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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.


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.

Christian Universities Must Engage Broader Issues

Today, Chad Wellmon posted a fascinating article in the Chronicle of HIgher Education. Wellmon arrived on the University of Virginia grounds last week with his family to become principal of one of the residential colleges at UVA. An associate professor of German studies, he’s a fellow with UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Moral Clarity

The marchers Friday night literally walked his residence. He describes that they “marched in cadence, two by two, as far as I could see.” UVA’s president, Theresa Sullivan (a sociologist) responded with vague comments about “hateful behavior”. Drawing on Max Weber (I knew I liked this article), he claims that universities lack the moral language within its ranks to really engage the evil that marched onto campus.

If they looked to the university for guidance on how to live, they would be disappointed. The values that motivated students and faculty members to commit themselves to a political cause, a religious tradition, or even scholarship itself, came from elsewhere, from outside the university.

Yet even Weber acknowledged that the university is not without its own values and virtues. … They are robust epistemic virtues —— an openness to debate, a commitment to critical inquiry, attention to detail, a respect for argument —— embedded in historical practices particular to the university. They provide those within and outside the university with essential goods.

I think his application of Weber’s analysis is spot on. That’s why the whole political correctness/liberal bias/safe spaces debates around university spaces are so hard to resolve. Outside speakers from left or right are expected to come and embrace those “epistemic virtues”. Sometimes, however, there are moral questions involved that openness, critical inquiry, and argument will not properly address. When a speaker has a past endorsement for racist sentiment (whether dressed up in science or “free speech”) should we really engage in open discussion? But does the university have the moral framework to make that distinction? (This, by the way, doesn’t mean that people should abuse the speaker or shout him down.)

Here’s where Wellmon closes his argument:

When I welcome my students this Saturday, I will discuss white supremacy and the march, but I will use language different than the one my wife and I used with our three children. To them we spoke in the language of our faith tradition — in terms of the image of God, the church, and Christian love. When I speak to my students, I will do so in the language of the university and its traditions — in terms of open debate, critique, and a love of knowledge.

When I read his conclusion, I realized that we were talking about schools like mine. We operate all the time in language of “the image of God, the church, and Christian love”. It seems like Christian Universities would be uniquely positioned to engage these issues.

But we don’t. We don’t for similar reasons that Wellmon identifies. But in our case, the Weberian value system runs a different direction. We have prided ourselves since the the founding of our Christian Universities that our schools are “safe places” where we don’t have to confront angry speakers (except for some railing on conservative talking points in chapel). We are known for homogeneity and community spirit. Presidents prided themselves in not having any protests during the Vietnam war. We don’t do conflict well (if you doubt that, try attending a contentious faculty meeting).

So here’s the paradox: The research university lacks the moral language necessary to confront the angry conflict at its door while the Christian university has the requisite moral language but prides itself on the absence of conflict.

So what do we do? Perhaps Christian Universities (through their faculty and students) need to be freed to address large cultural issues. We could apply the moral language that is part of the fabric of our universities and speak to issues of race, economics, gender, family, and education.

We would need to temper our anger and political sentiments to some degree. Not because we’re worried about political correctness or conservative outrage but because my twitter feed has plenty of that for all of us. We need to speak from the language of theology because we are committed to critical thinking and thus stand apart from those who have somehow blended their theological and political commitments into some amalgamated mush.

I don’t know how this would work. Perhaps we need an online journal or better a Christian University version of Vox.

Somehow, Christian faculty could speak to complex issues in ways that influence both the church and higher education (an argument Robert Wuthnow made 30 years ago).

Wellmon’s argument based on his frightening experiences of this past weekend makes me think that we have to try. And given the events in Charleston, there’s not much time to waste.



Some random thoughts on the horrors of Charlottesville 

Like nearly everyone else I know, I’m struggling to get my mind around what’s happened in Charlottesville over the past 24 hours beginning with the surreal tiki-torch march last night through the malicious attack on counter-protestors that left one person dead. 

