What is an Evangelical? Here’s what Twitter Says.

Featured Image Credit: Judeo Christian Church 

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

The word “evangelical” could be one of the most overused, misunderstood terms in modern American politics. We post semi-regularly about measuring of conservative Christians in the United States (see here and here, for examples), but answers never come easy as to what exactly the terms means as can be seen in a conversation I had with the Christian Post. One thing that we academics always worry about is that our definition of a concept would seem foreign to the average American citizen – that our term lacks “street validity.” So, where does one turn to find out how the average citizen is using a term? There’s arguably no better place than Twitter.

I was recently made aware of this terrific application called TAGS, which uses the infrastructure of Google Sheets to create an application to scrape Twitter for a specific keyword over a regular interval of time. I set up a TAGS application and asked it to search Twitter every hour for instances of the word “evangelical.” After an initial period of ensuring that it worked properly, I let it do its work. I actually forgot about it until I got an email saying that the spreadsheet had now reached its memory capacity and wouldn’t be able to archive any more data. In total TAGS had collected 55,020 unique tweets that were composed between February 23rd and April 1st of 2017. It provides an interesting snapshot of how people talk about evangelicals on the internet.

It’s always helpful to start with a wordcloud. In total, there were unique 22,551 words in the tweets (after removing stop words and other Twitter minutiae). After the word “Christianity” and “Christian”, the most frequent word used in these tweets is “Trump.” If anything, that indicates that observers of evangelicalism see it as a largely political movement, especially in light of the election of Donald Trump. What is also worth pointing out is the word “white” is the fifth most used in the dataset. Those who are studying the increasing multiculturalism in evangelical Christianity would be wise to note that the average tweeter likely sees “evangelicalism” and “white” as closely linked.

wordcloud

While a wordcloud can be an excellent way to understand what individual words are being used, it makes it impossible to understand the context of words. N-grams are a helpful way to see what words are commonly used together. I used bigrams, which are two word pairs, to get a broader view. There are the obvious pairs of “evangelical Christian” and all its variations, of course. But, there are some interesting results here too. “Private evangelical” appears right above “Betsy DeVos” and obviously those are related items. DeVos was widely criticized as a potential nominee for Secretary of Education because of her prior statements in supporting private Christian education. So, this Twitter archive provides an interesting snapshot of how fights over religion in public life were occurring in the months of February and March.

bigrams

I finally wanted to see what sort of websites are being linked in tweets as a means to understand if evangelical users were trying to publicize evangelical sources or if evangelical critics were engaging in the most chatter. It’s obvious from this list that it’s the latter. The most linked websites are the Huffington Post and the op-ed site Death and Taxes. Neither of these are run by evangelicals. There are several newspaper sites, like USA Today and the Washington Post. But there are some evangelical sources, most notably Albert Mohler’s website, Christianity Today, and The Gospel Coalition. It would appear, from these data at least, that the general media uses the term more than the Christian media does. It may be that  newspaper writers believe that the public understands the word and it will generate traffic. However, the opposite could be true: evangelical writers don’t believe that their target audience understands the term and therefore they avoid it in their news stories.

domains

Taken together an image emerges of the word “evangelical” that is very closely linked to American politics and is most often uttered by individuals who are not evangelical themselves. It seems that the religious identity of the movement has become so closely meshed with its political component that they are seen as one in the same by those most vocal on social media. This is a worrisome trend insofar as it may make non-white evangelicals, or evangelicals who voted for Hillary Clinton, marginalized members of their own religious community. One wonders if these individuals can create a separate identify for themselves going forward or will they always be painted with the broad of brush of “evangelical.” What might be of larger concern to social scientists is that evangelicals completely abandon the term, and the measures that we have relied on for decades will lose their validity. Continuing to reassess our priors should be a constant task of social inquiry.

The data and the syntax for the analysis can be found on my Github.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

 

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