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Roy Moore and the confused identity of today’s “evangelical” voter

Why I’m skeptical of the self-identified “evangelical.”

MONTGOMERY, AL - NOVEMBER 17: Patricia Riley Jones attends a 'Women For Moore' rally in support of Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore, in front of the Alabama State Capitol, November 17, 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama. Kayla Moore told the crowd of supporters that her husband will not bow out of the Senate race. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A supporter rallies in Montgomery, Alabama for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore on November 17, 2017.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Roy Moore’s surprising defeat in Alabama included evidence of a slight dip in the number of evangelical Christians participating in the Alabama election. Based on the exit polls, it appears that a small group of self-identifying white evangelicals stayed home instead of voting Republican as they had in previous elections. Also, 2 percent of evangelicals and conservatives said they wrote in a candidate, a significant total in such a close outcome.

Still, among those white voters who identified as evangelicals, a robust 80 percent voted for Roy Moore. This is the same percentage of self-described white evangelicals nationally who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

During this fall’s campaign, the controversy over Moore and his alleged cases of sexual assault produced a predictable storyline about the “evangelical” response to Moore. One widely reported polling statistic had 37 percent of Alabama “evangelicals” saying that they were “more likely” to support Moore following the allegations.

As a professor who studies the history of Christianity — and an evangelical — I find myself continually frustrated with news pieces like this. When I read such stories about “evangelicals,” I wonder who these “evangelicals” actually are, and why much of the media is so eager to peddle storylines, however implausible, related to evangelical hypocrisy.

Anyone who thought for a second about the supposed evangelical reaction to Moore should have been incredulous. To me, the charges against Moore are disturbing and disqualifying. Many of his supporters disagree. But really, would anybody tell a pollster that allegations that a candidate had sexually abused minors would make them more inclined to support that candidate?

Whoever these “evangelicals” might be, they’re obviously saying that they don’t believe the charges against Moore, and they’re sticking by their man in the face of “fake news.” (43% of voters said in exit polling that they thought the charges were “definitely or probably false.) I’m not trying to defend Moore here, I’m just suggesting that the power of the “fake news” theme gives Moore’s defenders a ready response against the explosive charges women have made against him.

Nate Silver called out this silly interpretation on Twitter:

It’s an all-too-common cycle. Some in the media believe and promote the absolute worst about evangelicals. Those evangelicals then lament fake news, even when the news (like the charges against Moore) seems not so fake.

Part of this is just a fundamental problem with polling. There are so many possible meanings left open by the way a question is framed, the context in which it is asked, the person responding, and the reporter’s interpretation.

Even more problematic, these stories employ a vague concept of “evangelical,” a term that has become almost totally disconnected from its historic meaning. Since 1980 and the rise of the Moral Majority, “evangelical” has become a descriptor more associated with politics than with theology or Christian practices. Evangelical spokespeople from Jerry Falwell to Franklin Graham have done as much as the secular media to create this impression. It has left us with a deeply diluted public image of what the word means. Polls make this problem worse by relying on self-identification of evangelicals, and evangelical self-definition has shifted over time.

I suspect that large numbers of these people who identify as “evangelicals” are really just whites who watch Fox News and who consider themselves religious.

To me, the controversy involving the reasons for evangelical support for Roy Moore reveals how little we understand evangelicals as a group in modern America.

Who really identifies as “evangelical” today?

One challenge in determining what “evangelicals” believe is the difficulty in getting solid polling data on any subject. Observers have noted that ever since the advent of cellphones, reliable polling has become ever more difficult. Polls routinely get no more than a 10 percent response rate. Some academic experts, including sociologist colleagues of mine at Baylor, have begun to despair about using polls to gather reliable information about anything at all.

FiveThirtyEight gave a good, balanced overview of the problems in polling four years ago, and the problems have only gotten worse since then.

The second difficulty is this self-identification issue. Some polls do use other means of determining who an evangelical is, such as church affiliation. But most pollsters simply ask a person if they identify as an evangelical, and if the answer is yes, then that person is taken to have evangelical views about Donald Trump’s latest antics, or whatever the topic is.

