The furor around Hillbilly Elegy has largely died away. Much to nearly everyone’s surprise, a populist won the election. Many of his votes came from people who claim the title evangelical.
The exit poll results that indicate 81% of so-called evangelicals voted for Trump have been used as a cudgel against theologically conservative Protestants, many of whom identify as evangelical.
As Robert Wuthnow notes in his recent book, Inventing American Religion, however, there are significant differences between theological belief and political identity. The pollsters have tried to cross that boundary, but there are indications that the political label evangelical may not provide a strong theological indicator.
In J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, he demonstrates why using the term "evangelical" as if it means deep conviction and meaningful participation in a certain brand of Protestant religion is faulty:
This is one of the reasons Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned his February 2016 Washington Post article arguing this election made him hate the term evangelical.
Despite the consistently demonstrable unreliability of the label as any serious indicator of religious belief, the word continues to be used without definition and qualification. Careful readers and writers should be aware of this.
Much as when using any term, we must be discerning when we interpret information and express it so that we clearly understand or communicate those who we are speaking to.
Those of who are legitimate Gospel Christians should not stop when someone says they belong to a church or regularly attend. We should seek to know their conversion story and if they don’t have one to help them get one.
It may also be time for us to look for another way to describe ourselves. Since evangelical has become associated with political bloc voting, perhaps we need another term.
At the very least, we need to be careful when we communicate to define our terms. We should also be careful not to allow a bare profession of belief made once upon a time to substitute for authentic, action-inspiring faith.