Evangelicals vs. Religious Right

Still catching up with recent magazine stuff as we get this blog rolling. There was an interesting point recently in the Weekly Standard about religious terms and definitions and labels. This is important, because we are about to enter into another hurricane of election-year speculation on the power or lack thereof of the Religious Right. Right? (Curious, why don't people ask that much about the rising or declining power of the Religious Left, or the Skeptical Left? Check out Rod Dreher on this topic.)

In the Standard, Mark Stricherz asked a good question: Just because the "Religious Right" seems to be in decline, does that mean that the "evangelical vote" is in decline?

The two groups aren't the same. "You can't equate" them, says Corwin Smidt, a leading scholar of evangelical political behavior at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Evangelicals are a religious group, while the religious right is a socio-political group."

For reasons not clear, exit polls don't ask voters if they identify themselves as evangelicals or fundamentalists. Rather, voters are asked if they label themselves part of the religious right. The question causes many evangelical scholars to shake their heads. "It leads to misleading data," Smidt maintains. "One problem is that many African Americans say they're part of the Christian right, but in fact they don't vote Republican at all."

In Voter News Service exit polling data culled by American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Karlyn Bowman, voters identifying themselves as part of the religious right indeed shrank throughout the '90s. In the 1994 midterm elections, 19 percent of voters identified themselves as members of the religious right; in the 1996 presidential election, 16 percent did so. By 2000 the number had dropped to 14 or 15 percent.

Well, duh! Who wants to identify -- talking to a pollster, no less -- with the Religious Right? The media has turned that term into a label with roughly the same overtones as the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the term evangelical is becoming more and more flexible. This is, for example, clearly a word that is defined by feelings and experiences, rather than doctrinal specifics. Ditto for that "born again" label.

The oft-quoted John C. Green of the University of Akron notes that there is no sign of a drop-off in the number of evangelicals who go to the polls.

More to come, I am sure.

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