Weekend think pieces: Concerning 'evangelicals' and the quest for better exit polls

If you have been on Planet Earth in recent months, and have the slightest interest in (a) religion, (b) politics or (c) both, then you know that the rise of Citizen Donald Trump has raised lots of questions about religion, politics and exit polls.

To be specific, the press has been obsessed with the idea that evangelical Protestants have fallen in love with Trump.

Sure enough, some evangelicals are quite fond of Trump, especially those who -- in the words of historian Paul Matzko of Pennsylvania State University -- are "cultural" evangelicals, as opposed to folks who frequent church pews once or more a week. You may want to check out this academic paper by Matzko: "What Evangelical Support for Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump Suggests About the Future of American Evangelicalism."

But forget Trump for a moment. The most interesting concepts in Matzko's paper concern the fault line between evangelicals who backed Rubio and those who support Cruz. Here is a chunk of my "On Religion" column from this week:

"... White collar" evangelical elites have appeared to favor Rubio while "evangelical workers" may appreciate Cruz's hard-line stance on illegal immigration. 

However, Matzko believes a deeper, more complex split is emerging, one rooted in history. 

On one side, he wrote, are "18th Century evangelicals -- a "persecuted religious minority" in American culture that yearned for the "liberty to practice their faith free from State interference. To that end, they allied with freethinkers like Thomas Jefferson. … They had little interest in fomenting sweeping social change, in using State power to make America more pious, holy or Christian. They asked only for the freedom to be left alone."  
On the other side, Matzko argued, are "19th Century evangelicals" who, by the end of that century, had begun to gain cultural influence and political power. This would eventually lead to talk of a "Moral Majority." 

In the current campaign, Cruz seems to have the support of those who believe "holding back the tide of depravity simply requires waking Christian people up to the social changes happening before their eyes." In other words, ballot-box success is certain -- if more true believers vote. 
But other evangelicals are convinced that it's time to focus on religious liberty for all religious minorities, in light of a crucial U.S. Supreme Court decision embracing gay marriage and fading support for religious institutions among young Americans.

And the bottom line? According to Matzko, here it is: "Do evangelicals still think they are part of the American religious establishment?"

Now, how will journalists try to cover these cracks inside the body politic without better information? And how will they have better info without better, more nuanced polling?

With that in mind, let me point readers to a recent think piece by Religion News Service veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman that ran with this headline: "Exit poll religion questions confuse and mislead, critics say."

Here's the sad news:

Q: Do the polls ask about religion?
Yes. And no. ... The three most common religion questions that may appear are:
Are you (Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, other or none)?
Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian? (Yes or No)
How often do you attend religious services? (More than once a week. Once a week. A few times a month. A few times a year. Never.)
But rarely does the survey include more than one religion question.
Another question asks Republican voters whether shared religious beliefs mattered a great deal in their choice. This is how ABC News could say after Super Saturday (March 5), “Nearly 4 in 10 voters in Texas said shared religious beliefs mattered a great deal in their choice, with Cruz pulling in 4 in 10 of them, vs. fewer than 3 in 10 for Trump.”
Democrats, however, are asked about shared “values,” as if only Republicans were religious, noted Brian Kaylor, a Baptist author who writes for Ethics Daily and Churchnet. “And only Southern Democrats were asked about church attendance, so we have no comparison to the Midwest states where Sanders is winning.”

And what about that "evangelical" question? Is there any common definition out there in the public square? You can guess the answer to that one, right?

The problem, say critics, is that there’s no universally agreed understanding of the terms “evangelical” or “born-again.”
“Catholics will say yes to ‘evangelical,’ Muslims, even atheists,” said Mark Gray, senior researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Catholic organization. Gray wrote in his blog that he might just be a “cranky social scientist” but on the evangelical question “the data you get back is, for lack of a better term, crap” that leads to over-counting this subgroup.
For many people, “evangelical is subtext for Christian,” said Kaylor. “So it comes across like, ‘Are you a Christian, or not?’ Or, more to the point, ‘Are you a God-fearing American, or not?’ ”

So what kinds of exit poll questions would add light as well as heat?

Read it all.

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