1. The sight of a parade of white nationalists marching to the University of Virginia chanting  racial and ethnic epithets let us know that this was far from normal, that something is very broken in our social fabric. Even though Jefferson had his blind spots on slavery that we can’t ignore, the entire march seems the antithesis of what he envisioned when founding UVA. Clearly, the nationalists have a guarantee of first amendment protections (championed by the VA ACLU) but we can celebrate their right to protest without legitimizing their views. 

2. The presence of armed militia today was especially unnerving, especially during the time where there seemed to be confusion as to whether these were guardsmen or militias. Their presence appeared not just to celebrate open carry rights but to make tangible the potential for violence.

3. I found cable news today to be singularly unhelpful in trying to see what was going on. I spent time with MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News (actually a few minutes each was all I could stand). All of them had their standard panels that divided into partisan camps and tried to link everything to all things Trump. The conversation drifted from events on the ground to North Korea to Mueller to wondering why POTUS hadn’t said anything yet (it was better when he didn’t). Fox managed to do a better job with events on the ground but I gave up when the host described “differences of opinion” about Confederate statues. To be realistic, these marchers weren’t talking about why a statue was important to heritage; they were talking about a different kind of nation altogether. 

4. The whole question of Trump Voters support the Alt-right seemed to be particularly problematic. To make such overgeneralizations had the predictable effect of making this a partisan conversation. It is true that Trump, like others before him, used awfully loud dog-whistles and continues to do so. But not everyone concerned about border security was carrying tiki torches. It’s important to isolate these bad actors and not link them to politicians or law enforcement. There are issues with both of those, but the nationalists deserve their own special approbrium. 

5. Social media played a very strange role in the events. On the one hand, it was the only way I could keep up with what was going on. But too many reposts were from earlier events, so I knew stuff was happening but not exactly what. Social media was also present at the events. I was amazed at how many videos from this morning showed people taking video or describing events to their friends. 

6. There is far too much “both-sidism” in situations like Charlottesville. We’re there angry worlds and gestures from counter-protestors? Yes. Did they instigate conflict? Certainly not. There are no parallels between Black Lives Matter and those White Nationalists who confronted them. BLM activists do not wish that White People should not be in the country. The early intimidation, threats of violence, and the eventual car attack stand apart from anything the counter-protestors were doing. To argue otherwise is blind at best and malicious at worst. 

7. Everyone, from Trump to local ministers to Boy Scout leaders, should know that we simply and clearly denounce White Nationalist attitudes and behavior. To not do so is at the heart of what researchers are talking about when they try to explain implicit bias (that one’s for you, Pence). 

For all the times conservatives have misappropriated MLK’s Dream speech, this is one time where it makes sense: “the content of their character” deserved to be judged and judged harshly. 

A Court Evangelical Fantasy

October 2008*

Media outlets across the political spectrum were stunned today when major evangelical leaders announced their support for Democratic Candidate Barack Obama with only weeks to go before the crucial presidential election.

Given the near-catastrophic economic collapse following the bursting housing bubble, the conditions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a rising sense of unease among American citizens, the evangelicals said that it was clear that God was preparing the society for a radical change.

“Look at the Old Testament,” counseled Houston mega-pastor Jeff Robertson, “God often picked the most unlikely leaders. Rarely the ones that everyone expected. Think of Abraham or Moses or David. They certainly weren’t the establishment pick.”Obama Evangelicals

The other evangelical leaders present raised similar concerns. “We’re not electing a pastor in chief”, said one. Another observed that “Romans 13 tells us that God places leaders in power. The citizens are only actors in that story.”

Asked how they could throw their support behind a pro-choice Democrat, Christian radio personality Jim Rawlings responded, “God’s ways are not our ways. He often uses what seems like foolishness to show his wisdom.”

Christian university president David Hawley, Jr., who has become a confidante of Senator Obama’s, explained that Obama’s family values, work ethic, and honesty were really the most important qualifications we should be looking for in a president. “Character matters”, he said.

The endorsement came after a meeting in which about two dozen popular evangelical figures met with Senator Obama for prayer.

