Define 'evangelical,' please (2019 edition)

Define 'evangelical,' please (2019 edition)

There is no record that political pollsters in ancient Rome even knew that Jesus of Nazareth told a Jewish leader named Nicodemus that he needed to be "born again" in order see the Kingdom of God.

Germans in the Protestant Reformation embraced that "born again" image and called themselves the "evangelisch." Then in 1807, English poet Robert Southey was one of the first writers to turn the adjective "evangelical" -- think "evangelical" preaching -- into a plural noun "evangelicals." There was no earthquake in European politics.

But America changed forever when Bible Belt Democrat Jimmy Carter shocked journalists by saying that he had been "born again." That firestorm led Newsweek editors to grab a phrase from pollster George Gallup and proclaim 1976 the "Year of the Evangelical." Lots of politicos noticed, including a rising Republican star named Ronald Reagan.

The rest is a long story. 

"The news media and polling agencies realized that the 'born again' vote was a seminal political factor," noted historian Thomas Kidd, in a recent address at Wheaton College, the alma mater of the late evangelist Billy Graham.

"The Gallup organization," he added, "began asking people whether they had been 'born again.' The emergence of EVANGELICAL as a common term in news coverage of politics was a major landmark in the development of the contemporary evangelical crisis. … The media's frequent use of 'born again' and 'evangelical' connected those terms to political behavior."

More some evangelical insiders relished this attention, while denominational leaders and other mainstream evangelicals failed to realize that "they were losing control of the public's perception of their movement," said the scholar from Baylor University.

But one thing would become crystal clear, according to Kidd's new book, "Who is An Evangelical?" His bottom line: "The gospel did not make news. But politics did."

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Jeffrey Bell -- A Catholic politico caught between two political worlds

Unity was the theme during the 1992 Democratic Convention, with nominee Bill Clinton, and his wife Hillary, joining hands with delegates as they sang an anthem called "Circle of Friends."

But there was a problem in the Pennsylvania delegation, where two-term Gov. Robert Casey was feeling excluded. An old-school Catholic Democrat, Casey had been denied a speaking slot during platform debates. On the convention floor, delegates were selling buttons showing him dressed as the pope -- since he opposed abortion.

Months later, a coalition formed to explore whether Casey should challenge President Clinton in 1996, running on progressive economics and cultural conservatism. Pro-life Democrats like Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver were involved, but Republican Jeffrey Bell -- Ronald Reagan's first full-time campaign staffer in 1976 -- emerged as a team leader.

Why would a Catholic Republican back a Democrat? In a 1995 interview, Bell told me that he was worried many religious voters -- especially evangelicals and Catholics -- had already decided they had no choice but to support GOP nominees.

"Republicans, unfortunately, have good reason to feel complacent," said Bell, after Casey's failing health prevented a White House run. As for evangelicals and traditional Catholics, Republican leaders "pat them on the head," and "buy them off easy," because cultural conservatives have few political alternatives.

"Why do Republicans have to address the concerns of moral conservatives? They have Bill Clinton. They have Hillary Clinton," he said. "They're right here in Washington, working full-time to make sure they have someone to vote against. …

"Someday, this is going to cause BIG problems for evangelicals and conservative Catholics."

Casey died in 2000, after major heart problems closed his career.

Bell died in February, after a career in which he ran for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey -- in 1978 and 2014 -- but was better known for work behind the scenes helping others, following beliefs that escaped easy political labels.

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

The quiet (in terms of news coverage) rise of a secular coalition in US politics

NEW YORK -- Believe it or not, most Americans think their nation is becoming more tolerant, at least when it comes to warm feelings about most religious believers.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that, in terms of "thermometer" ratings, Americans felt "warmer" about nearly all religious groups than they did in 2014. Even chilly ratings for atheists and Muslims are approaching a neutral 50 score.

But there was one glitch in this warming trend, with evangelical Protestants stuck on a plateau. Christianity Today magazine noted that, when the views of evangelicals were removed from the mix, only a third of non-evangelical Americans had warm feelings toward evangelicals. Flip that around and that means two-thirds of non-evangelicals have lukewarm or cold feelings about evangelical Christians.

"There's a sharp divide in this country and it's getting stronger. … This tension has been obvious for years, for anyone with the eyes to see," said political scientist Louis Bolce of Baruch College in the City University of New York. "It's all about moral and social issues. Some people don't like the judgmental streak that they see in traditional forms of Christianity, like in evangelicalism and among traditional Roman Catholics."

Bolce and colleague Gerald De Maio have, over two decades, mustered research demonstrating that journalists have shown little or no interest in the liberal side of this divide. While offering in-depth coverage of the Christian Right, journalists have all but ignored a corresponding rise in what the Baruch College duo have called "anti-fundamentalist" activists. Among Democrats, the term "evangelical" has become as negative as the old "fundamentalist" label.

When journalists deal with religion and politics, "prejudice is attributed to people on the Religious Right, but not to people on the secular and religious left. Everything flows from that," said De Maio.

Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Seeking Christian solidarity in, for starters, a few American voting booths

Michael Maturen is a Catholic writer, a businessman, a grassroots political activist, a former evangelical Anglican priest and a professional magician.

