Do Evangelicals Oppose Syria Intervention?

A couple of weeks back, in a personal statement supplied to Religion News Service blogger Jonathan Merritt, National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson wrote: 

On September 3, the National Association of Evangelicals surveyed evangelical leaders* to ask “Should Congress authorize direct U.S. military intervention in Syria?” Sixty-two and a half percent said “no.” Thirty-seven and a half percent said “yes.”

Anderson noted that he “was surprised because I expected the answers would be the other way around.”

That surprise might be justified. The survey and the results thereof, since reported widely, reveal nothing or at best very little about the points of view of evangelical leaders and those they represent. For starters, “Direct military intervention” is the respondent’s duty to define. Cruise missiles may qualify for some, while others may reserve that language for “boots on the ground.” The question, as is, is not a question at all. It’s anything the respondent wants it to be.

Then there’s the fact that the “evangelical leaders” surveyed were those, and only those, on the Board of Directors of the NAE—a board with a little over 100 members. (The 62.5% – 37.5% split suggest, assuming no rounding, that 40, or a multiple thereof, board members chose to respond.) 

Neither Southern Baptist Convention president Fred Luter Jr., nor the head of its Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, were included, and the SBC has nearly 16 million members. Other influential evangelicals who aren’t NAE board members, and thus weren’t included, are Rick Warren (also a Southern Baptist), Bill Hybels, Rod Parsley, T.D. Jakes, Mark Driscoll, the Grahams (Billy or Franklin) and numerous others who lead sizable congregations and have a high media profile. To be clear, any and all of these figures may indeed oppose “Direct military intervention” (perhaps even 62.5% of them), but the important point is that they were not included in this highly touted survey. 

And of those who are NAE board members, it’s clear that not all chose to respond. Those who did don’t necessarily represent the opinions of their fellow board members. Those motivated are those engaged and those engaged are very likely to have different points of view than those not. The results of the poll may not reflect the opinions of those on the Board of Directors much less the view of evangelical leaders and the evangelical community at large.

Why do the points made above matter?

Examine these headlines, all of which are misleading—including the NAE’s. 

National Association of Evangelicals (News):

Most Evangelical Leaders Oppose Syria Strike

Christianity Today:

Should U.S. Bomb Syria? Evangelical Leaders Take Surprising Vote

Religion News Service (excerpted with identical headline by Religion & Politics):

NAE’s Leith Anderson: Evangelicals oppose strike against Syria

The Christian Post:

62% of Evangelical Pastors Oppose Syria Strike, NAE Says

The Layman:

62% of Evangelical Pastors Oppose Syria Strike, NAE Says

Anderson’s comment “I was surprised because I expected the answers would be the other way around,” is a conundrum in search of a question and a sampling frame (i.e. a representative group of evangelical leaders and/or evangelicals).

The findings have been misinterpreted, and the reporters, bloggers and commentators have spread the gospel of (what seems to have become) a de facto evangelical point of view that may not be true. Did the anecdotal transubstantiate into dogma overnight?

*The Evangelical Leaders Survey is a monthly poll of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Evangelicals. They include the CEOs of denominations and representatives of a broad array of evangelical organizations including missions, universities, publishers and churches. All have the opportunity to respond.