In Tuesday’s Mississippi and Alabama primaries, about eight of 10 voters identified as evangelical , locking in victories for former Sen. Rick Santorum, and proving once again the importance of the evangelicals in the election.
Presidential hopefuls are again battling it out to be the God candidate, but the tide of the so-called “evangelical vote” seems ever-shifting. Santorum — a Catholic — is doing better to court most evangelicals, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — a Mormon — is beating out Santorum among Catholics. And according to a recent poll , Republicans in the Deep South are still questioning whether President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
But what does the “evangelical vote” even mean anymore? And can any one candidate really claim it? Even with Santorum’s win Tuesday, a significant number still fell into Romney’s column — and that’s just among Republican evangelicals. Obama was able to draw some evangelical support in 2008 and could garner more in November.
“We define evangelical based on two separate religious identity questions. The first asks basic religious affiliation — Protestant, Catholics, Jewish, etc .— and then, if the respondent identifies as Christian, they are asked if they are a born-again or evangelical Christian,” said Dan Cox, research director at Public Religion Research Institute.
According to a 2011 Pew Forum study , “the ‘born-again’ experience is a defining characteristic of the evangelical movement.” Other identifiers listed in the study include following the teachings of Christ in one’s personal life and working to lead others to Christ.
But while voters may identify with an evangelical or born-again background, that doesn’t always predict candidate affiliation.
This primary season more than ever, we have seen the splintering of what once was a fairly monolithic bloc of like-minded voters. Led by Religious Right figureheads such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson, this vote was a slam dunk for the George W. Bushes of the Republican Party. A new generation of evangelicals is now at the helm, and their primary interests don’t always lie with traditional, socially conservative values.
Cox said most surveys don’t include enough evangelical respondents to really show the important generational variances, but “there are significant differences between older and younger white evangelicals.”
A 2011 PRR survey found that younger white evangelicals were more than twice as likely as evangelicals overall to support same-sex marriage (44 percent vs. 19 percent respectively). Other issues like environmental stewardship and diplomacy over military intervention have been points of separation  between younger evangelicals and previous generations.
One issue that young and old, evangelical and unaffiliated, man and woman can agree on is that the economy is still the biggest consideration going into November.
“For evangelicals," Cox said, " as for most other Americans — the economy has been and continues to be the overriding issue."
Sandi Villarreal is Associate Web Editor for Sojourners. Follow Sandi on Twitter @Sandi.