Has the Term “Evangelical” Become Meaningless Amid 2016 Election?

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Thursday, July 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Thursday, July 21, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Take a cursory glance and all would seem to be well between evangelicals, Donald Trump and the GOP. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the huge evangelical Liberty University, gave a prime-time address Thursday, the grand finale of this week’s Republican National Convention. And a recent Pew Research poll showed that 78 percent of white “evangelicals” — and an overwhelming majority of evangelicals are white — plan to vote for Trump this fall.

However, polls that look into voter attitude show that many Trump-supporting evangelicals are far from enamored with Trump. And Falwell is one of the few prominent evangelicals – aside from a few “prosperity gospel” pastors, as well as old-guard types Tony Perkins and James Dobson, who joined in Thursday night – advocating publicly for Trump.

So what’s going on here? Who are these rank-and-file Trump supporters who tell pollsters that they are “evangelical”? And what does the label mean, anyway?

I would suggest that something more complicated is going on, something that may have given a generation of Americans the wrong idea about evangelicalism – and U.S. politics. What has happened is nothing short of a 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. And due to polling definitions, it doesn’t fully include millions of African Americans and Latinos, confusing our understanding of how religion and politics mix.

Early evangelical leaders such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by the way we use the word “evangelical.” Those original evangelicals were fighting against the idea that Christianity is mostly cultural or political – not primarily about one’s relationship with God. 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. They were fighting that.

Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening of the 18th century preached against the idea of an in-name-only affiliation, declaring you must be born again.

Much has changed since the 1700s, and the change seems to have accelerated since the 1980s. I would point to three key factors in the corruption of the term “evangelical.”

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Thomas S. Kidd

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