Polls show evangelicals support Trump. But the term ‘evangelical’ has become meaningless.

tags: election 2016, evangelicals, Trump

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of books including “George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father” from 2014. A version of this essay originally appeared on the Gospel Coalition website.

Take a cursory glance and all would seem to be well between evangelicals, Donald Trump and the GOP. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the huge evangelical Liberty University, gave a prime-time address Thursday, the grand finale of this week’s Republican National Convention. And a recent Pew Research poll showed that 78 percent of white “evangelicals” — and an overwhelming majority of evangelicals are white — plan to vote for Trump this fall.

However, polls that look into voter attitude show that many Trump-supporting evangelicals are far from enamored with Trump. And Falwell is one of the few prominent evangelicals – aside from a few “prosperity gospel” pastors, as well as old-guard types Tony Perkins and James Dobson, who joined in Thursday night – advocating publicly for Trump.

So what’s going on here? Who are these rank-and-file Trump supporters who tell pollsters that they are “evangelical”? And what does the label mean, anyway?

I would suggest that something more complicated is going on, something that may have given a generation of Americans the wrong idea about evangelicalism – and U.S. politics. What has happened is nothing short of a watering-down and politicization of the term “evangelical.”

We probably can’t do without the term, and historically it was quite a valuable one. But in American pop culture parlance, “evangelical” now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican. And due to polling definitions, it doesn’t fully include millions of African Americans and Latinos, confusing our understanding of how religion and politics mix. ...

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