I am a native of Williamson County, Tennessee, which has been voted the most conservative-friendly county in the nation by The Daily Caller. Smack-dab in the middle of the Bible-Belt, Williamson County has also been praised for its religious devotion. In the words of Billy Cerveny, a singer-songwriter who lives in the area, “You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a church. It’s very evangelical in that sense.” My experience confirms those statements. I was blessed to be born into a conservative, church-going, middle-class family, and by society’s standards, I ought to be a right-wing, spoiled-rotten, narrow-minded, Protestant evangelical.
The reason I don’t consider myself an evangelical is not because I am one of “those” conservatives. You know, the “I’m-a-young-educated-libertarian-who-is-too-smart-to-believe-in-God-and-too-ideological-to-mix-church-and-state” type. I most certainly am not a libertarian. I don’t consider myself an “evangelical” either because I refuse to wear shallow, overreaching, media-fabricated labels for the sake of political convenience.
However, there’s a significant problem in explaining why I am not an evangelical: nobody actually knows what an evangelical is. Anyone who claims they do know is either lying, misguided, or too embarrassed to make the confession I just did.
Gallup has been studying how to identify voters as “evangelical” for over 20 years – and from their muddled results — with no success. There are two basic ways of determining whether or not someone is an evangelical: 1) Adherence to a specific doctrine/belief or 2) self-definition. Gallup has polled people using both of these methods and has arrived at varying, often contradictory approaches. Method 1 obviously has several problems. What doctrine or set of beliefs do you make the standard of deeming one an evangelical? Some surveys simply ask three questions: 1) Are you born-again? 2) Do you encourage others to believe in Jesus? 3) Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? About 20% of those surveyed agreed to all three questions. These results strike me as odd, considering 80% of Americans claim to be Christians.
Other organizations, such as the The Barna Group, use a much more extensive survey to calculate the number of evangelicals, which they find to be only about 7% of the adult population in the United States. Some surveys require that evangelicals must be a denomination of Christianity other than Roman Catholic (even though 19% of Catholics self-identify as evangelical). Some polls even require that respondents must be white. Obviously, there is no clear standard under Method 1 that can define an evangelical.
Now we turn to Method 2 — self-identification. While Gallup found that about 20% of people were evangelical based on the questions above, more than double that (42%) said they considered themselves evangelical. This number has been consistent over the past 20 years, but it is in direct contradiction to the evidence that defines evangelicals based on specific beliefs.
In my opinion, there are two explanations for this disparity. One is that the media has popularized labels, like “evangelical” and “social conservative,” in order to divide those with an overall conservative belief system. The second is that politicians regularly use these media-fabricated labels in order to pander to certain constituencies. Not only is this an inaccurate representation of the conservative electorate, but it is disastrously unhealthy for our political discourse.
Stereotypical labels are shallow cop-outs for serious political discussion. They are fabricated by elites who seek to manipulate us, and we use them to hide behind during the course of an argument. Conservatives must learn to articulate why their unwavering faith in God drives their political discussions. We must be able to explain why our nation’s history proves that our Republic has been influenced by the Almighty God. We have to explain why we believe our liberties to be God-given and not government bestowed. We have to explain why every life deserves equal treatment under the law and why marriage is a religious institution. Our answer can’t be “Because the Bible says so,” however true that might be. We can’t give that blanket answer alone because the Bible isn’t everyone’s starting point as it should be for Christians; therefore, fundamental disagreements are inevitable, or they should be, if Christians actually line up their world views with the Bible’s teachings.
Labels, parties, and other political conveniences that subtract from healthy political discussion should be condemned and rendered inherent fallacies to any argument. As Mark Levin often says, “conservatives don’t compartmentalize liberty.”