The New (and Old) Politics of Evangelical Identification

Members of the clergy lay hands and pray over Donald Trump in September at the New Spirit Revival Center in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

By Ryan T. Woods

“We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth declared, and his observation captures the artificiality of dividing the body politic into separate parts. So it is with the evangelical voting bloc. However familiar, the use of the term evangelical in popular currency and in public discourse obscures the definitional complexities supporting it. Consequently, the apparently straightforward datum, “Eighty-one percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the general election” depends on a foundation of abstraction that can easily be lost on the casual observer. Evangelicals have never been a monolithic community. A designation that includes a Latino congregation speaking in tongues, an austere gathering of Dutch Reformed parishioners, a nondenominational megachurch meeting in a suburban office park, and a black Baptist service necessarily contains multitudes. Nor are they a static presence in the public square; their constituencies and causes shift over time. An investigation of this grouping, its genealogy, and its political behavior reveals both surprising continuity of the 2016 Presidential election with the past as well as signs of change on the horizon.

Classification never takes place in antiseptic neutrality. Labeling a voter “evangelical” depends on categories freighted with confessional, political, and historical valences. Gallup’s discussion of its criteria to identify evangelicals illustrates this complexity. Broadly speaking, Gallup pollsters employ at least two means to designate evangelicals: adherence to specific convictions and self-designation. Each strategy creates challenges for the taxonomist.

Evangelicals style themselves “believers” and emphasize their fidelity to historical orthodoxy, so conviction serves as an obvious point of embarkation. But starting here can sow as much confusion as clarity. Analysts are confronted with a staggering array of confessional tests for evangelicalism, each vulnerable to criticism. Depending on how broad or restrictive one makes these tests, the number of evangelicals might rise or fall dramatically. Barna employs a nine-point typology, and counts only 7% of the U.S. population as evangelicals; Gallup found nearly three times that number in a 2005 survey by adopting a more generous standard– a “born-again” experience, a desire to convert others to Jesus Christ, and belief in the Bible as the Word of God. Lack of consensus over which convictions mark the boundaries of evangelicalism complicates strictly confessional definitions to the point where they cannot be trusted to produce useable statistics.

Because categories based on conviction force the pollster to make the same judgments about beliefs insiders have to make, categorizing evangelicals by self-identification carries the appeal of letting the subjects rather than the analysts do the work of classification. Yet the responses to the self-definitional prompt, “Do you consider yourself evangelical or born-again?” have been equally problematic. This formula is elastic enough to accommodate those normally excluded from the category. Nearly one in five Catholics responded affirmatively to these propositions, a datum that sits uneasily with the historically Protestant roots of the movement. Consequently, Gallup excludes non-Protestants from the evangelical label.

Even among Protestants, self-definition can be deceptive. Fundamentalists, who tend to disengage from broader culture more sharply than evangelicals, might consent to this self-definition on their own terms. African American Christians also call themselves evangelicals in large numbers, but their social values have been shown to differ strikingly from those of their white counterparts. When polling for political purposes, therefore, Gallup segregates black “evangelicals” from white, because their voting habits inaccurately skew results.


Why is it so hard to identify an evangelical? The reasons are historical and institutional. Evangelicals have a complicated genealogy, and their mission has always transcended denominational boundaries. Most evangelicals trace their origins to the Protestant Reformation, when reforming movements emphasized the primacy of Scripture. Once kindled, the reforming impulse – with all its enthusiasm and internal tensions – became difficult to extinguish. Pietism created “little churches within the universal church” (ecclesiolae in ecclesia) and emphasized study of the Bible in small conventicles under the direction of a minister as well as private devotions. Revivalism stirred hearts on both sides of the Atlantic, but also replaced the orderly boundaries of the parish system with the voluntary principle: instead of attending the village church, congregants might now travel several towns over to hear a circuit preacher or a “New Light” luminary. Fired by religious enthusiasm, missionaries took the good news to the ends of their known world.

During the twentieth century, two further developments shaped American evangelicalism, leading to a period of withdrawal from and then reintegration with broader culture. As scholars made new scientific discoveries and pioneered critical methods of studying the Bible, tensions and contradictions surfaced between their findings and traditional convictions. Evangelicals and fundamentalists responded to these findings with varying degrees of nuance, from heresy trials and exodus from mainline institutions to learned broadsides like The Fundamentals and J. Gresham Machen’s polemic Christianity and Liberalism. Increasingly, evangelicalism became sidelined in higher culture, forced to create its own channels to broadcast its positions. Emblematic of this movement’s marginality in educated circles was the Scopes case. In this celebrated trial, the wizened advocate Clarence Darrow convincingly defended a Tennessee client discharged from his post as a science instructor for teaching biological evolution. Although Darrow lost the contest to former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (the decision was later overturned on a technicality), public opinion mounted against the evangelical cause.

But the cultural retreat of evangelicalism never became complete withdrawal, and the instinct to change the world rather than retire from it never dimmed. When fundamentalists segregated themselves from broader society, evangelicals decided to transform it – including the political realm. Their efforts centered around causes familiar to observers of the 2016 presidential election: national identity, economic liberalism, personal and public morality, and a definition of Christianity premised on whiteness.


The kind of evangelical involvement in the public square noted during the election was nothing new. Some of the antislavery movement’s most visible leaders – William Wilberforce and the Tappan brothers – were products of revivalist fervor. What receded from view in postbellum evangelicalism was its earlier radicalism. The sabbatarian and temperance movements became paradigmatic for an emphasis on religious principle and individual transformation rather than structural reform. Troubled by signs of urban anomie and dislocation, evangelicals sought to establish moral order for the masses, as Paul Boyer puts it in his illuminating study. The failure of organized labor to develop coherent political representation, which social historians termed “American exceptionalism,” owes something to the success of these efforts in alleviating misery, instilling bourgeois religious values, and suppressing proletarian unrest.

