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ISR’s Kidd: Roy Moore and the confused identity of today’s “evangelical” voter

37 percent of evangelicals say they’re more likely to support Roy Moore after sexual assault allegations. Here’s why I’m skeptical of that.

The controversy over Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore and his alleged sexual improprieties has also produced a predictable storyline about the “evangelical” response to Moore. One widely reported polling statistic had 37 percent of Alabama “evangelicals” saying that they were “more likely” to support Moore following the allegations.

As a professor who studies the history of Christianity — and an evangelical — I find myself continually frustrated with news pieces like this. When I read such stories about “evangelicals,” I wonder who these “evangelicals” actually are, and why much of the media is so eager to peddle storylines, however implausible, related to evangelical hypocrisy.

Anyone who thought for a second about the supposed evangelical reaction to Moore should have been incredulous. To me, the charges against Moore are disturbing and disqualifying. Many of his supporters disagree. But really, would anybody tell a pollster that allegations that a candidate had sexually abused minors would make them more inclined to support that candidate?

Whoever these “evangelicals” might be, they’re obviously saying that they don’t believe the charges against Moore, and they’re sticking by their man in the face of “fake news.” I’m not trying to defend Moore here; I’m just suggesting that the power of the fake news theme gives Moore’s defenders a ready response against the explosive charges women have made against him.

Nate Silver called out this silly interpretation on Twitter:

It’s an all-too-common cycle. Some in the media believe and promote the absolute worst about evangelicals. Those evangelicals then lament fake news, even when the news (like the charges against Moore) seems not so fake.

Part of this is just a fundamental problem with polling. There are so many possible meanings left open by the way a question is framed, the context in which it is asked, the person responding, and the reporter’s interpretation.

Even more problematic, these stories employ a vague concept of “evangelical,” a term that has become almost totally disconnected from its historic meaning. Since 1980 and the rise of the Moral Majority, “evangelical” has become a descriptor more associated with politics than with theology or Christian practices. Evangelical spokespeople from Jerry Falwell to Franklin Graham have done as much as the secular media to create this impression. It has left us with a deeply diluted public image of what the word means. Polls make this problem worse by relying on self-identification of evangelicals, and evangelical self-definition has shifted over time.

I suspect that large numbers of these people who identify as “evangelicals” are really just whites who watch Fox News and who consider themselves religious.

To me, the controversy involving the reasons for evangelical support for Roy Moore reveals how little we understand evangelicals as a group in modern America.

Who really identifies as “evangelical” today?

One challenge in determining what “evangelicals” believe is the difficulty in getting solid polling data on any subject. Observers have noted that ever since the advent of cellphones, reliable polling has become ever more difficult. Polls routinely get no more than a 10 percent response rate. Some academic experts, including sociologist colleagues of mine at Baylor, have begun to despair about using polls to gather reliable information about anything at all.

FiveThirtyEight gave a good, balanced overview of the problems in polling four years ago, and the problems have only gotten worse since then.

The second difficulty is this self-identification issue. Some polls do use other means of determining who an evangelical is, such as church affiliation. But most pollsters simply ask a person if they identify as an evangelical, and if the answer is yes, then that person is taken to have evangelical views about Donald Trump’s latest antics, or whatever the topic is.

This is highly dubious. For instance, if you ask more probing questions, it turns out that significant numbers of these “evangelicals” do not go to church. One study of the 2016 GOP primaries showed that these non-churchgoing evangelicals were more likely to support Trump — around 53 percent of Trump supporting evangelicals marked that they seldom/never went to church. That percentage dropped to around 36 percent for Trump-supporting evangelicals who went to church weekly. Of course, a strong majority of self-identified evangelicals went on to support Trump in the general election.

In many cases, we have no idea how many of these “evangelicals” read the Bible regularly, have been born again, or share other hallmarks of historic evangelicalism. To be fair, many polls do explicitly break out white voters from black, Hispanic, and other voters, giving some additional texture to the political views among self-identified evangelicals — so not all polls are free of nuance. And if my hunch is correct, it would be worth investigating how the term “evangelical” became code for a kind of nominal Christianity in America.

Part of this is just a fundamental problem with polling. There are so many possible meanings left open by the way a question is framed, the context in which it is asked, the person responding, and the reporter’s interpretation.

Even more problematic, these stories employ a vague concept of “evangelical,” a term that has become almost totally disconnected from its historic meaning. Since 1980 and the rise of the Moral Majority, “evangelical” has become a descriptor more associated with politics than with theology or Christian practices. Evangelical spokespeople from Jerry Falwell to Franklin Graham have done as much as the secular media to create this impression. It has left us with a deeply diluted public image of what the word means. Polls make this problem worse by relying on self-identification of evangelicals, and evangelical self-definition has shifted over time.

I suspect that large numbers of these people who identify as “evangelicals” are really just whites who watch Fox News and who consider themselves religious.

To me, the controversy involving the reasons for evangelical support for Roy Moore reveals how little we understand evangelicals as a group in modern America.

Who really identifies as “evangelical” today?

One challenge in determining what “evangelicals” believe is the difficulty in getting solid polling data on any subject. Observers have noted that ever since the advent of cellphones, reliable polling has become ever more difficult. Polls routinely get no more than a 10 percent response rate. Some academic experts, including sociologist colleagues of mine at Baylor, have begun to despair about using polls to gather reliable information about anything at all.

FiveThirtyEight gave a good, balanced overview of the problems in polling four years ago, and the problems have only gotten worse since then.

The second difficulty is this self-identification issue. Some polls do use other means of determining who an evangelical is, such as church affiliation. But most pollsters simply ask a person if they identify as an evangelical, and if the answer is yes, then that person is taken to have evangelical views about Donald Trump’s latest antics, or whatever the topic is.

This is highly dubious. For instance, if you ask more probing questions, it turns out that significant numbers of these “evangelicals” do not go to church. One study of the 2016 GOP primaries showed that these non-churchgoing evangelicals were more likely to support Trump — around 53 percent of Trump supporting evangelicals marked that they seldom/never went to church. That percentage dropped to around 36 percent for Trump-supporting evangelicals who went to church weekly. Of course, a strong majority of self-identified evangelicals went on to support Trump in the general election.

In many cases, we have no idea how many of these “evangelicals” read the Bible regularly, have been born again, or share other hallmarks of historic evangelicalism. To be fair, many polls do explicitly break out white voters from black, Hispanic, and other voters, giving some additional texture to the political views among self-identified evangelicals — so not all polls are free of nuance. And if my hunch is correct, it would be worth investigating how the term “evangelical” became code for a kind of nominal Christianity in America.