“Evangelicalese 101”

The green message is right, but what about the messengers?

Evangelicals are the swing voters to watch in 2008. At least, that’s the impression one gets from the large number of news articles this group has stirred up this campaign season. It is safe to say, however, that no single demographic-white or black, rich or poor-has drawn as much media attention as evangelicals have in the last year, and probably the last four.

Evangelicals represent about a quarter of the electorate (roughly equivalent to their presence in the general population), and in 2004 Bush owed 36 percent of his victory to them. “This rising political clout of evangelical Christians is not the result of growth in their numbers but rather their increasing cohesiveness as a key element of the Republican party,” the Pew Research Center suggested at the time. The 2004 election was the zenith of a fifteen-year evangelical march toward the right. They loved Bush, who they endorsed as a man of great faith; he seemed to share and support their conservative values, so much so that the term “values voters” has been common ever since.

That is changing now. Congregations around the country are rethinking and redefining what it means to be a “mainstream” evangelical. Journalists, meanwhile, have been busy trying to describe the complicated and subtle transformations taking place, and what they mean to the upcoming election. Between the 2004 presidential race and now, coverage of evangelicals as a key voting bloc hardly paused. In particular, the media have latched onto evidence that evangelicals are breaking from the GOP over issues like the Iraq war and global warming. Gone are the days, some say, of focusing solely on the Christian right’s traditional anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, etc. messages. The old vanguard (personified by men like Pat Robertson and James Dobson) is being marginalized, and a younger generation of evangelical pastors, tired of being against everything, wants to be for something-especially peace or the environment. Journalists have approached the story in a variety of ways, but most have come to the same basic conclusion that evangelicals do not have a clear leadership or, for that matter, sense of identity. Does this amount to a “crack-up,” as veteran New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick recently put it? Yes and no. Journalists, including Kirkpatrick, have consistently reported that evangelical dissatisfaction with Republicans does not necessarily translate into a gain for Democrats, only an opportunity. But if the press mentions one possibility enough, it begins to seem like a certainty.

For evangelicals, the cumulative effect of heavy coverage has been the impression that they’re shifting left. They are not.

“I think there’s some wishful thinking in all of this that evangelicals are becoming more liberal,” said Jim Jewell, a communications officer for the Evangelical Environmental Network, one of the groups that have helped spur a green awakening among the faithful. The current “malaise” with Republicans does not amount to a rapprochement with Democrats, he warned, and journalists should be careful not to mistake the appeal of new messages for the appeal of new messengers, such as Democrats, environmentalists, and the press.

Evangelicals have appeared on at least three cover stories since 2005 in Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times Magazine, not to mention dozens of stories in regional and national newspapers, television, and radio. Reporters have done the legwork, visiting all of the country’s so-called mega-churches, which are growing power sources of modern evangelicalism. They’ve talked to the up-and-coming young pastors that are pushing many of the changes taking place, as well as the older generation of leaders that still resists those changes. Clearly, many disapprove of Bush’s war in Iraq and his reluctance to address climate change; their apprehension about the current selection of GOP presidential candidates is even more emphatic. It is far less certain, however, that the fissures in evangelical society are deep enough to cause a major political realignment.

It’s not that the press has misunderstood this situation, but journalists tend to use language that describes today’s “average” evangelical as more liberal or moving toward the left. Consider, for example, a headline that appeared in The Washington Post last August: “Warming Draws Evangelicals Into Environmentalist Fold.” This probably seems accurate to most Post readers, but many evangelicals do not like it, according to Jewell. Evangelicals don’t want to be part of the “environmentalist fold.” Instead, they want the press to describe the changes happening within their society as something organic and complex, rather than something passive and simple, like the adoption of liberal values.

“Don’t celebrate Richard Cizik as a new liberal, but as a rock-solid evangelical that has embraced creation care,” Jewell said to me, speaking of the reverend who has become a media darling in the last year due to his strong and very public opinion that America should take the lead in fighting global warming. The term “creation care” that Jewell employed is the perfect example of why journalists cannot underestimate the import of language as they cover this story. Evangelicals don’t like words like “environmentalism,” “environmentalist,” or “the environmental movement,” so they use “creation care” instead. Obviously, this is not a phrase that the press should embrace. Journalists must remember, however, that the more they use words like “left” and “environmentalist” in their stories on this subject, the more they are going to perpetuate the view among evangelicals that the media are a poor messenger. Many evangelicals leading the “creation-care” movement are, in fact, concerned that being seen as liberal collaborators will hurt their efforts, Jewell said.

Of course, this reluctance to move left has not stopped liberals from courting evangelicals. After Bush’s presidential victory in 2004, Democrats realized that they had a serious “God problem,” and journalists have duly covered their attempts to make amends. As David Kirkpatrick noted in his piece in The New York Times Magazine, “All three Democratic [front-runner] candidates are speaking very personally, in evangelical language, about their own faith.” Since, as Jewell explained, evangelicals are open to new messages, but remain wary of new messengers, politicians have a distinct advantage over the media in this regard. Where journalists will never employ “evangelical language” like “creation care,” politicians can say whatever they want as long as it sounds genuine.

Even the Christian media has given Democrats credit for employing language that resonates with so-called values voters. The Associated Baptist Press, a newswire, went so far as to report that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama “speak fluent evangelicalese.” Obama, in particular, drew a fair number of headlines in the summer of 2006 when he gave an impassioned description of his faith to a conference of evangelicals in Washington, D.C. Despite the seeming sincerity their words, however, it remains to be seen just how far rhetoric will carry Democrats in the upcoming election. I asked Jewell if there really is such a thing as “evangelicalese.” “That’s shorthand for journalists,” he replied. “It means politicians are talking about their own personal faith in some way. But they don’t hit on the political issues, like a pro-life platform, that have been important to evangelicals over the years. And when a politician just uses words to connect with the public, people will eventually find out that the candidate’s platforms are not really in line with what they believe.”

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.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.