'Trump's evangelicals': Who are they?

Debates whether conservative Christians should support Donald Trump's presidential bid have revived a more long-term question: Who 'counts' as an evangelical, anyway?'

Jae C. Hong/ AP/ File
Joshua Nink, a staff member at First Christian Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa, prays for Donald Trump after a Sunday service there as Trump's wife Melania, at left, looks on in this January 31, 2016 file photo.

Donald Trump has not yet given voters a nuanced view of his understanding of Christian communion: The professed Presbyterian referred to the sacramental bread as "my little cracker" during a meeting with conservative Christian leaders last year; more recently, he tried to put money in an Iowa church's communion plate ahead of the state caucus.

But if the unconventional GOP candidate has a tendency to overlook religious subtleties, he's in good company.

As Mr. Trump has solidified his lead in the GOP, some of the most appalled people left in his wake are evangelical Christian leaders perplexed at how a man like Trump is drawing support from their flocks.

An equally confused army of secular pundits has attempted to answer that question, now one of the campaign's most defining conundrums, with a range of possible answers: He's got messianic appeal. The rank-and-file is fed up with the GOP. They feel besieged. He's running a country, not a church. They're "getting too worldly, letting anger and frustration control them," as the head of a Focus on the Family affiliate told the Associated Press. 

But as evangelical leaders continue their soul-searching – or endorse Trump outright, as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. did in January – religion scholars on all sides of the faith spectrum are criticizing the media's use of the word "evangelical" itself, a deceptively simple label that obscures the complexity of American Christianity. 

For decades, the GOP's affiliation with conservative Christians has been a baseline premise of political analysis, although Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was the first US president to call himself born again. But there's no single definition of what an evangelical should do or believe; many voter exit polls rely on self-identification to count where religious votes are going.

(In comparison, few polls at Democratic contests even bother to ask about faith, "perpetuat[ing] the myth that the Democratic Party is the secular party or that G.O.P. stand for 'God’s Only Party,'" as Baptist minister and political observer Brian Kaylor recently argued.)

By that measure, Trump is doing handsomely, winning primaries in many southern states that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with more traditional conservative and Christian bona fides, had planned on sweeping.

But "evangelical" has "become almost meaningless this year," theologian Russell Moore, the President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote in an opinion piece bemoaning that the 2016 campaign has made him refrain from embracing the label. He has since encouraged Christians to vote for a third candidate rather than support the "lesser of two evils." 

That confusion isn't a new development, however. 

"There’s a form of cultural Christianity that causes people to respond with 'evangelical' and 'born-again' as long as they’re not Catholic, even though they haven’t been in a church since Vacation Bible School as a kid," he told the Associated Press. 

Some fundamental beliefs unite most evangelicals, namely the importance of personal salvation through Christ Jesus. Beyond that, religious organizations and scholars all harbor their own preferred litmus tests for born-again worshipers, and for voters. Evangelicalism isn't a single denomination, like Presbyterianism or Anglicanism, making it more difficult to come up with a single set of "I believe"s.

The National Association of Evangelicals, for example, an influential umbrella group, uses a four-point definition that asks respondents about Biblical authority, evangelizing, and the significance of Jesus' death on the cross. The group considers about three in ten Americans to be evangelical, including an array of people who might be surprised to find themselves "born again," including almost a quarter of Catholics, and many African Americans, whose liberal political leanings have dissuaded them from considering themselves "evangelical," thanks to the word's association with the Republican Party. 

The Barna Group, on the other hand, an evangelical polling firm, uses a nine-point guideline that finds just 8 percent of Americans are evangelical.

"America certainly deserves – and has access to – better measures than those that are often used in public discussions about the religious faith of people, and the implications of that alleged faith, especially in matters of politics and public policy," co-founder George Barna said when the nine points were released in 2007. 

But no matter how many Christians of whatever stripe are choosing to support Trump, or why, the conversation has already taken a toll, say many leaders. 

"At the very least this is going to require of conservative Christians in America a fundamental rethinking of what we believe about the purpose of government and the character of political leadership," Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told listeners in a podcast this week. 

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