Concerning 'evangelicals,' dogs, pick-up trucks, Southern 'stuff' and, yes, Donald Trump


When you grow up as a Southern Baptist in Texas, you hear lots of good preaching and you hear lots and lots of what can only be called "Southern stuff."

Every region has its share of off verbal twists and turns, but I'll put the Deep South at the top of the list when it comes to off-the-wall sayings and wisecracks. There are plenty of blunt Southern grandmothers who are funnier -- intentionally or otherwise -- than some comedians I could name.

So listen now as World magazine scribe Warren Cole Smith -- author of the book "A Lover's Quarrel with the Evangelical Church" -- tries to sum up the whole "Donald Trump is the savior of evangelical voters" debate with one deep-fried expression that I am sure he stole from some older member of his family. This is from an OnFaith essay called "10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Evangelicals" at OnFaith.

We have an old saying in my part of the South: “Just because my dog sleeps in the garage, that doesn’t make him a pick-up truck.” Just because a blogger calls himself (or herself) an evangelical doesn’t make it so. You don’t have to vote Republican or go to a particular church, but you gotta believe in that stuff in #1 above, or you’re something else.

Ah, but there is the rub. What is the doctrinal content of his #1 reference? And who gets to cast a so-called "evangelical" into outer darkness?

We could argue about all that 'til the cows come home (and your GetReligionistas have been spilling digital ink on that topic for 12 years) and not agree on the fine details.

But, journalists, here is the key once again: The term "evangelical" must be defined in some way by belief and behavior (again, read Ed Stetzer and the Rev. Leith Anderson), more than the political issues of the day. (Yes, there are ancient doctrines linked to marriage, abortion, adultery and other issues that often affect political debates.) So where does Smith start?

1. Evangelicals share a common belief.
Being an evangelical actually means something doctrinally and theologically, namely that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Evangelicalism is not, or not merely, a demographical subset or sociological tribe. An evangelical is someone who both believes and wants to share with others this evangel, this good news.

And where does he end, looking at both America and the global scene?

10. Evangelicals are diverse and tolerant.
Evangelicals have never been, and are certainly not now, old white Americans. By some estimates, China has 30 million evangelical Christians. Some countries in Africa and South America have evangelical majorities. Here in the U.S. you can find millions of Hispanic evangelicals. That diversity is the result of -- and has led more deeply into -- a culture of tolerance evangelicals don’t get credit for.

There are lots of details in between that are sure to cause debate in some corners of the public sqare (check out his logic on "8. Evangelicals are pro-science"). But journalists should read this list and think it over.

Now, there is more to the Citizen Trump and his evangelicals story than a religious creed and frequent church attendance. There ARE social, economic and, yes, political forces in play among the folks who ARE pro-Trump and who do identify themselves as evangelicals and/or "born-again Christians."

So for some additional background material on that, please check out this National Interest essay that ran under the headline, "Who Are Trump's Christians."

Now, to be honest, I read most of this essay before I noticed the byline. It is, in fact, written by an Orthodox Christian friend of mine (and a fine tenor, I would add) named Ivan Plis (as in @ivanplis). This is a young scribe with Russian roots who now, after a Georgetown University education, speaks Arabic, as well.

He gets the religion component of this political panic zone. But he sees the other details, too, including the role that church life can play in the cultural drama. Start reading:

Then along came Donald Trump. Far from fracturing the Republican base, his real talent has been to exploit internal rifts that had long lain dormant. It’s no secret that instead of principled conservatives, he appeals viscerally to the losers of the global economy. His staunchest supporters feel vulnerable not just because of declining working-class employment, but also because of a loss of social belonging and binding community norms of all kinds -- including church membership -- that has hit working-class whites harder than any other group.
In fact, modern American evangelicalism has always been ill defined; part of the problem stems from its lack of an organizational center. Instead of an evangelical Vatican, hundreds of tiny denominations jostle alongside more established churches. There are ecclesial bodies in which some members would call themselves evangelicals, while others do not. And when it comes to politics, “evangelical” is often extreme shorthand for “socially conservative white Protestants.”
How, then, can pollsters and policymakers properly assess the role of evangelical Americans in politics?

Please keep reading:

... A study that set out to find self-described evangelicals concluded that the likeliest Trump supporters are also the least likely to attend regular religious services. (While 88 percent of American evangelicals are "absolutely certain" they believe in God, only 58 percent say they attend weekly services.) At the same time, self-described evangelicals have been key to Trump’s success—at the expense of other candidates, most notably Ted Cruz.
There’s the creeping crack-up of working-class institutions again. As Charles Murray has written, the subset of self-professed “religious” U.S. whites that is least affected by declining church attendance trends is educated and wealthy, seemingly in contradiction of every stereotype about class and religion. The loss of social capital that accompanies detachment from a cohesive church community has very real material costs, and lower-class white communities are far less equipped to withstand it than those who are rich and unchurched.

So how large is your "think piece" file getting on this topic these days?

That said, can you believe that many of the political journalists who are covering this story still have not grasped the essential truths: (1) "Evangelical" is not a political term, (2) there are lots of people in this culture who call themselves "evangelicals" who rarely frequent a church (think cultural Catholics or Jews) and (3) it appears that most of the people who are "evangelicals" at the level of practice and doctrinal beliefs are actually not Trump voters.

In fact, what was that statistic we just read? Only 58 percent of "evangelicals" say they attend weekly services. That would mean that roughly 42 percent do not? Now what has the ceiling been, so far, on the percentage of "evangelicals" who are pulling the lever for Trump? Isn't it hovering in between 30 and 40 percent?

See the math on that?

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