If that is true, evangelicals may never accept Democrats, environmentalists, or the mainstream press as messengers. That, in turn, casts doubt on the idea that the 2008 election will produce a major political realignment, and it reinforces Jewell’s point that the press should take care to describe the organic elements of changes in the evangelical community. A 2005 article in The Washington Post about “The Greening of Evangelicals,” was one of the few to do this right. Writer Blaine Harden interviewed Reverend Jim Ball, the executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network (and Jewell’s colleague), who explained that many evangelicals still feel ostracized by non-religious America. When it comes to addressing global warming with legislation, Harden paraphrased Ball saying, “Evangelicals themselves - not such groups as the Sierra Club or Friends of the Earth, with their liberal Democratic baggage - are the only ones who can do the persuading.”


Given that situation, journalists must be especially cautious with the language they use while trying to describe today’s mainstream evangelicals. On the one hand, reporters must not be too quick to call support for peace and the environment liberal. On the other, they must be equally careful of giving too much voice to the older and more conservative Christian leadership, as it did when Pat Robertson recently and unexpectedly announced that he was endorsing Rudy Giuliani (whose pro-gay marriage and pro-abortion platforms clash with “values voters”) for president. Some of that is to be expected. “The press’s handling of evangelicals has always been clunky,” Jewell told me, often going too far in either direction between new-liberal and still-conservative analyses. “I don’t think reporters do that on purpose, I just think they’ve grown up going to the Rolodex, looking up the Christian right, and finding Robertson’s name.”


For the moment anyway, it is simply no longer appropriate to describe evangelicals as a single voting bloc. “Reporters always generalize somewhat because they have to,” Jewell told me. “But the biggest mistake the media has made is to lump evangelicals together as a monolithic community.” Despite this, Jewell admits that the press has gotten better at covering evangelicals over the last ten years. The real problem comes, again, from the volume of coverage, which, by sheer repetitive wondering, delivers the take-away message that a single, large body of conservative voters might throw its support to the left.


A columnist for USA Today predicted that the 2008 election might settle the question of who speaks for America’s evangelicals by defining a new church leadership, and then it will be easier for journalists to once again pack evangelicals into a single voting bloc. It may. It may not. As National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” noted recently, under the headline “Evangelical Voters May Be Up for Grabs in ‘08,” even if “a small percentage of these new evangelicals stay home or vote Democratic, that could translate in a couple of million votes.” A sliver of a large demographic can make a big difference, but it can also thwart political consistency. New messages are not enough. Until a better messenger comes along and unites the old and new Christian leaderships, politicians and the press will, as Jewell put it, have a tough time pigeonholing “values voters.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.