Stephen Prothero explains why evangelicals look even less reliable than they always have to those in confessional communions who take church governance seriously:
For decades, pundits have viewed white evangelicals as perhaps the most powerful voting block in American politics—the base of the Republican Party. Cohesive, well organized, and politically active, they crafted their identity around a shared belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God and a shared commitment to supplant the moral relativism of the insurgent 1960s cultural revolution with “traditional values.” It’s a bloc that’s persisted for decades. Today, roughly a quarter of all Americans identify as evangelicals, and white evangelicals make up the majority of Republican voters in many Southern primaries. In 2012, four out of five of them preferred Romney over Obama.
White evangelicals helped to send Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House, so courting them early and often has become perhaps the great art of running for office as a Republican. For decades, Republican politicians have gone on pilgrimage, Bible in hand, to Bob Jones University and Liberty University to court the Jesus vote. Even nominal churchgoers like Reagan have done what no European politician would ever do: pledge their prayerful allegiance to Christ. Along the way, they have repeatedly promised to restore school prayer or stop gay marriage or overturn Roe v. Wade.
What they have delivered, however, is defeat after defeat in the culture wars. Cultural conservatives failed to pass constitutional amendments on school prayer or abortion. They lost on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. They lost on pop culture, where movies and television shows today make the sort of entertainment decried by the Moral Majority look like It’s a Wonderful Life. And same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.
Scarred by these battles, some evangelicals have withdrawn from politics, pursuing what blogger Rod Dreher has referred to as the “Benedict Option,” which focuses on fostering local Christian communities rather than taking yet another whack at the lost cause of Christianizing the nation. Others have continued to try to bend the arc of American history toward biblical values. And some of them are now denouncing Trump as a wolf in sheep’s clothing—even as the larger flock appears poised to make him the Republican nominee.
The most outspoken of the no-Trumpers is Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore has repeatedly whacked Trump—a man whose “attitude toward women is that of a Bronze Age warlord”—as a reprobate unfit for the presidency. “The gospel is more important than politics,” he warns his fellow Bible believers. You can stump for Trump or be an evangelical, he says. But you cannot do both.
But Moore’s effort to keep evangelicalism pure, in a world of increasingly polluted politics, is a lost cause. Paradoxically, that effort has actually alienated him from the modern evangelical movement itself. Moore essentially admits this: in a recent op-ed, he announced that until voting habits change, he won’t even to refer to himself as an evangelical anymore. He lamented how so many of his coreligionists “have been too willing to look the other way when the word ‘evangelical’ has been co-opted by heretics and lunatics . . . as long as they were on the right side of the culture war.”
Prothero is right to see the inconsistency in evangelicalism.
What he misses is the inconsistency of academics who study evangelicals. For at least thirty years students of American religion have told us that the Assemblies of God and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are — wait for it — evangelical. That’s like saying BMWs and Yugos are cars, as if the parts are interchangeable, as if they cost the same, as if the owners come from the same demographic, as if the same kinds of technology go into these automobiles.