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'Who Is An Evangelical?' Looks At History Of Evangelical Christians And The GOP


We've reached the point in the media where the word evangelical has lost a lot of its original meaning. Author Thomas Kidd points this out in his new book "Who Is An Evangelical?"

THOMAS KIDD: I think it is a sign of the politicization of evangelicalism that people who, say, don't go to church would still be willing to say that they're an evangelical. I think that signals that somehow, evangelical now is a fundamentally political term.

CORNISH: Thomas Kidd says prior to the mid-'70s, there wasn't a box to check. But it was shortly after pollsters started actually asking voters about their religious affiliation that we saw the coalescing of a powerful political voting bloc.

KIDD: The transition moment has to be 1976...


PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: My name is Jimmy Carter, and I'm running for president.


KIDD: ...When one of the major parties nominates an outspoken evangelical, Jimmy Carter, for the Democrats...


CARTER: All of us - our individual fates are linked.

KIDD: ...As the presidential candidate and obviously eventually became president.


CARTER: In that knowledge and in that spirit, together, as the Bible says, we can move mountains. Thank you very much.


KIDD: And one of the most important developments that comes associated with that is that 1976 is the first year that the Gallup organization begins polling about whether people are evangelicals or born again. And it's often not being asked about whether you're an evangelical to see what your spiritual beliefs and practices are but to determine what your political behavior is.

CORNISH: And yet you say it was Ronald Reagan's campaign that unifies white evangelicals and fundamentalists in a way that hadn't been seen since the '20s - so really creating something that feels political.


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Those of you in the National Association of Evangelicals are known for your spiritual and humanitarian work. And I would be especially remiss if I didn't discharge right now one personal debt of gratitude. Thank you for your prayers.

CORNISH: How? What did he do that was different?

KIDD: I think 1976 introduces the concept of - or reintroduces the concept of evangelical onto the political landscape. And then Reagan helps to consolidate the Republican - a successful courtship of so many white evangelicals and fundamentalists. And that cohort becomes arguably the most dependable part of the Republican base in America because of the anti-communist views that they hold during the era of the Cold War.


REAGAN: He went on, I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God.


KIDD: Because of antagonism towards the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 legalizing abortion, because of perception about cultural changes...


REAGAN: Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.


KIDD: ...There was a whole matrix of cultural and political and foreign policy concerns and challenges that drew white evangelicals to the Reagan coalition.

CORNISH: And while there's always been a very public movement of religious leaders, you have televangelists, right? You have, like, a movement of this merging of both political and religious leadership who now are able to be quite media-savvy.

KIDD: That's right. And so people like Jerry Falwell, senior founder of the Moral Majority, is able to bring his pre-existing media network into the service of politics.


JERRY FALWELL: I feel that America is, in these 1980s, experiencing a moral and spiritual rebirth.

KIDD: Same with Pat Robertson, who had his CBN News and "The 700 Club."


PAT ROBERTSON: Well, thank you, and welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to this edition of "The 700 Club." Nearly moment by moment, young people are bombarded by distorted visual images and twisted music messages...

KIDD: Leaders partly become the most visible white evangelical leaders in America because they had already cultivated these very influential media networks among evangelical viewers. And they're able, in the 1980s especially, to transition those into the service of national Republican politics.

CORNISH: You've also written that Republican evangelical insiders have supplied a ready-made narrative to the media in their quest for influence.

KIDD: There have always been a small group of white evangelical political leaders who tend to be the go-to people for the media to get the standard Republican talking points from this select group of white evangelical leaders. So in the Moral Majority era, it was Jerry Falwell Sr. And it was Pat Robertson, especially once he ran for president, and Ralph Reed, the evangelical political consultant. And down through the presidents - people like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. and so forth that tend to give the impression that they sort of speak for all evangelicals in America and especially all white evangelicals.

CORNISH: Do they? I mean, what do the numbers say in terms of how white evangelicals have been voting?

KIDD: Well, if you look at the political polling, there is an overwhelming commitment of white evangelicals to the Republican Party, most famously the 80- or 81% that supported Donald Trump in 2016.

But I also think that that number, the 81%, is more complicated than it's often portrayed. Whenever pollsters dig a little deeper, it turns out that millions of those people really are practicing devout evangelicals, but then segments of them don't go to church. They don't have distinctive evangelical beliefs. And it's a little hard to understand why they're even telling a pollster that they are an evangelical.

CORNISH: President Trump has said...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, the other side - I don't think they're big believers. They're not big believers in religion. That I can tell you.

CORNISH: We've reached the point in American political life where the term evangelical is media code for white conservative Republican. Is that changing?

KIDD: Well, I hope people will think about it differently, and I suspect that as time goes on that just the sheer force of demographics will help us to think about it differently. I mean, the white Republican segment of evangelicalism, which is a very large segment - but that is a shrinking segment, demographically. And the growth areas for evangelicalism in America and around the world are Latinos and other recent immigrants from Africa and from East Asia and so forth.

And so the image of the white religious Republican being evangelicals is going to become less and less relevant as time goes on. I mean, this is just going to be the reality going forward in the coming years and decades that evangelicalism in America is going to become less dominated by white leaders.

CORNISH: Thomas Kidd is the author of "Who Is An Evangelical? The History Of A Movement In Crisis."

Thank you for speaking with us.

KIDD: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOM YORKE SONG, "ATOMS FOR PEACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.