“Evangelical Christians” have been considered a constituency within the Republican Party ever since the days of the Moral Majority and the Reagan years. Prior to that time, they were not really considered a voting constituency, and it was widely believed that many of them shunned the political process because they viewed it as potentially corrupting, or that it was something that was better left alone, “rendering unto Caesar,” so to speak. Ironically, the awareness of the presence of “Evangelicals” was heightened by Jimmy Carter, whose self-identification as a “born-again” Christian attracted a lot of interest and attention, as well as criticism, from the media. However, it was the entry of “Evangelical Christians” into the electorate that turned the margins, particularly in the Presidential elections of 1980 and 1984, opening the door for Reagan’s election.
Since that time, the turnout of Evangelicals has been credited with victories for some, and the lack of turnout has been blamed for the defeat of others. It has become clear that a majority of self-identified Evangelical Christians tend to support Republicans, and that core of support, which is estimated to be somewhere north of 60% of those who fall into that classification, has become one of the most influential constituencies in the GOP.
The failure of Evangelicals to turn out in large numbers in 2012 is one of the main reasons cited by Republicans for Mitt Romney’s defeat. The claim is that about 4 million fewer Evangelicals turned out in 2012 than in 2008, failing to support Romney because of his Mormon faith, or because he just wasn’t really “their” candidate. That’s not really consistent with what the exit polls showed, but that’s the claim. And one candidate, Ted Cruz, has even suggested that 54 million Evangelicals still don’t vote, and somehow need to be activated for the GOP to win in 2016.
I’m not sure what sources he uses for his numbers, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near the ball park. In fact, as the polling data, and religious survey data both show, the number of people who identify as members of Protestant churches in the US is in decline, as is the number of those who are identified as “Evangelicals.” And my point here isn’t so much to lament the decline of their political clout as it is to point to some inherent problems that are indicating a decline of church participation in the country in general. There are several reasons why Mr. Cruz’s numbers don’t add up.
How is the term “Evangelical Christian” defined?
The Association of Religious Data Archives says that there are 26,344,933 people who are members of churches that are considered part of Mainline Protestantism in America, and 39,930,869 members of churches that are considered “Evangelical” Protestants. The means of distinguishing the two is primarily related to the emphasis placed on the “social gospel,” with Evangelicals being somewhat critical of those they consider “Mainline.” Evangelicals are much more involved in activity which they see as witnessing, and preaching the gospel aimed at getting people to convert to Christian faith, while Mainline churches are more involved in activity which is aimed at addressing social problems and not necessarily involved in winning converts.
Many Evangelicals are involved in non-denominational churches and groups that don’t show up in religious surveys or censuses. Non-denominational churches that identify as either conservative, or Charismatic, have a collective membership of about 12 million that is probably not all added into the figure reported by ARDA. If that’s the case, then those who are identified as “Evangelical Christians” among Protestants in America, probably number somewhere around 50 million. And if they are registered to vote at percentages that run 8 to 10 percent higher than the general population, which is what the surveys and polls show, that means there are about 32 million voters who are classified as Evangelical. And that number is consistent with the percentage of the electorate that self-identified as “Evangelical Christian” in exit polling in 2012.
More Evangelicals Voted in 2012 than in 2004, or 2008
According to Ralph Reed, head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which would probably be the top Evangelical PAC in the country, the number of Evangelicals who turned out in 2012 was a record, higher than the 2008 percentage that turned out for John McCain.
“Evangelicals turned out in record numbers and voted as heavily for Mitt Romney yesterday as they did for George W. Bush in 2004,” observed Reed, the day after Romney’s defeat. “That is an astonishing outcome that few would have predicted even a few months ago.”
So where will Cruz get more Evangelical voters?
The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Evangelical denomination, and counts among the members of its cooperating churches Republican Presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and former candidate Lindsay Graham, as well as John McCain. My friend and fellow blogger Bob Cleveland, who writes Eagle’s Rest (http://www.mightyfowl.blogspot.com/) has pointed out on more than one occasion the SBC’s irregularities in keeping track of its membership. The SBC reports that it has 16 million members in approximately 45,000 churches located in all 50 states, but primarily in the South. However, on any given Sunday, the collective worship attendance of those churches is between 6 and 6.5 million. In addition to that figure, the SBC reports that more than 7 million members of its churches are considered “non-resident,” that is, they have an address not in the same general area as the church to which they belong. Most are probably not active in church, and many are, at this point, probably either dead, or just phantom numbers that can’t be connected to a name. Bob’s guess is that about 60% of the membership of most Southern Baptist churches is inactive, not attending, and generally not supportive of the denomination’s ministries. He compares that with other churches in other denominations, in which 50% of the membership falls into the inactive category.
