Tracking evangelical votes

You know it's election season when reporters start to take note of evangelicals a bit more than usual.

The Economist has a new piece on the supposed changing landscape of evangelicalism and what it means politically. The piece is set up describing three evangelicals who apparently defy evangelical stereotypes.

CONSIDER three young religious-minded people of the left. The first is Andi Sullivan, who set up a charity to distribute mosquito netting to Africa and Asia during her first year at university.

I don't know any conservative evangelical who opposes mosquito netting, especially if it's driven by nonprofits. But the story fits the reporter's narrative that evangelicals have all acted one way while the coming generation will change the picture.

The vast majority of evangelicals oppose gay marriage. They are more likely than non-evangelicals to oppose extra funding for public education, unemployment benefits and aid to the poor, both within and outside America. And a poll taken by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2010 showed that nearly half of all white evangelicals favour deporting illegal immigrants.

The story's premise suggests younger and/or Latino evangelicals could change the makeup of the political landscape because they could change the evangelical landscape. But what the piece doesn't point out is that Latino evangelicals are pretty opposed to gay marriage and abortion. Much of the piece uses stats without citing specific polls, so it's difficult to see whether the reporter is using data worth noting. The most recent poll on immigration is really from 2010?

The prominence of evangelicals within the Republican Party is increasing: they made up more than half of all Republican voters in the first 16 primaries and caucuses where entry and exit polls were taken, up from 44% in 2008.

And fully 70% of white evangelicals consider themselves Republican these days, up from 65% in 2008.

It might not be useful to compare 2012 to 2008 since party identification is pretty low. Perhaps some evangelicals have shifted identity as independents?

But if those numbers are comforting for Republicans, the trends below the surface are less so. Mitt Romney, the all-but-official Republican nominee, is a Mormon, and has struggled throughout the primaries to win the backing of evangelical voters. And in 2008 Barack Obama won the votes of nearly one in four evangelical voters; comfortably more than the one in five John Kerry won four years earlier. He showed particularly strong gains over Mr Kerry among younger evangelicals, and in swing states. Our three examples might not remain as outliers for too much longer.

Romney likely didn't struggle among evangelicals in the primary because they're turning liberal. If anything, they were turning towards a candidate they saw as more conservative: Rick Santorum. Oops: that doesn't fit the narrative.

Given the traditional strength of Republicans among evangelicals and the record number of illegal immigrants, mostly Latino, deported by Mr Obama’s administration, Latino evangelicals ought in theory to be easy pickings for Mr Romney in 2012. But that may not be the case. Mr Bush supported immigration reform in the teeth of opposition from congressional Republicans. Mr Romney, on the other hand, was endorsed by and campaigned with Kris Kobach, who helped write the harsh immigration laws passed by Arizona and Alabama.

The reporter makes the jump that Latino evangelicals all oppose immigration laws Romney wants enforced. Is there any data to support that assumption? John McCain didn't make much headway with the same group, despite his stance. The reporter quotes one pastor, taking the beliefs of one person and universalizing them for an entire subset.

In the last half of the 20th century, membership of evangelical churches boomed while more traditional church attendance declined; today one-quarter of Americans aged 18-29 (and 16.1% of all Americans) are unaffiliated with any faith. Being unaffiliated is not the same as being atheist or agnostic, but it does suggest a waning of evangelical institutional authority, just as traditional authority in the old-established churches began crumbling several decades ago.

What is "evangelical institutional authority"? Sounds like an oxymoron. In my sociology of religion class in college, I was surprised by how many of my peers declined to identify themselves with a particular denomination, saying "I grew up Methodist" or "I grew up Baptist." I wonder how many younger evangelicals actually self identify as evangelical when they might say "yes, yes, yes, yes," to scholars' four descriptions of what an evangelical looks like.

American evangelicals spearheaded the drive to end slavery.

Yet the Devil can quote Scripture, too: many Americans used it to defend slavery and segregation. And Christian voters eventually rejected the devout, low-church Mr Carter in favour of a divorced movie-star longer on charm than piety. All of which suggests that American Christianity—much like both America and Christianity themselves—is fundamentally neither of the left nor the right, but is capacious enough for all comers.

That's quite the sweeping conclusion on religion in America based on two elections. The entire piece suffers from the primary view of a political lens without really consulting the religion lens. I know it's hard to to believe, but religious movements can be a little more complex than presidential elections every four years. Correlation does not mean causation, especially when a reporter tries to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Image of square peg round hole via Shutterstock.

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