Evangelical Identity and Team Jerseys

Something of a cottage industry has develop in recent years attempting to identify American Evangelicalism, primarily among white adherents, and to see what connections those definitional schemes have on other social and political matters. Most notably among those couching their analysis in actual social science data are the Religion and Public Life arm of the Pew Research Center, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), LifeWay Research, and the Barna Group. Add to that group numerous polling agencies that now ask whether subjects are evangelicals as a regular subgroup screen (equivalent to segmenting responses by gender or educational level). Then there are the political scientists investigating voting behavior or attitudes toward policy options and the religious historians exploring the intellectual pedigrees of modern evangelical thought.

In spite of the good work of the scholars behind these various efforts (many of whom have a great deal of sympathy with an evangelical viewpoint), it is surprising how little we actually know about who the evangelicals are. The various approaches yield some valuable insights, but like Kipling’s story of the blind men and the elephant, each approach leaves one feeling that something is missing.

There are three primary approaches to survey research on who qualifies as evangelical: self-identification, denominational identification, and theological orthodoxy. In each approach, there are concomitant variables to be considerer: religious practice, voting behavior, attitudes toward “culture war” issues.

Exit polls from the 2016 presidential election cycle relied upon the self-identification question. Respondents were asked if they were “born-again or evangelical”. As has been widely reported, 81% of those white voters who responded affirmatively voted for President Trump. This was especially telling in light of a PRRI finding that the percentage of evangelicals who thought that the moral failings of a candidate would not impact his/her leadership shifted from 30% to 70% between 2011 and 2017 {Galston, 2016 #622}.

The denominational approach to defining evangelicals was developed by the Pew Research Center. In their surveys, respondents are asked to identify the church body they are associated with. The interviewers prompt for more specifics and the church bodies are then collapsed into a broad category Pew calls Religious Tradition (RELTRAD). It is on the basis of this categorization that Pew’s Religious Landscape Surveys give the percentage (but not number) of evangelicals in America. In 2014, evangelicals made up 25.4% of the religious landscape, down slightly from 26.3% seven years earlier {Center, 2015 #623}. This was notable because other religious groups showed much larger percentage losses over that period (all changes in percentage were driven by the nearly 7% increase in unaffiliated over the same period). The relative stability of evangelicalism by religious tradition encouraged some Industry Evangelical leaders to proclaim that this was a win of “Real Christians” over “Cultural Christians”.

The theological approach to measuring evangelicals has primarily(?) come from the Barna Group or LifeWay research. Focusing on belief rather than either self-identification or denominational affiliation, this approach stipulates a set of beliefs that the researchers believe constitutes evangelicalism and then sees how many respondents agree with the full list. The Barna approach uses a nine-point scale, asking respondents to affirm a belief in Jesus as savior, a personal confession of sins, biblical inerrancy, the existence of Satan, salvation through grace, the necessity of witnessing, God’s omnipotence, that Jesus was without sin, and that religion is important. This more limited approach yields only 8% of Americans classified as evangelicals, which may be a function of the particular theological perspective of the researchers. The LifeWay approach attempts to model belief on David Bebbington’s four-fold definition of evangelicalism: the necessity of conversion, the sufficiency of Jesus, the authority of scripture, and the obligation to evangelize. LifeWay (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) found that roughly 12% qualify as “evangelicals by belief” using their criteria.

Each of these three approaches has serious difficulties. First of all, there is no way of validating the self-identification measure. In analyzing the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey data, I find that 21% of self-identified evangelicals attend church services less than once a month. While one might argue that this was a function of older respondents having more difficulty attending church, examining the generational cohorts separately doesn’t change the percentages at all (ranges from 18% for the Silent generation to 23% for Baby Boomers). Secondly, the self-identification of born-again or evangelical appears to be confounded with a number of other variables. Exit poll data regularly distinguishes between varieties of subgroups among the voting public: gender, educational level, race/ethnicity, and region of the country to name just a few. Yet the interactions between those variables pose significant challenges to figure out exactly what “evangelicals” believe. For example, I looked at the relationships between claiming the born-again identity and identifying as Republican. While just under half (49%) of the overall born-again population claimed to be Republican, there was considerable variation across the subgroups. Only 35% of Midwestern women with no college experience said they were Republicans while nearly 55% of Southern male college grads claimed the same. The question remains as to whether the identity of evangelical may be secondary to the number of other factors impacting individual votes and/or social positions. So while the 81% figure claiming evangelical support for Trump (or for Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate special election) is true, it is not clear that this support comes because the respondents are born-again evangelicals.