Seeking the presidency of the United States may not have been the next logical move for this self-proclaimed "nobody" from the tiny town of Harrisville, on Lake Huron in Northeast Michigan.

"I'm a magician, I sell cars and I'm running for president," said Maturen, laughing. "I am not delusional. People in the American Solidarity Party don't think we can win the presidency. Our goal is to promote the ideas behind our party and the idea that it's time to change our political system. … Two parties are not enough when you look at the reality of modern America."

This would have been more obvious if the party's founders had kept its original name, as in the Christian Democracy Party-USA. That would have linked it to major political parties -- primarily in Europe and Latin America -- with the "Christian Democrat" label.

Maturen said the name was changed because, while the party is built on Catholic social teachings, America has become such a diverse culture. The new name does offer a nod to Saint Pope John Paul II and Poland's Solidarity movement.

"Lot's of people are pretty disgusted with where we are in America," said Maturen. "What changed my own thinking was the ugliness of this election cycle. As a simple matter of ethics, I knew that I couldn't support Donald Trump and, since I am pro-life, I knew I couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton."

Voting-box nightmare -- many religious conservatives face 'lesser of two evils'

Voting-box nightmare -- many religious conservatives face 'lesser of two evils'

The nightmare vision focuses on a stark, painful moral choice.

It's Election Day. A Catholic voter who embraces her church's Catechism, or an evangelical committed to ancient doctrines on a spectrum of right-to-life issues, steps into a voting booth. This voter is concerned about the social impact of gambling, attempts at immigration reform, a culture fractured by divorce, battles over religious liberty and the future of the Supreme Court.

In this booth the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Period.

"That's the scenario people I know are talking about and arguing about," said Stephen P. White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., author of the book "Red, White, Blue and Catholic."

Many religious conservatives believe they "face a choice between two morally repugnant candidates," he added. "The reality of that choice is starting to drive some people into despair. … I understand that, but I think it would be wrong for people to think that they need to abandon politics simply because they are disgusted with this election."

This nightmare for religious conservatives is especially important since, in recent decades, successful Republican presidential candidates have depended on heavy turnouts among white evangelical Protestant voters and on winning, at the very least, a majority of "swing votes" among Catholics who frequently attend Mass.

While this year's election is in some ways unique, traditional Catholics and other moral conservatives need to realize that they are engaged in a debate that has been going on for centuries, said White. The big question: "Can Christians be good citizens?"

Donald Trump's mysterious appeal to the 'evangelical' voter niche

When it became clear that normal venues were too small, Donald Trump met his Mobile, Ala., flock in the ultimate Deep South sanctuary -- a football stadium.

"Wow! Wow! Wow! Unbelievable. Unbelievable," shouted the candidate that polls keep calling the early Republican frontrunner. "That's so beautiful. You know, now I know how the great Billy Graham felt, because this is the same feeling. We all love Billy Graham. We love Billy Graham."

The thrice-married New York billionaire didn't elaborate, but apparently thought he was channeling what the world's most famous preacher would feel facing a Bible Belt crowd. Participants in evangelistic crusades, however, don't bounce up and down screaming while wearing licensed merchandise and waving single-name banners.

Adjusting his red "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, Trump quoted Rush Limbaugh, mocked Jeb Bush, prophesized the demise of Hillary Clinton and shared sordid details of crimes by an illegal immigrant. He offered -- in the rain -- to prove that his legendary hair was indeed his own.

One photo went viral, showing the candidate greeting supporters in front of a homemade sign that proclaimed, "Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump."

'God-o-Meter' Democrats

It wasn't easy being the token evangelical in the Howard Dean office during the 2004 White House race.

Other staffers called Mara Vanderslice the "church lady" and reminded her that the loudest cheers at Dean rallies followed attacks on the Religious Right. But what really stung were her candidate's answers to religious questions.

Round one: Dean confessed that he left the Episcopal Church when his parish blocked the construction of a bike path. Round two: He names the Book of Job as his favorite New Testament book. Round three: Asked about his plans to woo religious believers, Dean said he was waiting until the campaign hit the Deep South.

Ouch. That was business as usual until the "values voters" carried President George W. Bush back into office, said author Dan Gilgoff, who dissected the trials of Vanderslice in "The Jesus Machine," his book on James Dobson and the Christian right. That election shook the Democrats and helped them realize that they needed some candidates who were not afraid of faith.

Meet dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who openly testifies about making his profession of faith at a United Church of Christ altar. God talk is back, for the Democrats, while key Republicans face unique faith challenges.

"Part of it is the candidates in the field this time," said Gilgoff, politics editor at the website. "In particular, with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton you have two people who have been very vocal about their faith and don't mind talking about it. For Democrats, you could say this was just the luck of the draw."

Meanwhile, in the Republican pews, Rudy Giuliani has a troubled Catholic past, Mitt Romney is struggling to answer Mormon questions and various GOP kingmakers -- sacred and secular -- have questions about Fred Thompson, John McCain and the Rev. Mike Huckabee. The Republicans are trying to preach to a powerful, but troubled, choir.

