With the nation’s first few presidential primaries and caucuses out of the way, pundits are scratching their heads and wondering why evangelical voters aren’t behaving as predicted. Among the three candidates most popular with evangelical voters, Donald Trump, a Presbyterian with a less than pious past, continues to best his two closest rivals – Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist, and Marco Rubio, a Catholic who attends a Baptist church.
Now, many are starting to ask: “Who are these evangelical voters?” “Who are they really supporting, and why?” Some analysts say not all the people pollsters are calling “evangelicals” really qualify for that label. That may be the reason it appears the evangelical voting bloc is split. It may also be the reason Trump is claiming the support of evangelicals despite the outcry among some devout leaders that his lifestyle and apparent values clash with their own evangelical beliefs.
A survey by LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) determined last fall that evangelicals (as most Southern Baptists would describe them) hold four common beliefs: the Bible is their highest authority, it is very important to share Christ with non-Christians, Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that can remove sin, and only those who accept Christ as their savior will receive eternal salvation
The survey surprisingly found just 41% of self-identified evangelicals hold all four beliefs, and 21% of those who rejected the evangelical label actually agree with all four. Other polls and studies have found many define evangelical in much broader terms, or as LifeWay’s Trevin Wax stated on The Gospel Coalition’s website, “’Evangelical’ sometimes means ‘cultural Christianity.’”
Later in that same article, Wax also blamed a lack of discipleship as a factor in evangelical voting writing, “A 30-minute sermon once a week or a brief morning prayer are not nearly as formative as the hours and hours a congregant may spend watching cable news, or listening to talk radio, or frequenting conspiratorial websites, or sharing articles that fan the flames of fear and anger.”
The National Review also weighed in after Trump’s win in South Carolina, the fifth most religious state according to Pew Survey. Writer JD Vance cited lack of church attendance by self-identified evangelicals as a factor in the second and third place finishes of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. “While approximately 80 percent of the country identifies as Christian, only about one in five regularly attend church services,” Vance wrote.
Based on this, he believes Cruz, who has most actively sought the evangelical vote, may be depending “on a group of religious voters who increasingly spurn church services and, consequently, traditional social conservatives like him.”
There is still much to be said. Next week is Super Tuesday, when Bible Belt states will have their say. While Illinois voters won’t go to the polls until March 15.
Perhaps Rubio, may have had the best insight when speaking after learning of this second place finish in South Carolina. “If it is God’s will that we should win this election, then history will say that on this night in South Carolina we took the first step forward in the beginning of a New American Century.” Truly, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election does hinge on God’s will.