Think piece after crazy week: Two logical experts strive to define the term 'evangelical'

Any short list of topics that your GetReligionistas have been harping about from Day 1 of this weblog, 12 years ago, would have to include the mainstream news media's struggles to understand the already vague term "evangelical" (and its more conservative cousin, "fundamentalist").

In other words, this whole "Donald Trump is an evangelical" and/or "Donald Trump is the savior of the evangelicals madness" is just a more intense version of a journalistic problem that has always been around.

Here at GetReligion, this is not our first rodeo. Take it away, Bobby Ross Jr.! Also, I have written three national, "On Religion" columns about this issue as well. The headlines on those pieces are as follows: "Define 'evangelical' -- please," "Define 'evangelical' -- again" and "Define 'evangelical' -- 2013 edition."

Anyway, the evangelical pros at Christianity Today ran a very timely essay the other day with a totally logical double-decker headline:

Defining Evangelicals in an Election Year
A new research method could help us get beyond political stereotypes.

This is a must-read think piece for this weekend, in part because it was written by a highly qualified duo, if you are looking for authoritative voices on this subject. The Rev. Leith Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pollster Ed Stetzer is executive director of LifeWay Research in Nashville. Here is a key slice of this essay, containing the thesis:

... Who is an evangelical? Many pollsters and journalists assume that evangelicals are white, suburban, American, Southern, and Republican, when millions of self-identifying evangelicals fit none of these descriptions. ... We think there is a more coherent and consistent way to understand who evangelicals are -- one based on what evangelicals believe.
The desire to survey white evangelicals to determine their political interests inadvertently ends up conveying two ideas that are not true: that “evangelical” means “white” and that evangelicals are primarily defined by their politics.
But voting isn’t the only thing -- or the main thing—that most evangelicals do. Politics are important, but politics aren’t our defining characteristic, nor should they be. And clearly not all evangelicals fit the white evangelical category. Our country has become more diverse over the past half-century, and so have evangelical churches. To equate “evangelical” with “white evangelical” leaves out many people with evangelical beliefs.

So what is the method being used in this piece, while seeking a kind of evangelical typology?

Researchers look at three factors when studying religious groups. Known as the three Bs, they are belief, behavior, and belonging. In order to understand any religious group, you have to consider all three.
Yet most public polling on evangelicals has focused only on belonging, asking people to identify with a specific faith tradition. In some cases, people are asked to identify themselves in basic categories like Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim, and so on. Other polls ask people to use labels like “evangelical,” “born again,” or “fundamentalist.” (Pew, for example, combines “evangelical” and “born again.”)
More in-depth studies ask respondents the name of their denomination. Researchers then place those responses in a category using a standard set of historical traditions known as RELTRAD (short for religious traditions). For example, if you pick Episcopalian, you are mainline Protestant; if you pick Assemblies of God, you are evangelical. ...
Yet asking for religious self-identification isn’t enough. For example, many Christians hold evangelical beliefs but don’t call themselves evangelical; many Christians call themselves evangelical yet don’t hold evangelical beliefs. And denominational ties don’t always predict what someone actually believes. There are evangelical Episcopalians, for example, and Pentecostals who are more mainline in their theology.
Race and history are also important factors. A recent LifeWay study of evangelical beliefs found that only 1 in 4 African Americans who have evangelical beliefs self-identify as evangelical. That number jumps to about 6 in 10 for whites who hold evangelical beliefs and about 8 in 10 for Hispanic Americans who hold evangelical beliefs.

In the end, they affirm a basic set of doctrinal -- not political -- guidelines to define the borders of "evangelicalism." Those statements are:

* The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
* It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
* Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
* Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Those who agreed with all four statements were also likely to self-identify as evangelicals, thus bridging the gap between belief and belonging. They also attend church on a regular basis -- meaning these four questions about belief also correlate with behavior (church attendance).

It's probably safe to say that this approach has little or nothing to do with the shallow, shoddy labeling that has been going on in almost all American newsrooms, in recent months and in years past.

So when most journalists use the term "evangelical," are they getting it right according to actual church history? If not, what does the term "evangelical" mean when journalists say that Trump is dominating the "evangelical" vote?

Just asking.

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