February 4, 2016

GOD’S OLD PARTY | The Evangelical Vote

Print More

This blog will follow the evangelical vote in the 2016 presidential election. I write about it because I am fascinated by the GOP field and the competition between its candidates to draw the blessing of the evangelical electorate. I also write about it because I consider myself an evangelical Christian. I may not speak for all evangelicals, but I have a say as someone who belongs to this ravenously courted demographic.

I use the word “ravenously” because, as a general rule, no Republican candidate in recent memory has won the presidency without strong evangelical support. According to Pew Research, Bush received 56 percent of the evangelical vote in 2000, compared to his counterpart Gore, who received 42 percent. In 2004, Bush won re-election with 59 percent of the evangelical vote, compared to Kerry’s 40 percent (McCain and Romney had comparable support, but lost to Obama by a significant amount on other demographics). In the 2012 Iowa GOP Caucus, 57 percent of caucus-goers identified as evangelical Christians, according to The New York Times.

Who are these evangelicals? The short answer is: whoever self-identifies as one. 25.4 percent of Americans identify as Evangelical Christians, edging Catholics (20.8 percent) as the largest subcategory of Christians in America. Most of these evangelicals are nominal — Christians by name only — who do not attend church, tithe, pray or read the Bible regularly, activities that are common amongst practicing Christians. Nonetheless, while most self-professed evangelicals are not practicing evangelicals, they are sympathetic towards and susceptible to the rhetoric of Christian identity politics. I find it helpful to think about these evangelical voters in two categories.

One group believes the separation of Church and State is necessary, even welcomed, in an isolationist sense. Michael Horton writes in Christianity Today that the Christian Church (referring not to a building, but its people) need not press for changes or seek influence in the larger society. Christians who are well-intentioned in engaging with the culture and politics of the time quickly face the reality that there is a lot that simply won’t change, no matter the effort. The danger in crusading around Christian values in the political or cultural marketplace is that one often begins to look like the culture one tries to change. God’s kingdom does not consist in the governments or world leaders of this world, but rather the faithful remnant of believers. Horton states that it is “God’s means of grace, not our ambitious programs, plans, or achievements that extend the kingdom”.

The second group regards engagement as the mission of the Church — a wrestling for the soul of America that can only be sustained by a chronic countercurrent pushing back against an increasingly decadent society. The moderate version of this view encourages Christians to engage in social and political activism. It finds it healthy to be in the world, but not of the world. One Christian philosopher described the Christian community as a weeble, a metaphor for the toy that wobbles out only to always return to the upright position upon which its weight is centered.

Those who take this kind of Christian activism one step further believe that activism is a duty and not a suggestion. Because culture is malleable, it can be changed for the better — that is, it is never too late for American culture to return to its Judeo-Christian heritage and morality. Thus, it is the prerogative and mission of Christians to take a concerted stand to redeem what has gone awry. To take no stand is to be complicit in the wickedness and ungodliness of modern day society.

Most GOP candidates take on the second worldview, at least in principle if not in practice. Ted Cruz’s tone and allusions are the most overt of them all. He vows to reverse the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion. Moreover, he believes American prosperity is inextricably tied to its founding as God’s nation. “From the dawn of this country, at every stage America has enjoyed God’s providential blessing.” But now, America has turned away, and the troubles have come. His campaign slogan may as well be: “Make America Christian Again.”

This blog will attempt to unearth the Christian identity politics going on in this primary election cycle, and, should my efforts prove productive, I’ll begin talking about the general election cycle as well.