01/11/2008 06:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting the Evangelicals Wrong - Again

The upcoming primary in South Carolina will be critical for both the Democrats and the Republicans, say the media pundits. And South Carolina is full of evangelicals, they also say. But they have absolutely no clue about what that means.

For example, the exit polls in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary have asked departing Republican voters if they are "evangelicals," but they don't ask the same question of exiting Democrats--therefore assuming there aren't any evangelicals voting for Democrats, an assumption that is demonstrably not true. The leading Democrats in the race--Obama, Clinton, and Edwards--speak explicitly and articulately as Christians and their campaigns have reached out as much to faith communities as the Republicans have.

The media experts on religion then go on to explain to us that evangelicals care mostly or only about abortion and gay marriage, and not about other issues. That is even more mistaken. The issues that most concern evangelicals today, especially a younger generation, include poverty, the environment and climate change, human rights, and the morality of a foreign policy where war is the first resort. This year those issues are drawing a growing number of evangelicals to consider the Democratic candidates.

Along with a number of other evangelical leaders, I just signed a letter to the media outlets in the National Election Poll, which says:

By omitting the question of evangelical/born-again identification from the Democratic polls, you prevented the public from seeing the full picture of how the bipartisan courtship of evangelical voters affected the outcome of the first contest of the 2008 campaign and perpetuated the misperception that all evangelical Christians are Republicans. No party can own any faith. Evangelicals have broadened their agenda to include care for the planet, the poor and the stranger, and as a result are increasingly diverse politically.

One of the leading Republicans, of course, is Mike Huckabee, who is also an outspoken evangelical. Huckabee recently spoke to Reuters about the broadening evangelical agenda:

Unquestionably there is a maturing that is going on within the evangelical movement. It doesn't mean that evangelicals are any less concerned about traditional families and the sanctity of life. It just means that they also realize that we have real responsibility in areas like disease and hunger and poverty and that these are issues that people of faith have to address.

Yet the media, which is paying such close attention to Huckabee, doesn't seem to pay any attention to that. You might conclude that the media still just doesn't understand much about religion and the enormous changes taking place among evangelicals in particular. So far, the media analysts and prognosticators about South Carolina are about as accurate and credible as their insightful and confident predictions about the expected results from the New Hampshire primary. Will the media celebrities ever really listen to the American people or just tell us how we are going to vote? Religion could, indeed, play a major role in the outcome of the South Carolina primary, on both sides of the aisle. But our non-stop talking heads in the media parallel universe and the professional polling truth inventors haven't got a clue about how.

Jim Wallis is the Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at

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