Who are the Evangelicals? (Reprised)

At least three issues prompted me to spend a lovely Saturday morning digging again through the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey data. First, the Public Religion Research Institute released America’s Changing Religious Identity from their 2016 American Values Survey. Following up on the landmark work of Robbie Jones’ The End of White Christian America, it shows that  White Evangelicals dropped from 23% to 17% of the population over a decade.

Second, Baylor History professor Thomas Kidd questioned whether the term “Evangelical” has any meaning (especially as contrasted with its historical roots). As part of that questioning, he shared observations from a post earlier this summer which included this wonderful paragraph:

3. Modern political polling. Political polling has become remarkably accurate at predicting electoral outcomes, even when everyone believes the numbers can’t possibly be true (see Trump in the primaries). But pollsters stink at understanding the people they’re polling. The most serious problem with understanding “evangelical” political behavior, then, is letting respondents define their own religious affiliation.

Third, in two weeks I have the privilege of joining a number of other scholars in Indianapolis for a discussion of The State of the Evangelical Mind. I figured it was important to clarify my thinking on the matter (not presenting but I want my opinions to be properly informed).

And so I dove back into the Pew 2014 data. I began by simply examining how they broke down various religious traditions.

Religious Family

The second column over is exactly what Pew showed as the topline data in their report released in May of 2015. It shows that 24.5% of the total survey population qualified as evangelicals based on the alignment of the churches the respondents attended. Using this measure, the evangelical population would come in at just under 8600 people.

As Kidd observes, the self-report measure of being “born-again” or evangelical is especially unstable. Over a third of respondents claimed to be born again. By that measure, the total number of evangelicals would be just under 12,000.



Born Again

When you combine these two factors, the answer gets a little messier. Not all evangelicals (by church family) are born-again and some non-evangelical churches have people who claim to be born-again.


The top line within each religious family gives the percentage of that family claiming to be born-again. For evangelical churches, as would be expected, that percentage comes to just under 85%. But the next line down measures the percentage of born-agains who fall into the various religious traditions. Nearly 4 in 10 of those saying they are born-again are not in evangelical churches. The number of born-again evangelicals attending evangelical churches is 7122, which is just over 20% of the overall sample.

What happens when we start looking at attendance? I looked at those born-again by religious tradition and contrasted those who attend at least once a month (Pew moves from weekly to once-or-twice a month, so I went with monthly as a conservative frame). This shows that among born-agains in evangelical churches, 80% attended at least once a month. This drops the total of “active” evangelicals to 5659.


As a side-note, it’s interesting that patterns of church attendance don’t vary a lot by religious tradition if we limit the analysis to those who claim to be born-again. The percentage for mainline churches is only 2.4% behind evangelical churches (which are 4% lower than Black Protestant churches).

This raises the question of race. Since so much of the popular press as well as social media have been fascinated by the unique patterns of White Evangelicals, I screened for race/ethnicity. In limiting the analysis to white, evangelical, born-agains and contrasting with attitudes toward abortion, we learn a couple of things.

white-born-again-evangelical-attendance-abortion.jpgFirst, the column on the right answers the question about the number of white born-agains in evangelical churches. There were 4224 respondents in the Pew Landscape survey who met these characteristics. This represents 12% of the total sample, roughly half that reported in the Pew topline data.

Second, the attitudes toward abortion among this population reflect what I found in an earlier analysis this spring. Moral issues are important to this population. It may be coincidental that the percentage who believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases totals 79%, just shy of the mystical 81% we read so much about. On the other hand, 45% of those born-agains who attend evangelical churches less than once a month believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. (It’s an open question as to which way the causal arrows might go — it could be lack of religious engagement or it might be a feeling of discomfort of not following the party line.)

I also replicated some analysis I had done in the post in May. While there seems to be a real difference among white born-agains in evangelical churches on moral issues when we look at attendance, that doesn’t hold with regard to certain socio-political issues. This chart shows the same analysis as above but looks at attitudes toward immigration (another key factor in the 2016 election).

White, Born Again, Evangelical, Attendance, Immigration

Just over 6 in 10 white born-agains in evangelical churches think that immigration has made things worse regardless of how often they attend church. This replicates the distinction I found in my earlier work.

A number of years ago, the Barna group articulated a much more limited definition of evangelicals. They argued that real evangelicals affirm nine points. They have made a personal commitment to Christ and believe they will see Heaven. In addition, they hold to the following:


As others have pointed out, some of these criteria may not represent all evangelical views (especially the absolutist statements on Satan and Biblical inerrancy). This definition is probably more difficult to maintain in the public mindset that the practices we’ve used in the past.

But what I’ve learned is that we can define evangelicals as those who are born-again, are part of an evangelical tradition, and are actively involved in a local congregation.

On the other hand, as I’ve argued for years, we need to know more about those evangelical types who are actually in mainline churches. If a new categorization can be defined that dealt with religion as important, regular engagement in a church, and belief in the saving power of Jesus we may have another way forward beyond the current evangelical confusion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s