How Politics and Polls Killed the Term ‘Evangelical’

Via Thomas Kidd:

The media was buzzing this week with news from Pew Research that 78 percent of white ‘evangelicals’ plan to vote for Donald Trump this fall. (It is not clear whether the addition of Mike Pence as his running mate would help or hurt, since Pence is by all accounts an evangelical himself, but he caved in to critics in the 2015 controversy over Indiana’s religious liberty law.) Although evangelicals do not seem overly enamored with Trump, this survey confirmed that the Religious Right is alive and well, and it remains beholden to the Republican Party, whomever the GOP might nominate.

However, a number of key evangelical leaders remain opposed to Trump, even as an alternative to the equally unacceptable Hillary Clinton. So who are these rank-and-file Trump supporters who tell pollsters that they are an ‘evangelical’? What do they believe? Do they attend church? Do their lives reflect a transforming experience of grace?

I would suggest that these poll results point to a wholesale watering-down and politicization of the term ‘evangelical.’ We probably can’t do without the term, and historically it was quite a valuable one. But in American pop culture parlance, ‘evangelical’ now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.

George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by this development. These early evangelicals were fighting specifically against cultural Christianity, which was politicized in state churches. In their day, if you lived in Britain or its colonies, and had been baptized as an infant, you were regarded as a Christian. No questions asked.