Everyone knows the stakes are high. Voters who reported attending services more than once a week supported Bush over John Kerry by a margin of 64 to 35 percent and, for those attending once a week, the gap was 58 to 41 percent. Americans who never attended services backed Kerry, 62 to 36 percent.

It's hard for outsiders to follow all of this, which is why Gilgoff and editors at and Time have created a digital guide for politicos who want to follow this contest to win the hearts of religious voters. The result is the "God-o-Meter" (, which, according to its creators, is pronounced "Gah-DOM-meter." If readers click on the head of a Democratic or Republican candidate, the site delivers his or her ranking on a 10-point scale between "secularist" and "theocrat."

"Our definition of 'secularist' is someone who sees no role for religion in public life and policy," said Gilgoff. "The 'theocratic' position is pretty much the opposite of that."

But there's a theological twist here. The "God-o-Meter" applies this "theocrat" label to liberals who want to see their religious convictions shape public policy (think global warning and health care) to the same degree that it does to conservatives (think abortion and the redefinition of marriage). Thus, at mid-week, theocrat Clinton had a seven rating, the same as Giuliani, and Obama's rating had soared to nine. Romney, meanwhile, was edging close to "secularist" territory, with a five rating.

The key is that the "God-o-Meter" tracks 20 criteria drawn from campaign tactics, such as whether a candidate "frames issues in religious or spiritual terms," "delivers a speech ... in an overtly religious setting" or openly "discusses his/her personal faith and how it would influence his/her presidency." A candidate would lose points, for example, by making "a remark offensive to an important religious constituency" or by declining to "discuss his/her personal faith life when asked, e.g. by a debate moderator."

Right now, words and symbolic actions are enough.

"There is going to be a test later, in terms of whether the Democrats are willing to compromise on any of the hot social issues in terms of actual laws and policy positions," said Gilgoff. "But all of that is a long way down the road. Right now, the Democrats simply have to find a way to start talking to the evangelicals and listening to what they have to say. ... What do they have to lose?"

Mike Huckabee still believes

Like any other Bible Belt state, Arkansas contains more than its share of church camps.

Gov. Mike Huckabee thought about that after Hurricane Katrina. The ordained Southern Baptist minister also knew that the summer camping season was over and that thousands of people fleeing New Orleans had to go somewhere.

"I saw on TV people on the bridges of Interstate 10 stranded for days without water, and I thought, this isn't Rwanda. This isn't Indonesia. ... This was the United States of America," said the former governor, who is now part of the throng of Republican presidential candidates. "These were the neighbors just to the south of us in Louisiana. It was beyond my comprehension that we could get TV cameras to those people but we couldn't get a boat or a bottle of water to them."

Thus, he asked religious leaders to open camps all over Arkansas to the evacuees, while urging the public to rally around this blunt public policy: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

This was one case in which critics didn't challenge his link between private faith and public action, said Huckabee, meeting with journalists at a recent talkback session at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. This didn't turn into another nasty clash between God and the government because the need was great and this faith-based effort united citizens instead of dividing them.

Activists on the right will have to do more of that. Of course, Huckabee told the journalists that he has no intention of surrendering on moral issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, religious conservatives need to be less confrontational when it comes to convincing skeptical Americans that faith can be a positive force in the public square.

After all, he said, it's hard to believe that anyone actually thinks that political leaders are supposed to separate their personal beliefs from their public convictions.

"I sometimes marvel when people running for office are asked about faith and their answer is, 'Oh, I don't get into that. I keep that completely separate. My faith is completely immaterial to how I think and how I govern,' " he said. "To me, that is really tantamount to saying that one's faith is so marginal, so insignificant and so inconsequential that it really doesn't impact the way one lives. I would consider it an extraordinarily shallow faith that does not really impact the way we think about other human beings and the way we respond to them."

No one debated that concept after Katrina. Thus, Huckabee listed several other unifying moral issues that he thinks deserve attention on the political right.

While Americans disagree on what to do about health-care reform, the nation could rally around efforts to provide health care for children, he said. Liberals and conservatives also could focus on funding health-care programs that fight the big three activities -- smoking, overeating and "under-exercising" -- that fuel soaring medical costs.

While Huckabee acknowledged that environmental issues cause heated debates, he believes that it's time for conservatives to become more involved in efforts to promote the "better stewardship of the environment and in development of an energy source that is not foreign based but domestically produced."

And then there is the issue of corporate corruption, with business leaders drawing giant bonuses while wrecking their companies. Surely, conservatives can agree that this is immoral, said Huckabee.

"I don't see how we can call it anything other than a moral issue," he said. "That's not free enterprise. That's theft."

The point is that religious conservatives are will have to broaden their agendas and be willing to work on new issues, said Huckabee. They can do this without compromising on the essentials.

"I really do think that if Christian conservatives, who have ... held the Republican Party's feet to the fire on issues as they relate to traditional conservative social areas, no longer play that role, it not only is going to be the end of relevancy for them, but I also think that it means that the Republican Party will lose a lot of people. They will say, 'Well, you know what, if they're not going to be the party that really cares about these issues, I'll go home to the Democratic Party.' A lot of those folks came from the Democratic Party to begin with."