When searching for 'evangelical' voters, maybe journalists should start with folks in pews?

Anyone who has lived in Texas knows that, in some communities, it seems like there are more Baptists than there are people. For every 100 folks who say they are Baptists, about 20-30 are going to be seen in a pew on a regular basis.

Anyone who has lived in, oh, Maryland knows that the state has a rich Catholic heritage. But what is the percentage of "Catholics" in the state who actually attend Mass on a regular basis, let alone practice the teachings of the faith?

Anyone who has lived in New York knows there is a wide gap between the people who are identified as Jews (the Bernie Sanders non-Jewish Jews niche is in here) and the number of people who practice any version of the Jewish faith, either on the doctrinal left or right.

Let's do one more. Anyone who has lived in or near Utah knows that when people talk about the Mormon population, that includes many "Jack Mormons" who are part of this flock on the cultural level, sort of, but are not active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What's my point? If you ask Americans if they are "born-again Christians," you are going to get totals that are way, way higher than the number of people who frequent church pews.

Clearly, if journalists (and pollsters) are actually interested in what is happening in this year's bizarre Republican race for the White House, someone is going to have to come up with questions that probe the gap between people who self-identify as "evangelicals" (or who say they are part of evangelical churches) and those whose beliefs and lifestyles have anything to do with mainstream evangelicalism.

The bottom line: What does it mean to say that Citizen Donald Trump is winning the "evangelical" vote with 30-plus percent of that vague, undefined total?

Yes, I know there is a problem here -- one that I have been writing about for 25 years or so. Taking this task seriously would require having a crisp, workable definition (click here for one attempt) of what the word "evangelical" means at the doctrinal level. Click here for the epic Bobby Ross Jr., review of how this puzzle can affect daily news coverage.

This brings us to two features linked to Super Tuesday, one from The Washington Post and the other from Baptist Press (which is operated by the Southern Baptist Convention). First off, here is the top of the BP story, which defines the basic issue:

NASHVILLE (BP) -- As pollsters analyze the voting patterns of "evangelicals" in Super Tuesday presidential primaries, some pastors and theologians have noted the mainstream media's failure to account for immense diversity among the movement claiming that label.
... Confusion over the term "evangelical" has led Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore to stop using it to describe himself -- at least during election season. Meanwhile, Texas pastor Robert Jeffress said evangelicals generally are united in their values but divided in their political strategies. African American Kentucky Baptist leader Curtis Woods noted black evangelicals tend to be particularly concerned with "social justice issues," and evangelical left leader Jim Wallis argued the policies of GOP presidential candidates sometimes identified as evangelical favorites have "almost nothing to do" with Jesus' mission of helping the poor and vulnerable.

Thus, the frequently quoted Moore has made a request -- Religion News Service report here -- that is sure to get zero traction in major newsrooms.

Now, back to the heart of the Baptist Press piece, which dares to ask journalists to actually think about the real-life facts in this matter:

Evangelicals are a mixed bag, politically speaking, said Nathan Finn, a church historian and dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University.
Some evangelicals "are denominational, and others are non-denominational," Finn told Baptist Press in written comments. "We come in a variety of ethnicities and worship in a multitude of languages. Though we are all committed to the full authority and sufficiency of Scripture, the necessity of personal conversion, the centrality of the atonement and the mandate to spread the Gospel to all people, we debate among ourselves the finer points of each of these priorities.
"The vast majority of us are pro-life and affirm the biblical view of marriage," Finn continued, "but these are not the only issues that affect how one votes. Thus, many of us are conservative, others are moderate and some are even liberal" in terms of the role of government. "I think this primary season is demonstrating what those of us 'in the camp' have known all along: there is no such thing as 'the evangelical vote.' At best, there are evangelical tendencies, but even these have to be qualified based upon factors such as region, income, frequency of church attendance, ethnicity and education level."

The whole Baptist Press piece is must reading, including the section describing the battles among evangelical leaders between the "idealists" and the "pragmatists."

By the way, check out the wide range of evangelical voices -- from a complex right to the true left -- quoted in this denominational-press feature. This is not a public-relations piece.

The truth of the matter is that when most journalists talk about "evangelical" voters they are merely talking about the white evangelicals who make up a large chunk of the GOP base. But even if that is the case, pollsters (and thus journalists) are going to have to come up with exit-poll questions that help explore the fault lines in that complex flock of people.

Active church members vs. backsliders is just the start. I would be very interested to know, for example, how Trump is doing with evangelicals for whom a candidate's views on abortion is a crucial issue. I also want to know about the candidate splits among those who are highly committed to the free exercise of religious beliefs. Do all evangelicals agree on immigration issues? How about Latino evangelicals?

This brings us to the Washington Post essay written by the Rev. Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister and writer. The headline certainly rings a bell at this here weblog: "Why exit pollsters desperately need to get religion."

Kaylor notes that shallow or missing questions about the alleged "evangelical" vote are just the start of the problems this year.

So back to the exit polls:

Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada only included a question about evangelicals, while South Carolina also included the shared religious beliefs question. In New Hampshire and South Carolina, pollsters also quizzed voters on their support for banning Muslims from entering the United States. ...
How did Catholics vote? We do not know -- even though in the 2012 general election Catholics accounted for more than one-quarter of the Iowa’s electorate and nearly 40 percent of the New Hampshire vote.
Catholics outnumbered evangelicals in the 2012 general election turnout in New Hampshire by more than three-to-one and edged out evangelicals in Nevada, but exit pollsters only asked about evangelicals this month. It could be insightful to see how Catholics like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ... did among their co-religionists.

Kaylor also raises an issue that your GetReligionistas have been stressing for 12 years: Why aren't pollsters and, thus, journalists interested in what is happening on the religious and secular left?

On the Democratic side, the exit polls remain even more sinful. Democratic primary voters are treated as if religion does not matter. Only South Carolina, where pollsters asked about frequency of religious service attendance, included any religion questions. ...

Even merely adding the one question asked in each state to Republican voters may provide interesting data. In the 2012 general election, Obama grabbed 35 percent of the white evangelical vote in Iowa, 25 percent in New Hampshire and 28 percent in Nevada. If nonwhite evangelicals were included, his share of the evangelical vote would have risen. Yet these evangelicals remain ignored in 2016 Democratic exit polls.

Why only ask Republican voters if they are evangelicals? Do Democratic evangelicals favor Clinton or her opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders, a non-practicing Jew?

Clearly the "evangelical" vote issue is not going away. The battle to reach people in the massive evangelical congregations in and around Orlando will be a YHUUUUUGE part of the Florida primary war. Journalists may want to visit the state's huge Hispanic and African-American Pentecostal churches, as well.

Stay tuned. But keep this question in mind while watching the coverage: How can a candidate "win" the alleged "evangelical" vote with the support of, oh, 30-35 percent of the self-identified "evangelicals"? Think about it.

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