“We could use our position to try to gain a special advantage for conservative Christians, but we assured Senator Obama that we wanted him to focus on guarantees of religious freedom for all citizens, even the freedom to not pursue faith” said evangelist Sally Woodson.

Senator Obama, whose own religious renewal came in a United Church of Christ, was clearly moved by the show of support.

*This makes as much sense as the rhetoric from Court Evangelicals (Fea, 2017) over the past 18 months.


Defending Faith: Exploring Industry Evangelicalism

I’ve been exploring a particular thesis within evangelicalism over the last several years. I’ve suggested that there are two faces of evangelicalism: Industry Evangelicalism and Identity Evangelicalism. I’ve been arguing that we’re seeing a shift from the former to the latter which is having all kind of disruptions in the interim.

In the link above, I explained what I meant by Industry Evangelicalism:

As I’m conceptualizing it, Industry Evangelicalism is concerned with maintaining a following. This requires a media platform, organizational structure, and easily identifiable leadership (with an equally identifiable set of followers and defenders). Its power is dependent upon separation from other organizations, a sense of being persecuted and misunderstood, and a publishing or broadcasting infrastructure.

One of my first professional presentations on the shift was at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion meetings in 2014. I contrasted two memoirs: Mark Driscoll’s reflections on building the structure that became Mars Hill (for a while at least) and Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were on Fire. My fellow panelist in that session was Daniel Bennett, who was presenting data on interviews he had conducted with leaders of Conservative Christian Legal Organizations.

Defending FaithDan’s book on CCLOs, Defending Faith, came out a couple of weeks ago and I finished it yesterday. He and I exchanged e-mails about it over the last 24 hours. I was very eager to read it because it would deepen my insights on how Industry Evangelicalism functions.

Dan, now an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University, analyzed press releases from seven different Christian Legal groups. I hadn’t heard of all of them, but the work of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Center for Law and Justice (Jay Sekulow’s group), and the Thomas Moore Law Center were familiar.

He explores these CCLOs by examining how they articulate issues of Religious Freedom, Traditional Marriage vs. Same-Sex Marriage, and Sanctity of Life Issues (mostly but not exclusively abortion). He supports the press release data with the above-mentioned interviews.

It’s important to pay attention to the infrastructural underpinnings of these groups. The ACLJ grew out of Pat Robertson’s Regent University, has its own law school, and works to train lawyers in arguing religious freedom cases. The ADF has its roots in linkages to James Dobson, D. James Kennedy, and Bill Bright, Industry evangelicals all. The TMLC has conservative Catholic roots and was funded by the Domino’s pizza founder.

The protection of religious freedom and individual conscience is key to the rhetorical frame offered by the CCLOs. These issues are expressed as an individuals’ deeply held beliefs. But it’s interesting that, unlike the position that Russell Moore has been advocating, this isn’t support for religious freedom in the abstract, but conservative evangelical religious freedom in the particular. The debate over the Mississippi religious freedom law (back on again) will test whether this passes constitutional muster.

Conscience protections are key to understanding their legal advocacy on issues of marriage post-Obergefell and on issues of abortion in light of the strength of Casey. CCLOs aren’t that involved in policy making, but are interested in protecting a specific segment of the public.

Not all of them are directly partisan organizations (the ACLJ is the standout), but they share a sense that “the government” is doing bad things to people of faith. They tend not to see these issues as blind spots in well-meaning policy or unanticipated consequences of good actions. They see them through the lens of malevolent actors who oppose people of faith. It makes me wonder to what extent such institutionalized anti-government sentiment helps explain the 81% white evangelical support for Republicans.

The Industrial operation of CCLOs makes it difficult for them to come to a shared sense of how faith operates within a pluralistic environment. I recently heard a presentation on efforts to build Liberty For All legislation based on the Utah legislation that paired LGBT rights with robust religious freedom protections. The CCLO representative had a difficult time even imagining how such a compromise was possible.

When a group has defined enemies that must be “defended against”, compromise is almost impossible. Furthermore, the business model of the CCLOs depends upon them maintaining a sense of opposition, to standing in the breach. That’s where their donations come from because they aren’t charging bakers the going rate.