If Bob’s figures are correct, and I see a lot of evidence to support what he says, then the number of Evangelical Christians in America is probably closer to 30 million than it is to 54 million. If you figure that among the 30 million is a percentage of children not yet old enough to vote, and calculate a slightly higher percentage of registered voters among the eligible membership, you get a figure that supports the claims of the Faith and Freedom Foundation, and that is consistent with what the major network exit polls indicated in 2012.
Mitt Romney got a higher percentage of the evangelical vote in 2012 than any candidate since George W. Bush in 2004, and a higher percentage of the white vote than any candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988. He lost. In both the exit poll analysis, and in the Faith and Freedom Foundation’s Analysis, the increase in the number of younger voters under 35, and the percentages in which they supported President Obama, made the difference in 2012.
That makes a couple of statements. From a political perspective, the number of younger voters continues to increase, and they have become the new constituency for the Democrats that Evangelicals once were for the Republicans. But that’s not as concerning as the fact that there are relatively few people in that particular age demographic that consider themselves Evangelical Christian. That’s the alarm bell that should be ringing, and its more important than figuring out how to get more Evangelical votes in an election.
1. The figures provided by the Faith and Freedom Foundation reflect their definition of “Evangelical,” and there’s no specific information included to determine how they arrived at that definition. Given the percentages that they report in support of Romney and Obama in 2012, it is likely that they are excluding the membership of historically African American denominations in that total. While those denominations are generally more conservative theologically than their white counterparts, and because of their intricate involvement in the African American community, produce more converts per capita, they are also highly involved in social action, which, in the opinion of those within Evangelical political organizations, categorizes them as Mainline, or separates them out as a different category of “Historically African American, rather than Evangelical. The largest African American denominational grouping is Baptist, most of whom would be considered Evangelical from a doctrinal and theological perspective, along with another large African American denomination that is Pentecostal, the Church of God in Christ, while the other large denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is Mainline. With 96% of the African American vote going to the President in 2012, that explains the discrepancy between the high percentage of “Evangelical” voters going to Romney in 2012 as reported by the Faith and Freedom Foundation, and the lower figure that virtually all of the major television networks, including Fox News, reported.
2. There is an observable perspective among conservative candidates like Ted Cruz in particular, that because there is a clear majority of support for their political position among those in the Evangelical constituency, the minority that doesn’t support them is “wrong.” Almost every philosophical argument comes down to the Republican platform’s plank regarding abortion. The insistence that this issue trumps all others, and that somehow candidates are going to be held accountable to the platform hasn’t worked out in practice. Many Republican candidates simply ignore the pro-life issues once they get into office, and some of them are outspoken opponents of it. There’s no party apparatus that makes candidates tow the line on issues. The voters do that, and there are many pro-choice Republicans who are in office because Evangelical voters cast ballots along party lines, instead of examining the candidate’s views. The next big issue with religious overtones is that of same-sex marriage, which many Republicans also support. Many Republican candidates for office openly cite the fact that they know Evangelicals are one of their most reliable constituencies, and that they can pretty much take their support for granted. And they do.
3. I believe that the decline in Evangelical membership and participation, which is getting close to the percentages that Mainline denominations have been experiencing for years, is due in part to the corner that they have painted themselves into from a political perspective. It’s hard to expend the kind of energy and support for political issues that Evangelicals have spent, and continue to maintain commitments to missions and evangelism. It’s also much harder to reach people who think that your primary purpose for conversion is to convince them that your political perspective is the right one. Whether Evangelicals are directly involved or not, the kind of language and approach that is taken in politics by many conservatives, including vitriolic personal attacks, name calling, the “our view at all costs” approach, and all the mud-slinging, is a turn-off for most Americans. The majority of the country’s population doesn’t attend church regularly, or at all, and depending on whose research you look at, between half, and two thirds of today’s Millennial generation has no connection to a church or faith at all. But the church isn’t having any success at all in reaching into that population. The data, whether secular polls or religious surveys, points to a shifting here and there within the church, but to a downward trend in winning new converts and gaining members. Churches are not even able to hold on to most of the children raised within their walls. In the 1980’s, the figure was 70% of those raised in church, and active in their childhood and youth years dropped out by the time they were 30, and only about half of them came back. That figure is now up around 80%, and the return rate is fractional. They are not coming back.
I’m not opposed to Evangelical or Christian involvement in the political process, and in fact, I believe that it is essential for the survival of the Democratic Republic that is the United States of America. But a partisan expression of that causes polarization, and limits the effectiveness of the church as it remains true to its mission and purpose. Evangelicals, and those who see that a secular, humanist government is also opposed to the social gospel, operating as an independent political entity, would be a powerful force, influencing the government from both sides. As long as most of the American church resides in a polarized, political climate, it will continue to experience decline. And while I’m not a prophet, it’s not really hard to see what will happen as the current generation reaches adulthood, with somewhere between 8% and 12% of their number counted among active church membership, as they raise the next generation.