Thomas S. Kidd on Who Evangelicals Are and Who Gets to Decide

President Donald Trump, left, is greeted by Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas at the Celebrate Freedom Rally on July 1, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and the author of “Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.

The most often repeated story about religion and politics these days is the evangelical love affair with Donald Trump.

Virtually every week we get another story of how evangelicals love President Trump, no matter what he does. Pundits likewise offer much analysis of the reasons for evangelicals’ undying fidelity. New York magazine recently averred, for instance, that evangelicals like Trump because of his “hatefulness.” The Washington Post similarly advised “white evangelicals” that it was time to “panic” because they had sold their birthrights for a mess of Trumpism.

There is no doubt that certain Republican evangelical insiders, including Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham and First Baptist Dallas’ Robert Jeffress, have gone “all in” on Trumpism.

It’s true too that millions of practicing white evangelicals have seemingly gone with them. These white Christian traditionalists voted for Trump either as the “lesser of two evils” over Hillary Clinton, or out of genuine enthusiasm for the president. The 81% of self-identified evangelical white voters who supported Trump in 2016 are not a mirage. They reflect a reality about white evangelicals’ allegiance to Trump’s GOP.

Nevertheless, the vitriol of recent months has created misunderstandings about evangelicals themselves. To outsiders, it may seem as if Falwell, Graham and Jeffress define the evangelical movement. But the idea that Fox News-watching religious Republican voters are a stand-in for all evangelicals is ludicrous. The mere impression that they might encompass what it means to be an evangelical shows the paucity of our religious understanding and global insight.