Defining 'Evangelicals' in an Election Year

Here we go again. Presidential elections are coming, and the role of “evangelicals” is predictably becoming a hot political story. Voices on both the Religious Right and secular Left describe evangelicals as zealous members of the ultra-conservative political base.

Why? Perhaps because some conservative Republicans want to claim a religious legitimacy and constituency for their ideological agenda, and some political liberals seem determined to portray religious people as intellectually flawed, right-wing crazies with dangerous plans for the country.

Let me be clear as someone who is part of a faith community that is, once again, being misrepresented and manipulated. Most people see me as politically progressive. And I am an evangelical Christian.

I believe in one God, the centrality and Lordship of God’s son, Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, the authority of the scriptures, the saving death of the crucified Christ, and his bodily resurrection.

I love my liberal church friends, but I am more theologically conservative. I have many allies on the religious Left, but I am not a member of it. I work closely with brothers and sisters of other faith traditions where we have common concerns, but I will never compromise the truth of my own faith. I collaborate with people of no religious affiliation—religion has no monopoly on morality. But I also believe in evangelism, and I have called and led people to faith in Jesus Christ.

For me and a growing number of others, it is precisely because we are Bible-believing and Jesus-following evangelical Christians that we have a fundamental commitment to social, economic, and racial justice and are called to be good stewards of God’s creation, peacemakers in a world of conflict and war, and consistent advocates for human life and dignity. And because we are members of the global body of Christ, we don’t believe God blesses and loves our country more than others. The gospel doesn’t co-exist well with empires.

Many—even most—evangelicals don’t fit media stereotypes and are growing weary of hearing them repeated, especially from those who know nothing about us, have an agenda to use or distort who we are and what we believe, or simply should know better.

After the election in 2004, I wrote a book called God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. In 2012, the Right still gets it wrong when they claim that most evangelicals are firmly in their base; and the Left still doesn’t get it when they tacitly agree that all evangelicals support the most conservative candidates. But the myth survives, perhaps because it’s in the interest of both sides.

On the one hand we have religious fundamentalists who are eager to use evangelicals, and on the other hand we have secular fundamentalists who want to prove that evangelicals are dangerous extremists. But the facts belie the stereotypes. Evangelicals run the political gamut from conservative and moderate to progressive and decidedly liberal. To suggest that most evangelicals reside on the far right is simply not true.

Younger evangelicals are more concerned than some of their parents with issues of social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and peace. Evangelicals in African-American and Latino churches tend to be more focused than many of their white co-religionists on economic and racial justice and related issues such as immigration. Differences exist between older and younger evangelicals, and between white and ethnic evangelical churches. And the evangelical center has shifted significantly over the last decade.

This shift was shown in a recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. When asked about ways to reduce the deficit, 58 percent of white evangelicals opposed cutting federal programs that help the poor;  72 percent opposed cutting federal funding to religious organizations that help the poor. And to reduce the deficit, 60 percent favored raising taxes on those making more than $1 million per year. Most  evangelicals, and especially the younger generation, now see poverty as a fundamental biblical issue.

Even the math from election exit polls challenges the political stereotypes. More white evangelicals voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 election than voted for John Kerry in 2004, and that made a critical difference in some key states. Democrats lost those gains in the 2010 election, showing that political shifts among evangelicals aren’t permanent and that many religious voters decide mostly on issues of concern to them, rather than being loyal partisans.

Isn’t that the way it should be? In the future, evangelicals may likely vote more as independents, depending on the issues and the candidates, rather than according to any party loyalty. It is precisely that kind of moral integrity—in politics and any other arena—that should define “evangelical” in this or any election.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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