Long ago, when George W. Bush first ran for President, election exit polls asked, "Are you a member of the Religious Right?" In later elections the McCarthy-esque question morphed into the one that Gallup has been asking for years: "Would you describe yourself as a 'born-again' or evangelical Christian?" When many pundits compare 2004 exit polls with those from 2000, they equate the two measurements, even though the number of those answering "yes" to each differs dramatically.
Treating evangelical, born again, and Religious Right as synonyms has miscast the movement. When Bush won a second election, warnings of an impending theocracy jumped to The New York Times best-seller list. Now Bush is leaving office with no secularists hanging from the gallows, no unwed mothers being stoned in the streets, and freedom of religion intact. What happened?
One new book's misguided answer has the potential to shape media narratives and public opinion in the way the now-discredited theocracy freakout books did. In The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, former Dallas Morning News religion reporter Christine Wicker says evangelicals have dramatically inflated their numbers, and the movement is "about to go the way of the butter churn."
Wicker has a nontraditional definition of evangelical: "those people who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior and as the only way to heaven, who accept the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and who are scaring the bejesus out of the rest of America. They're not the only evangelicals, but they're the only ones that count."
Count for whom? Wicker's attempt to deflate evangelical demography is wrongheaded from the start. She asks, "Why do 25 percent of Americans tell pollsters that they are evangelicals?" ...