How will U.S. evangelicals affect 2016? For that matter, what is an 'evangelical'?

With an unusually scrambled Republican presidential campaign heating up, and with so many pious candidates, the usual media thumbsuckers about evangelical Protestants and 2016 are already appearing.

Yes, again.

Somehow, political reporters remain more fascinated with this predictably Republican bloc than non-Hispanic Catholics who will be the biggest religious “swing vote” (as usual),  or Jews, whose lockstep loyalty to the Democrats could be eroded by President Obama’s foreign policy.

Jason Horowitz of The New York Times portrayed evangelical clout in the person of David Lane  of the American Renewal Project. Among other efforts, Lane hopes to recruit 1,000 clergy to run for office in 2016. (How would that impact the quality of sermons and pastoral work in their 1,000 churches?) Horowitz says instead of top-down, publicity-seeking groups like the onetime Moral Majority, Lane is building a “ground-level” network of believers, working “mostly behind the scenes.” 

But are politicized evangelicals a big deal or a blip? The recent feuds over gay marriage and “religious freedom restoration” bills suggest the latter. And consider this reality check in the latest National Congregations Study directed by Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves.  A detailed survey of 1,300 local congregations showed white evangelicals are by far the category least involved in political activism in comparison with Catholics, black Protestants, moderate and liberal “mainline” Protestants and non-Christian groups. That’s the Religion Guy’s gut impression from decades on the Godbeat.

As Times columnist Nicholas Kristof observes, “in liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.” Still, beyond the liberal bubble reporters and politicians may sense that when evangelicals do sound off on public policy they reflect the outlook of a substantial grass-roots constituency, whereas Catholic or “mainline” Protestant officials often  seem to speak more for themselves than for their large memberships.

Blogger Sarah Posner downplays evangelicals’ impact because they’re  “splintering in different directions.” To her, David Lane is part of the “pander-by-praying” segment of “Christian nation” enthusiasts that’s in decline. In Religion News Service, political scientist Tobin Grant asserts that evangelicals are so unorganized and divided they cannot “form a national movement capable of making a difference in the election.”

Notre Dame historian George Marsden looks at U.S. evangelicalism as a purely religious rather than political force and similarly finds a “bewilderingly diverse set of movements and sub-movements” that results from “decentralization, competitive free enterprise, populist demagoguery, and encouragement of personal readings of Scripture.” To him it’s quite remarkable “that the movement is as coherent as it is” with a shared religious “core message.”
He writes that in a package of eight articles to define and assess evangelicalism in Fuller Magazine. The magazine is published by Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the world’s largest clergy training schools. The articles label Fuller itself as “open evangelical,” meaning openness to various segments of evangelicalism and to some advanced scholarly thinking unwelcome among more conservative “evangelicals” and hardline “fundamentalists.” However, the school is more conservative than  seminaries of the “mainline” Protestant denominations that supply so many Fuller students.

The magazine notes that British church historian D. W. Bebbington, now at Baylor University, has proposed four traits that define evangelicalism: “conversionism” or belief that individual lives need spiritual change, “activism” in evangelism and missions, “biblicism” or very high regard for the Bible’s authority and “crucicentrism” or stress on Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.

The Religion Guy would add to that broadly traditional substance in doctrine and morals.

Neither Bebbington nor the Religion Guy inserts politics into the definition. For one thing, this movement is not narrowly American but a huge and growing force around the globe. For instance, Fuller enrolls nearly 1,000 overseas students. Church historian Charles Scalise writes -- foreign correspondents take note -- that “evangelicalism, when inclusive of Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, may emerge as one of the two or three largest Christian traditions in the world.”

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