This is highly dubious. For instance, if you ask more probing questions, it turns out that significant numbers of these “evangelicals” do not go to church. One study of the 2016 GOP primaries showed that these non-churchgoing evangelicals were more likely to support Trump — around 53 percent of Trump supporting evangelicals marked that they seldom/never went to church. That percentage dropped to around 36 percent for Trump-supporting evangelicals who went to church weekly. Of course, a strong majority of self-identified evangelicals went on to support Trump in the general election.

In many cases, we have no idea how many of these “evangelicals” read the Bible regularly, have been born again, or share other hallmarks of historic evangelicalism. A recent study from LifeWay Research suggests that less than half of self-identifying evangelicals are deeply committed to classic evangelical beliefs.

To be fair, many polls do explicitly break out white voters from black, Hispanic, and other voters, giving some additional texture to the political views among self-identified evangelicals — so not all polls are free of nuance. And if my hunch is correct, it would be worth investigating how the term “evangelical” became code for a kind of nominal Christianity in America.

Evangelical Christianity was founded to combat nominal Christianity

The thing is, evangelical Christianity was founded to combat nominal Christianity, meaning a Christianity that is more a cultural label than a vital, active faith. Most experts trace the origins of evangelical Christianity to the mid-1700s and the coming of the Great Awakening. Many countries in those days, including Britain and its colonies, had established denominations and churches: government-funded religion. Having tax-supported churches and ministers often bred complacency and corruption. It did not foster voluntary, heartfelt devotion to God.

Revival preachers like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield — the most famous person in Britain and America in 1740 — told people that it was not good enough to be baptized into your local church, just by accident of birthplace. You needed to make a personal, transforming commitment to Christ, an experience that the Bible referred to as being “born again.” This “new birth” would lead to a life centered on the “gospel” of salvation through Christ.

What today’s “evangelicals” have in common

The most common definition of evangelicalism, one crafted by British historian David Bebbington, boils down to four key points. First is conversion, or the need to be born again. The second is Biblicism, or the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible. The third is the theological priority of the cross, where Jesus died and won forgiveness for sinners. The final attribute of evangelicals is activism, or acting on the mandates of one’s faith, through supporting your church, sharing the gospel, and engaging in charitable endeavors.

In today’s media, “evangelical” has shifted from the historic definition to become more of a rough political and ethnic signifier. What today’s “evangelicals” have in common is not so much Biblicism or action for the gospel, but a self-defined sense of religiosity and a dogged commitment to Republican politics. And being white.

Evangelical faith has always had political ramifications, of course. For example, many evangelicals fought in the era of the American Revolution to end the tax-supported denominations, which had often persecuted evangelicals. But evangelicals were not much on the political radar screen in modern America until 1976, with the candidacy of the “born again” Jimmy Carter.

But 1980 and the Reagan Revolution convinced many evangelicals that they could have both piety and political power. The most visible evangelical leaders became not evangelists like Billy Graham but political operatives and, later, Fox News contributors. Most of the news media was happy to focus on this new political brand of evangelicalism, even if it became more and more distant from its historic roots.

The image of political evangelicalism fails to recognize most of what was happening in the weekly routines of actual evangelical Christians and their churches. As Bebbington’s definition suggests, most of a typical evangelical’s life has nothing to do with politics.

Finally, as seen in the story on growing “evangelical” support for Roy Moore, the news media loves stories on “evangelical” hypocrisy. Evangelicals have always been capable of hypocrisy, of course. Anyone who wears their faith on their sleeve is going to be held to a higher standard, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But too often, we actually know little about the “evangelicals” being charged with hypocrisy. Other than political allegiances, we don’t know much about what the term evangelical means anymore.

Before you read a story and despair about the state of evangelicalism in America, then, pause for a second. The reality about evangelicals may indeed be bad and disheartening. But are polls really supplying accurate information about “evangelicals” and their beliefs? Or does our country largely misunderstand what it means to be evangelical in America today?

This essay is adapted from an article on The Gospel Coalition.

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. He is the author of books including, most recently, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2017). An earlier version of this article appeared at the Gospel Coalition, where Kidd blogs.

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