Their advocacy has impacts on other elements of Industrial Evangelicalism. It’s no surprise that religious media provides strong coverage to CCLOs on their terms or that evangelical groups like the CCCU invite them to major meetings to give input on how the government will look at Christian schools or that they give workshops at Value Voter summits. The interlocking linkages between these various organizations create an institutional bulwark to keep “them” at bay.

As Dan and I discussed, there’s a real danger of the pendulum swinging back the other direction turning protection into isolation. In the process, the CCLOs may actually do more damage to the role of faith in the public square over the long run.

It’s worth pondering what kinds of institutional groups could be formed to rethink how people of conservative religious faith can be meaningful participants in collective efforts to protect religious freedom and individual conscience, especially for those who disagree with us.

That would likely require us to begin making the move to Identity Evangelicalism, worrying less about protecting the boundaries and more about expressing Faithful Witness.

Determining Discrimination

Last week I thought this would be an obscure little post that most people would ignore. It was prompted by the release of a new poll that the Pew Research Center did on the experience of American Muslims. I was struck by a set of questions about the nature of discrimination. The summary is below:

Pew Muslim Discrimination

On three of these measures, things are somewhat better than they were in 2011 yet all are worse than they were in 2007. But “better” is a relative term. It is still true that nearly one in five Muslim responded that they had been called an offensive name. Six percent had been physically threatened or attacked.

The survey is drawn from 1,000 US Muslims over the course of this spring. Notice that the timeframe is the last year, not “in your lifetime”. That means that 60 Muslims were attacked and 180 were called names. Pew includes a summary calculation that identifies anyone who experienced any one of the five conditions described. The total comes to nearly 1 in 2 Muslims, or 480 people out of 1,000.

I’m particularly struck by the “treated with suspicion” option. Unlike all of the others, that appears to be more in the mind of the respondent. There is no necessary behavioral marker. Just a feeling that people are treating you differently because of your status.

That idea echoed another one from a different Pew survey. In a more general analysis of perceptions of discrimination, they asked people which groups they thought faced a lot of discrimination in today’s society. They then broke those down by subgroup, which makes for some very interesting analysis.

Pew Group Discrimination

So who faces discrimination? It depends upon who you ask. Less than half of whites say that blacks face a lot of discrimination. PRRI data suggests some interesting class and party distinctions.

White evangelicals are least likely to see discrimination against blacks (just over a third) or gays and lesbians (just over half). But half of white evangelicals argue that there is a lot of discrimination against them! No other subgroup sees that discrimination as overwhelming.

When I saw this last week, I was simply interested in the contrast between the Muslim survey that mostly asked about concrete behaviors and less about general perceptions.

But the past 24 hours has seen the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ exploring prosecution of reverse discrimination cases in colleges and universities. And today the White House rolled out new immigration policies to privilege English-speakers (ostensibly to protect jobs).

This all brings me back to the idea of “being looked at suspiciously”. It’s not about actual, demonstrable discrimination. It’s about the possibility that someone would take advantage and favor another group over yours. I can’t imagine seeing white evangelicals called names on the street. It’s beyond imagining that white students find themselves put upon on college campuses.

Discrimination has become separated from its sociological tether. No longer is it about structures that impede certain groups by law (redlining, law enforcement, neighborhood schools). It’s about being singled out because you’re white or Christian or conservative.

And all it takes to feel discriminated against is a single outlier instance. Bill Maher says something outrageous. A young woman isn’t admitted to the University of Texas. A florist in Washington is found in violation of a state nondiscrimination ordinance.

There may not really be jobs taken by new immigrants but there might have been. You heard that one story on the news. And maybe not today but certainly tomorrow.

This pattern of isolated outrage has become a staple of modern media environment. Organizations are quick to claim offense and paint the story in the worst possible and most egregious way. Because their business model depends upon it.

This is true of political organizations. It is true of religious organizations. It is true of media organizations.

But that outrage isn’t discrimination. And it’s a huge mistake to base public policy on something as fleeting as feeling “you were looked out suspiciously”.