Defining Evangelicals: Take Three

I spent the end of last week in Indianapolis participating in a gathering exploring “The State of the Evangelical Mind”. (Go ahead and get your jokes out of the way now.) It was a very interesting meeting and great to connect with some social media friends in real life as well as to reconnect with others. I’ll share my own reflections on the gathering soon (and I have some).

Early in the meeting, I was in a conversation about the survey definitions of evangelicalism related to the work I’ve been reporting on this blog since the spring. I was reminded that the late Stephen Monsma wrote a piece in Christian Scholars Review published this summer that provided an excellent summary of scholarship on defining evangelicals in survey data.

After reviewing all the shortcomings of self-report and the RELTRAD variable (that measures religious “families” at the denominational level) he offers a pretty solid definitional schema.


Thus to be considered an evangelical one would have to be (1) be Protestant, (2) believe the Bible to be the authoritative word of God and Jesus to be the only way of salvation, and (3) engage in at least two of the three religious practices [weekly church attendance, daily prayer, and bi-monthly small group participation]. (p. 339)

Upon returning from the conference on Saturday, I went back into my 2014 Pew Religious Landscape data and tried to estimate Monsma’s definition. First, I selected only protestants. Next, I looked at two doctrinal questions: 1) the Bible is the authoritative word of God (not the inerrant item that follows it in the survey) and 2) a belief that only Christian religion can lead to eternal life. Finally, I calculated a variable that measured if people managed at least two of his three activity measures of weekly church attendance, daily prayer, and bi-monthly small group participation. Here is how the data turned out.


So using Monsma’s definition, just over 15% of the population would be evangelical. This is instructive when compared to the other measures available. As I’ve pointed out before, over a third of respondents claimed to be “born again” (just under half of the Christian population). When we look at RELTRAD, 25% of respondents fall in the evangelical family.

So Monsma’s definition seems to be much closer to what we’d consider to be an orthodox or traditional evangelical who combines doctrinal commitment with actual religious practice.  This seems like a better conceptual measure of what insiders think of as evangelicals even if it’s a little more complex that opinion pollsters normally like.

The obvious question: does this change the political orientation of the evangelicals? Could it be that the infamous 81% figure is simply an artifact of the less accurate definitions used in the media?

I’m pretty sure the answer is no (I really wanted it to be otherwise).

I followed the same patterns I have before, using certain social attitudes as proxies for political orientation (I can’t actually get at Trump support with 2014 data!). My go-to question is one where respondents are asked if government aid creates dependency or meets people’s real needs.

Among White Evangelicals (the basis of the 81%) about 65% of the “Born-again” population select the dependency option. The figure for Whites in the Evangelical religious tradition (RELTRAD) goes up to 67%. If we use the Monsma definition on White Evangelicals, just under 72% agree that government aid creates dependency.

While it’s beyond the scope of available data, much more research is needed on how evangelicals construct their social policy views. There was some interesting reporting recently on the connections between the need for redemption and beliefs about the “deserving poor” (Sorry, I couldn’t track down the reference.)

The state of the evangelical mind is still one in which too many easy talking points have been offered to too many people. The challenge going forward is figuring out how to engage evangelicals in compassionate, non-condescending conversations about the nature of our complex social processes.

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