“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.
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.
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.
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.