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The True Number Of Evangelical Voters Depends On Who You Ask

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And if you've been following the coverage of the presidential race, you've heard analysts say over and over again just how important evangelical voters are and what role they played, for example, in Donald Trump's win in yesterday's GOP primary in South Carolina. They're also being courted in the Democratic primary race there this coming Saturday. But you might have asked yourself - just who are we talking about, and what motivates these voters? NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has been looking for answers.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Depending on how you measure, anywhere from 6 percent to more than one-third of American adults are evangelical. That's a huge range. And for all the attention the group gets, there's no firm consensus on what it means to be evangelical. Pundits often describe evangelicals as political conservatives. But it means something very different theologically. John Green is a professor at the University of Akron who focuses on religion and politics. He says the word comes from evangel, a Greek word that refers to the gospel.

JOHN GREEN: In some sense, all Christians have an element of being a evangelical because they all share, to one degree or another, those basic Christian beliefs.

KURTZLEBEN: While there may be complex theological definitions, political pollsters tend to just ask people - do you consider yourself an evangelical or born-again Christian? And it's hard to imagine that all of the people who answer yes agree on what being an evangelical means. Then there's the dynamic of race.

GREG SMITH: It's definitely true that in many ways, white evangelicals and black Protestants or black evangelicals, or evangelicals from other racial and ethnic minorities have a lot in common.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Greg Smith, an associate director at the Pew Research Center.

SMITH: But when it comes to politics, the data show that they are really at totally opposite ends of the spectrum.

KURTZLEBEN: White evangelicals are more conservative, while African-American Protestants, a group that includes evangelicals, tend to vote for Democrats. Lump them together and you miss that. Because of their voting power, that block of white, more often conservative, evangelicals gets lots of attention. Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, criticized this in a 2015 speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHEA BUTLER: Watch the 2016 election. When they begin to talk about evangelicals again, they won't go to Bible-believing black evangelicals. They're going to talk to white people.

KURTZLEBEN: And that conflation frustrates Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. He says the political dialogue in the U.S. ends up casting social issues like abortion as evangelical issues. Meanwhile, social justice issues that he says black evangelicals care about don't get the same attention.

WILLIAM BARBER: Admit it, they juxtapose it as though somehow, you can't be black and evangelical or white and evangelical, but not agree with that particular brand of evangelicalism.

KURTZLEBEN: So why does all of this matter? Part of the problem with having all of these different measures is that they can be easily manipulated, says one researcher.

DAVID KINNAMAN: For different purposes, I have found that evangelical leaders might say we're so small and such a small minority, and we're overlooked, and woe is us.

KURTZLEBEN: David Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, a polling firm that specializes in Christian issues.

KINNAMAN: Other times they might say, you know, don't forget about us. We're huge and we're, you know, as many as a quarter or 40 percent of the population.

KURTZLEBEN: Barna has maybe the tightest definition of evangelical. They ask respondents nine questions about their beliefs, like whether they believe in Satan. And by that measure, just 6 percent of Americans are evangelicals. The term may be fuzzy, but measuring evangelicals matters. Pollsters want to know how people's religious and political beliefs interact. Jocelynn Bailey attends a Baptist church in Centerville, Va. She says her beliefs affect her vote, but she wants politicians to know there's a limit.

JOCELYNN BAILEY: I want them to tell me who they are and all of who they are, not just the stuff that they think I might want to hear. My vote is about more than my faith.

KURTZLEBEN: Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.