There are also problems inherent with the religious tradition approach. First, it is not clear that individuals place the same meaning on the labels within RELTRAD that the researchers do. It is useful to contrast the self-identified evangelical question among white respondents with that of the religious tradition from the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape data. Doing so shows two surprising facts: roughly 15% of respondents from evangelical churches according to RELTRAD do not claim the evangelical self-identification and roughly 40% of the self-identified evangelicals are part of churches categorized as Mainline, Catholic or Black Protestant traditions. Furthermore, in an era of decreased commitment to denominationalism (References) it is not clear that denomination remains a salient variable (with the possible exception of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, and Black Protestant traditions). The same regional and community variations that exist in the individual level data likely exist within congregations as well. An evangelical church according to RELTRAD from a high-education suburban area may be more progressive than a mainline church in the rural south. As Lydia Bean demonstrated in The Politics of Evangelical Identity, there are a host of factors operating within the local congregation that shape individual perceptions on issues of politics and morality. Even in the absence of a top-down denominational approach, the subculture of the local congregation can foster the adoptions of certain political positions as a means of conformity and in-group identity. It is quite likely that these local factors are more significant (while being extremely difficult to evaluate) than denominational categorization.

The third approach, theological, has its own set of problems. While the attempt to examine theology as an independent variable has a long tradition in the sociology of religion dating back to Charles Glock in the 1960s, it has proven difficult to operationalize. As stated earlier, attempts to define theological distinctives in ways that allow sufficient nuance to capture actual individual belief have been wanting. Too often, these measures reflect the theological orientations of the researchers themselves, seeking to demonstrate the percentage of the population that meets their pre-established criteria. Furthermore, the specific questions often suffer from vagueness on the one hand (LifeWay on Bible and decision-making) or too much limitation (Barna’s requirement to believe in a literal Satan). More importantly, we really don’t know enough about how theology operates in individual decision-making. It is quite possible that individuals can affirm agreement with theological positions that would characterize them as being evangelical and yet NOT use those theological formulations when making other judgments. In another analysis based on the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape data, I tried to evaluate the relationships between certain religious variables (including the self-identification as evangelicals) and certain conservative policy positions. Building upon an analysis from Gallup in 2017, I selected only white self-identified Republicans to see how evangelical Republicans might differ from their non-evangelical counterparts. I found that on issues I labeled as culture war positions (opposition to abortion, disagreement with same sex marriage, concern about out of wedlock births, and fears of moral relativity), the evangelicals were markedly more conservative. And yet on issues I labeled as standard conservative positions (belief in small government, that welfare creates dependency, that immigration is harmful, and that environmental focus costs jobs) there was no appreciable difference at all. On those issues, evangelicals were simply acting as Republicans. It is possible that the respondents were working through detailed theological consideration of why they supported small government, but it is far more likely that they were simply following conservative talking points, what Amy Sullivan described in an article on the impact of Fox News on evangelicalism.

Given this analysis, it seems clear that we have very little idea who evangelicals are, where they go to church (if they do), what they believe, or what difference those potential beliefs make in the larger world. Perhaps the best way of thinking about evangelicals is to think of them as a group of people supporting a particular identity, not unlike the fans of a sports team.


Some people may really like the Boston Celtics because they grew up in the Northeast or because the family loved the Celtics. So they buy the jerseys and follow the scores. They are happy when the Celtics win and frustrated in the rebuilding years. But the star player can get traded to the Golden State Warriors and they simply adjust to the new player who took his place, buying a new jersey next time they can. In this sense, their loyalty is to the idea of the Celtics more than to any actual Celtics.

In the same sense, then, I would argue that everyday evangelical are attracted to the idea of being known as an evangelical. To be a person who takes the Bible seriously. To react negatively about a variety of social changes in recent decades, being what Robert Jones of PRRI referred to as “nostalgia voters”. To stand in opposition to “liberals” or “secularists” in much the same way a Celtics fan might rabidly dislike the Cavaliers. To have Donald Trump elected president is seen as a win for the team.

This would suggest that much of the various thought pieces on what role evangelicals are playing in the broader culture are well-intentioned but generally inconclusive. There is simply too much variability around the concept of evangelicalism. For those who question whether the term “evangelical” has outlived its value, the answer may be that it’s always been something like a jersey one puts on. We won’t find a lot of meaning in what everyday evangelicals mean by the concept.

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