The New Deal marked a new stage in this development, cementing evangelical intuitions of themselves as embattled by a hostile secular government. In One Nation Under God, Kevin Kruse recounts how a diverse coalition of pastors, plutocrats, and politicians consolidated opposition to the creeping statism they saw in the government’s new initiatives. They sought to establish America’s stature as a chosen nation and highlight the religious foundations of economic and political liberty. During the Cold War, this mission took on a new significance and assumed new forms. Officials stamped the name of God on currency and included God in the pledge of allegiance, while religious lobbyists agitated for prayer in schools. Although politicians had long drawn upon the biblical traditions in their oratory, references to America’s exceptional status as a Christian nation and personal rectitude now became more ubiquitous in public discourse.

Commentators sometimes present the creation of the Religious Right in the last quarter of the 20th century as a sharp break with the past, but this alliance of conservative Protestantism with conservative politics evolved organically as evangelical practitioners adapted their historic commitments to different circumstances. Changes in the cultural landscape created conditions receptive to this rightward movement: the realignment of American politics after the triumph of Civil Rights in the South, the deterioration of heavy industry in the Rust Belt, and demographic migrations to the South and the West.

Conventional wisdom holds that, in this milieu, the Religious Right coalesced around the galvanizing issue of abortion. This is only half true. This conventional wisdom turns on the firsthand testimony of its leaders, such as the response Jerry Falwell recorded later in life of reading a newspaper account of Roe v. Wade, and “growing more fearful of the consequences of the Supreme Court’s act and wondering why so few voices had been raised against it.” But as Randall Balmer has shown, immediate evangelical response to the ruling was muted, and even supportive of the high court’s opinion. This was consistent with the movement’s privileging of individual liberty over governmental fiat. A 1968 symposium sponsored by Christianity Today, the publication of note for mainstream evangelicals, pronounced abortion warranted in consideration of certain personal, family, and social consequences. Although some expressed criticism, many evangelical and fundamentalist leaders applauded the decision for its refusal to countenance state regulation of individual choice. Opposition to abortion was widely considered a Catholic cause.

Balmer suggests this movement had another central cause prior to abortion: religious liberty. And in earlier years, questions of “religious liberty” frequently served as a cipher for protecting de facto racial segregation of religious institutions. Sectarian schools and colleges proliferated in response to government mandates for integrating public education. When litigation against these “segregation academies” ensued, culminating in the landmark decision Green v. Coney, religious activists became increasingly concerned about how government regulation could circumscribe religious freedom. Failure to comply with legal orders to desegregate could result in revocation of tax exemptions, as happened with Bob Jones University in 1976.

Calls to rehabilitate segregationism, however, were political nonstarters for religious conservatives, so another cause had to be found to rally around. By now, reservations about abortion were mounting. Falwell and his retinue saw their opportunity. A private moral question with consequences for the family and society, requiring intervention against the encroachments of secular state, abortion provided the perfect focus for a devout conservative brand.

And so, opposition to abortion and concern for religious liberty birthed a new coalition of conservative evangelical voters. They viewed themselves as beleaguered but determined to reclaim America’s heritage as a guarantor of the sanctity of life and religious liberty. This voting bloc and its animating issues have proved surprisingly durable. Despite allegations that the Religious Right has become moribund, conservative Christian voters remain Republican stalwarts. In each of the past four Presidential elections, the GOP nominee has captured at least three quarters of the evangelical vote. These same issues remained paramount in the voting calculus of religious conservatives in 2016.

If last year’s election failed to destroy the coalition of conservative evangelical voters, it did fracture them along lines of race, ethnicity, and age. Although concern about race receded from the picture once abortion and religious liberty became favored rallying cries for the movement, it never disappeared completely – a fact reflected in the polling practices of excluding persons of color from political polls.


The demography of evangelicalism is changing just as surely as the demography of the nation. Weeks after the election, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne published an editorial in the New York Times with the blunt title, “The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead.” The election, they contended, had exposed a widening rift among the faithful. Representatives of the movement who publicly endorsed Trump were disproportionately old and white. But the future of evangelicalism lies increasingly with young, hyphenated Americans – Black, Asian, Latino. Whatever conservative sympathies they might have, they were disenchanted with the white evangelical embrace of Trump. And they voted very differently from their white counterparts. These Christians expressed support for Clinton over Trump by a margin of 62% to 15%.

Their voice will continue to become more prominent. Depending on the definitional criteria, non-whites comprise as much as forty percent of all evangelicals, a contingent that will continue to grow. As Robert Jones of PRRI chronicles in his incisive study, The End of White Christian America, this development has dredged up white anxiety about displacement. The calls to defend America as a Christian nation, religious liberty, and moral order are familiar, even as they take on a new urgency in the face of sweeping demographic change. In many ways, the 2016 presidential election may signal the last paroxysm not of evangelicalism’s involvement in politics, but of its monochrome representation – and redefinition.


Ryan T. Woods earned his doctorate in religion at Emory University in 2013. As an undergraduate, he studied at Taylor University, a Christian college in Indiana. He now teaches at Georgia Gwinnett College, and serves as an Associate Editor for Marginalia Review of Books. His interests range from early Alexandrian Christianity to Cleveland sports.


Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *