Trend Watch


A 16th-century religious term sees increased use in modern American politics

Evangelical has seen a large increase in look-ups today, as a result of many figures in the media discussing the importance of the evangelical vote for candidates in the upcoming Iowa caucus. The spike in searches has also been driven by comments made by Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, describing the effect that Sarah Palin’s endorsement might have on Donald Trump’s political fortunes:

Palin’s brand among evangelicals is as gold as the faucets in Trump Tower…. Endorsements alone don’t guarantee victory, but Palin’s embrace of Trump may turn the fight over the evangelical vote into a war for the soul of the party.

Reed was using evangelical as a noun and an adjective, both of which have existed in English since the 16th century.

Both uses have seen their meanings shift and expand over the past four hundred years, due to the vicissitudes of religious faith and politics. The sense of evangelical being used when discussing the modern political climate is somewhat difficult to pinpoint, as the meaning of evangelicalism even in 20th century America has changed, and may mean different things to different people. But it generally is used today in political discourse to refer to Protestant members of one of a number of denominations, particularly those members who underwent a conversion experience and have a strong inclination to spread their faith.

The ‘the evangelical vote’ (often used today as a shorthand for the political inclinations of certain socially-conservative protestant groups) is a fairly recent turn of phrase, with current evidence suggesting that it began to enter our parlance in the mid-1970s.

To suggestions that he was being used as a “tool” by the President in order to garner the evangelical vote in the last election, Graham replied “That’s foolish.” (The Lawton Constitution, January 4, 1974)

Most notable, of course, has been the discovery of Jimmy Carter’s evangelical faith, which has sent reporters scurrying for theological books and prompted political analysts to dissect the “evangelical vote.” (The Evening Star, June 13, 1976)

Pundits may still be attempting to dissect what ‘the evangelical vote’ is, and to decide exactly what the definition of a modern evangelical is; the particulars of the matter are unlikely to be settled any time soon. But one person appears to have achieved a measure on certainty on the matter (or at least on one part of the matter): speaking at Liberty University this past week, presidential candidate Donald Trump was quoted as saying "Evangelicals love me—I'm big with evangelicals."

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