"Evangelical voters" march on in Iowa

During the past decade of so, pollsters have begun paying attention to an interesting phenomenon. A growing percentage of young Protestants who would ordinarily be called "evangelicals" have started running away from that word. I have experienced this with my own students. The key, they said, is that "evangelical" is now a political word, as opposed to being a doctrinal term that points to a set of Christian beliefs and practices.

They're right, of course, and it doesn't help that the word is terribly vague, even when used in its proper context. On one hand, there are doctrinal statements that pin the movement down (such as the Lausanne Covenant and the statement from the National Association of Evangelicals). On the other hand, the Rev. Billy Graham -- in the mid-1980s -- told me that he is not sure what the word means. And if he doesn't know?

Nevertheless, a big part of this problem is that journalists consistently use "evangelical" as a political term. Thus, we now have Catholic political leaders (think Rich Santorum) who are frequently called "evangelicals," presumably because they vote "evangelical," or something like that. There are many, many examples I could cite, but this recent Los Angeles Times piece is perfect:

Nationally, the presidential campaign is being waged on the issues of jobs and the economy, but here in Iowa, an entirely different battle is unfolding.

In the competition for the highly influential evangelical vote, abortion and gay rights are at the forefront as Republican candidates try to assure voters of their own convictions and sow doubts about those of their rivals.

This large monolith of evangelicals also holds private meetings, presumably led by the usual suspects:

"A lot of behind-the-scenes wooing and romancing is going on," said Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which will host a forum Saturday that will be attended by nearly every Republican candidate. "The reason why is fairly obvious: If someone underperforms among that constituency, arithmetically, it becomes very difficult to end up in the top one or two places" in Iowa.

About 1,000 evangelical voters are expected to attend the forum, and an additional 2,500 are expected at a pre-Thanksgiving round-table in Des Moines held by the Family Leader, an umbrella group of socially conservative organizations that banded together for the 2012 campaign.

Let me make a few comments at this point.

* Note that we are talking about "evangelical" voters and it is simply assumed that this is a cohesive bloc of people. You know them by how they vote?

* It is certainly interesting that, as stories always note, roughly 60 percent of the voters who hit the caucuses in 2008 "were identified" as evangelicals. The obvious question: Did they self-identify?

* This Family Leader group is, at least, identified as an "umbrella group of socially conservative organizations." That's a step in the right direction. I think it's safe to assume that there are some conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Missouri-Synod Lutherans, Anglicans, Eastern Orthodox believers, Mormons and others in the state who are "social conservatives," yet who usually do not self-identify as "evangelicals."

What's going on?

You see, other than stressing that Rep. Michele Bachmann spends a lot of time telling people about the "moment she accepted Jesus as her savior," the story seems to have no idea who evangelicals are other than the fact that they are conservative on key social issues that are tied to ancient doctrines in a number of faiths. What is lost is that lots of other people who are not evangelicals take the same stands, on the same issues, often for very similar issues. This just in: Lots and lots of home-school parents are not evangelicals, either.

As it is, the one or two "evangelical voters" who speak in this story say precisely what one would expect them to say.

Definitions are crushed. Stereotypes flourish. Readers learn next to nothing that is new or interesting.

Just another day in coverage of "evangelical voters." I finished the story, once again, wanting to know more about the people clumped into that famous 60 percent of Iowa GOP caucus goers. Are they all, really and truly, "evangelicals"? How are the Mormons and the Baptists getting along? Are the evangelicals and the Catholics going out for beers and soft drinks together? And who is in the other 40 percent? Is that the number that contains the conservative Catholics, the Mormons and everyone else?

In other words, the word "evangelical" has been abused so much that it's hard to know what is going on in this story. It's hard to do journalism when you don't know what the words mean.

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