From the multi-station cafeteria to the gift shop to the theater-style sanctuary, worshipers at Prestonwood Baptist Church believe — or hope — that next year’s election will see something new. Long-lost evangelical voters.
“So many don’t vote—it just makes me sick,” said Marjoray Wilemon, a retiree from Arlington, Texas, who has seen a lot of politics in her 94 years. “I hope that some people will realize what kind of bad shape we’re in.”
Like more than 6,000 others at the Prestonwood mega-church near Dallas, Wilemon had just watched six Republican presidential candidates appeal to evangelical, born-again Christians, including those who may have stayed at home in recent elections.
Estimates suggest there were as many as 17 million “missing” evangelical voters in 2012, though some political analysts question whether the potential number is that high.
Prestonwood pastor Jack Graham interviewed the six GOP candidates — Ben Carson,Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee — and said afterward that he is seeing “a surge of interest among evangelicals” ahead of the 2016 election.
“I sense there’s a renewed faith — a fervor if you will — to engage in the process,” Graham said following the event co-sponsored by the Faith & Freedom Coalition.
Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, told the crowd that evangelical Christians made up 27 percent of the electorate in 2012, a presidential year, and 32 percent of voters in the 2014 midterm elections.
Yet as many 17 million evangelicals stayed home in 2012, he added, an election in which President Obama beat Mitt Romney by some 5 million votes.
John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics, is skeptical there are so many missing evangelical voters.
It all depends on how you define evangelicals, Green said. Turnout is already high among voters who strongly identify themselves as evangelical Christians, he said, and “to make the numbers big enough, you’ve got to include a wide diversity of people,” including voters who may not base their vote on religion or social issues.
In looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election, evangelicals are stressing traditional issues like abortion and the breakdown of the family. There are also relatively new concerns, including the Supreme Court decision sanctioning gay marriage and what religious voters see as threats to religious liberty.
Evangelical voters also tend to see foreign policy in more religious terms, leading to intense support for Israel and the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State.
As Republican candidates addressed these and other issues at Prestonwood, religious voters said they are also looking at the candidates’ personal qualities, drawing a straight line between faith and public action.