A Research Note: Evangelicals in Name Only

This week Ryan Burge wrote a guest essay for the New York Times titled Why ‘Evangelical’ is Becoming Another Word for ‘Republican’. He was responding to a Pew Report from mid-September that showed that during the Trump presidency, those who were his supporters became more likely to self-identify as evangelicals regardless of their religiosity. In addition, Ryan observes that people of other faiths are increasingly likely to claim to be evangelicals. Ryan’s subsequently shared data on twitter showing that the percentage of evangelicals who said “religion was very important to them” had dropped by nearly 10% between 2008 and 2020. I responded, “We really need a deep dive on these self-ID evangelicals who don’t think religion is particularly important and never go to church.”

What follows isn’t the “deep dive” I imagined. Consider it splashing about in the kiddie pool,

So I went to the Association of Religion Data Archives to find a recent data set I could explore. Settling on the 2019 American Values Survey from PRRI, I began work. I selected White Evangelicals. I screened by race and then by self-identification as evangelicals. I separated the WE pool by how often they attended church. I labeled those who attended a few times a year or less as “Evangelicals in Name Only” (EINO). This let me compare those WEs who regularly attend with those who do not.

This is cross-sectional data and not longitudinal, so I can’t directly get at what the Pew report suggested. But by using 2019 data, I figured I could possible pick up the political identity embedded in the EINOs. At the outset, I should note that 31% of the White Evangelicals in the AVS are EINOs! I compared EINOs (n=115) with the rest of the WE sample (n=264) through a series of cross tabulations, looking for significant differences between the two groups. My preliminary and somewhat simplistic analysis explored three broad categories: demographics, social attitudes, and political attitudes. (The lower the percentage below the table, the more significant the difference between the groups.)

As this example shows, EINOs are much more likely to be working or lower class. They are also less likely to have a bachelor’s degree, more likely to be male, more likely to be single, more likely to be younger, and less likely to be able to handle a $400 emergency. They are roughly the same as other WEs in terms of region of the country, living in a rural area, or renting vs owning a home.

When I look at social attitudes, significant differences between EINOs and WEs are evident. For example, 46% of EINOs think abortion should be legal in all or most cases compared to only 14% of WEs.

These same difference appears with reference to Medicare for All, Legalization of Marijuana, and Same-Sex Marriage. On the most relevant culture war issues for evangelicals, EINOs aren’t especially interested. They are much more likely to favor free college and less likely to support corporate tax cuts.

As we move more into the political realm, some interesting contrasts appear. First, EINO’s were more likely to have supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.

They were also more favorable in evaluating Obama’s job performance as president and were more likely to identify as Independents.

Where the EINOs line up with WEs is especially evident when it comes to issues of race, immigration, and nationalism. The AVS has a series of questions where respondents are asked how well a particular word or phrase applies to them. As this cross-tab shows, there is almost no difference in the distributions of the two groups.

Other areas where similar patterns hold for EINOs and WEs include belief that whites are discriminated against, that immigrants are replacing our culture, that renaming/removing confederate memorials is bad, that the confederate flag represents Southern historic pride, and that society punishes men.

This analysis is consistent with the work of Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry. It echoes what a new Pew report found exmplirng the role of Christian Nationalism, especially as it overlays on faith issues.

As I said at the outset, this is a very preliminary analysis and is only indicative. I don’t know that these EINOs said they were evangelicals just because they held nationalist views. But if these positions are what respondents are identifying as evangelical positions, it raises serious concerns about how the evangelical church can respond to the changes going on in contemporary society.

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