Is theology ever really an independent variable?: More on defining evangelicals

Those of you who read this blog regularly know that I’ve been wrestling with investigating evangelicals for years. I was going to post some relevant links, but about 40% of the blog feed over the last two years has been dedicated to attempting (to no avail) to disentangle evangelicalism from other variables (although this particular post has proven to be evergreen with a handful of views each week nearly two years after I wrote it).

I invite you to go to the home page of this blog (or follow me) and review what I’ve been up to in order to see the various ways I’ve been attempting to deconstruct the situation. The definitional questions of evangelicalism — historically, theologically, and sociologically — will become the opening chapter of the book I’m starting as I approach my sabbatical semester next fall.

Given this ongoing exploration, I was intrigued when LifeWay research released a survey this week attempting once again to point out the difficulties of relying on evangelical self-identification. To their credit, the wanted to focus on belief. Focusing on four questions, they characterized a group they labeled “evangelicals by belief“:

In this new survey, LifeWay used a set of four questions about the Bible, Jesus, salvation and evangelism. Those questions were developed in partnership with the National Association of Evangelicals. Those who strongly agree with all four are considered to be evangelicals by belief.

PrintThe evangelicals by belief (let’s call them EBB) are roughly half the size of self-identified evangelicals (SIE) and are more likely to be correlated with religious behaviors like church attendance. Where polls have regularly shown that 81% of SIEs are Republicans, LifeWay finds that only 65% of EBBs are (although the former includes only white evangelicals and the EBBS are racially mixed so that actual gap may be less narrow).

I have some quibbles with the wording of the questions that may be overly limiting but they are far less restrictive than an earlier Barna theology list (that required inerrancy and a literal Satan). Still, expecting strong agreement on all four of their items may define a religious population narrower than an actual evangelical list (especially non-Baptists).

LifeWay is assuming that distinguishing EBBs from SIEs allows a finer distinction of who is really an evangelical that might speak to the larger issues of how evangelicals have accommodated culture. Perhaps, SIEs align with the moral shift that PRRI has identified (the dramatic decline in belief in the importance of morality for political figures) but EBBS don’t. But examination of other data suggests this is unlikely to pan out.

Back in September, I used definitions suggested by the late Stephen Monsma (which included both doctrine and religiosity) to see if that changed the linkage between something like EBBs and political stances. It didn’t.

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).

This morning, I returned to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey and tried my best to create scales that aligned with the LifeWay questions (I was surprised to find that Pew didn’t ask a Jesus question, presumably because they were looking at varieties of religious groups). I combined questions on Bible as Word of God, Only One Religion, and Engaging in Evangelism at least monthly. I found that just over 12% of the sample (not counting missing cases), not far from the LifeWay data.

Here’s the challenge that remains for both my analysis and I suspect for LifeWay as well. The belief variables, while an improvement over SIEs, are still not related to outcome variables. I looked at a few political questions in the Pew survey: government aid to the needy, concerns about immigration, and belief in small government. The belief variable doesn’t make much difference. For example 57% of those would be EBBs support small government while 54% of those who aren’t EBBs agree.

In other words, while theology may be a better screen than a self-identification (which reflect all kinds of cultural correlates) it’s still a pretty poor independent variable. As much as we want evangelicals to support positions and candidates that arise from their theological convictions, it doesn’t seem to happen much.

This raises an important social psychological question: when would theological views ever act as a legitimate predictor of behavior or attitude? I addressed this in this post from nearly three years ago:

But it seems to me that much of what is called “religious beliefs” are more peripheral in nature. They are positions we choose that may be derived in some fashion to a belief in the authority of scripture, but only in a very loose sense. Sometimes those beliefs are so peripheral that there is little attempt to create a cognitive linkage to central belief systems.

As much as we want theology to frame our thinking, I fear that it is largely compartmentalized or at best held in the loose sense I describe above. Social psychological research suggests that a belief must be activated in some manner and then connected to the question at hand through some logical progression. Given the lack of theological depth of many Christians (not to mention biblical illiteracy), it’s not surprising that they find it hard to make coherent arguments.

This is a project that churches and theological educators need to take on. We need far more depth in our theological understandings that move beyond affirming the rightness of our team’s position. We need serious conversation about the religious implications of political positions (as opposed to simple conversations of “what Christians believe” about the politician or position).

So, while the answer to my title question is “no”, it’s a dissatisfying answer. The whole point of Christian formation is that our faith commitments should make a difference in the way we live our lives.

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