That same old question for 2016: What is an 'evangelical,' anyway?

The Carson- Cruz- Rubio-Trump piety sweepstakes aimed at the vital “evangelical vote” in Iowa has produced recent news that would have been unthinkable a generation ago:

* Businessman Donald Trump brags that “Franklin Graham said incredible things about me” (the evangelist isn’t endorsing anyone), then targets Senator Ted Cruz: “In all fairness, to the best of my knowledge not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK?” Unclear what that means, but it followed Trump’s previous slap at surgeon Carson’s Adventist church after Carson questioned Trump’s faith.

* Preacher’s kid Cruz tells a church rally, “Keep this revival growing. Awaken the body of Christ that we might rise up to pull this country from the abyss,” and quotes the favored Bible verse of evangelical activists, 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people ...”).

* Not to be outdone, Senator Marco Rubio states in an online ad, “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator and for all time, to accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ. ... The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan...“ The Catholic candidate also appoints 15 evangelical, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish notables (e.g. law Professor Michael McConnell, Pastor Rick Warren) as advisors on future religious liberty issues.

* An e-mail blast from Eric Teetsel, late of the Manhattan Declaration now running Rubio’s “faith outreach,” quotes Southern Baptist social-issues spokesman Russell Moore on evangelical constituencies: “Ted Cruz is leading the Jerry Falwell wing, Marco Rubio is leading the Billy Graham wing and Trump is leading the Jimmy Swaggart wing” (the latter a scandal-scarred  televangelist).

Political nose-counters note that in 2012, 57 percent of Iowa voters identified as evangelicals (vs. 22 percent in New Hampshire, the second lowest percentage among states behind only Senator Sanders’ Vermont). Iowa polls show Cruz moving well ahead of Carson and Trump in evangelical support, while CNN says nationwide Trump leads Cruz by 45 to 28 percent among white evangelicals. And the Wall Street Journal reports the Cruz camp thinks there are  90 million U.S. evangelicals (!) of whom 54 million didn’t vote in 2012(!!).

Obviously, both politics and religion reporters need to pursue that ever-challenging question, What is an “evangelical”? Click here for lots of GetReligion discussion of that question in the past.

Danielle Kurtzleben of National Public Radio offers sharp analysis of the “squishy” definitions.

Pollsters define evangelicals three ways:

(1) By self-identification as “evangelical or born again” (35 percent of U.S. adults according to Pew Research).

(2) By specific congregation and denomination (28 percent, saith Pew Forum).

(3) By beliefs (a mere 6 percent by Barna’s rigorist criteria). Kurtzleben also mulls the confusing fact that many African-Americans are evangelical in religion, but with such a distinct heritage and ironclad Democratic fidelity that analysts usually treat white evangelicals alone.

Is there a behavioral definition any longer? In a commentary, old-fashioned evangelical John Stemberger of Florida Family Action says Trump “defies every stereotype” of someone you’d expect Christian folk to support, citing pridefulness, self-depicted promiscuity, praise for revenge, love of money, F-bombs, three marriages, ownership of casinos and a strip club, never asking for God’s forgiveness, etc.

Meanwhile, New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Jewish author of "The Road to Character," charges that "in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace."

On doctrinal definition, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptists’ LifeWay Research spent two years winnowing 17 criteria down to these four announced in November: High authority of the Bible, duty to personally encourage non-believers to follow Jesus Christ, seeing Jesus’ death on the cross as the sole remedy for sin, and that only such believers receive the free gift of eternal salvation. Contra Barna, a related September poll showed support for those tenets in the over-all U.S. population ranged from 48 percent to 58 percent.

“To say ‘the evangelical vote’ without any further specification is almost meaningless,” advises Trevin Wax of the Gospel Project in a Religion News Service commentary. He scans differences over war, gun control, Syrian refugees, race relations, and capital punishment (but not abortion), concluding that with “any number of issues there is no one ‘evangelical voter.’ “

Want the Religion Guy’s detailed definition? Then click here.

What about Billy Graham, himself? He once told our own tmatt -- in a 1987 interview -- that he is no longer sure that he knows how to define "evangelical." Really.

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