more in love with Jesus, walk in His way, and live as lights in the society. Meanwhile vote for the person who will preserve human life and religious liberty.

  8. Christiane says:

    Trump will be the nominee. And people will know that evangelicals supported him.

    The fall-out from this for Republicans, for evangelicals . . . . I cannot imagine the damage, but it will have bee worth it, if Christian people will stop idolizing politicians and the Republican Party and return to the Lord.

  9. Rachel says:

    As a Brit I find the concept of Evangelicals voting for Trump utterly mystifying. And the thing that is most mystifying is that his two main rivals are (in different ways) so obviously born-again Christians.

    I came across a speech Rubio gave to a group of pastors in Iowa and it left me speechless. I have never heard any politician of any party articulate the Christian faith with such clarity. I probably disagree with him on many areas of policy. But on those issues Trump is even worse. And even though I profoundly disagree with Cruz’s dominionist political theology and even though he kinda sorta rubs me up the wrong way, I can still see God using him to bring glory to Him. Maybe Americans are just too used to politicians talking about their faith so openly that they take it for granted.

    I kind of feel that if American Evangelicals don’t want Rubio or Cruz then maybe we can have them over here to help us bring salt and light into public square?

  10. John says:

    Why do African American’s who call themselves Christ followers vote for politicians in very high percentages who clearly support anti-God positions like abortion and gay marriage? Are they really Christians or are they putting self interest above godly values?? Won’t Christ judge them for this?

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​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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