Do You Have to Be Protestant to Be Born-Again?

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

I grew up Southern Baptist. My parents were Southern Baptists. My grandmother had been the church secretary. My grandfather was an usher. We were Southern Baptist to the core. The church I grew up in was the prototypical Southern Baptist church in a rural area. It was 100% white, mostly working and middle class families, and conservative (theologically and politically). I went to a private Christian school (Greenville College is affiliated with the Free Methodists). I remember sitting in a forum with faculty and staff that was focused on how Greenville should market itself. One professor got up and stated quite forcefully, “We should advertise, first and foremost, that we are an evangelical institution!”

I was 20 years old. I had no idea what that term meant. I probably should have known. I grew up with more opportunities than most to learn about the flavors of Protestantism. If you would have asked me if I was born-again I would have answered with a resounding “YES.” That term was used multiple times a week. The words “protestant” or “evangelical” were never uttered.

I was confronted with that reality this week as I was trying to navigate a methodological question that I have been wrestling with for years: If someone says that they are born-again do they also have to say that they are Protestant for them to classified as an evangelical? Here’s the statistical reality, according the CCES: only 70.2% of people who answered affirmatively to, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?” also indicated that they were Protestant. About 10% of those who said they were born-again indicated that they were Catholic, another 10% said they were “nothing in particular” and 6.3% responded they were “something else.” Yes, there were a handful of Hindus, Buddhists, and others who identified as born-again. As my colleague Djupe found, large numbers of transgender Americans identify as born-again too.

Here’s what I’m going to do: give both sides of the argument as a type of case study of why measuring things in the social sciences (especially religion) is particularly difficult.

Argument 1: You must be born-again and Protestant to be classified as an evangelical.

This one is not so much a social science argument as a theological one. Having a born-again experience is a particular concept that is crucial to evangelicalism. Other religions just don’t do it that way. For example, Catholics have CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) courses where new members to the faith (predominantly children) participate in some classroom instruction and then are confirmed by a member of the Catholic clergy and given their first communion. It’s not (in many cases) a voluntary act in the same way that a born-again experience is for an evangelical. Most children participate as a type of coming-of-age ritual. It doesn’t carry the same meaning for Protestants and Catholics.

The previously used “gold standard” for classifying evangelicals is grounded in this idea. A survey asks an individual what type of church they attend. If they list a church that has a strong association with advocating for a born-again experience like Southern Baptists or Assemblies of God churches then they should be classified as an evangelical.

Andrew Lewis and I provide some strong statistical support for this idea. In a forthcoming article at Politics & Religion we use ten surveys that have over a quarter million respondents in total to conclude that if an individual indicates that they are born-again and also identifies as a Protestant, that is a very good approximation of evangelical Christianity as measured by denominational affiliation.

Argument 2: If a survey respondent says that they are an evangelical, that should be sufficient.

The logic behind this argument is straightforward: if someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. I harken back to my formative years and think how I would answer survey questions regarding my religious experience. I would be able to respond “correctly” to the born-again question. I’m not sure I would have been able to do the same for the religious tradition question. I think I would have been able to identify as Protestant, but I am convinced that there are large sections of the American population that have no idea what the word Protestant means.[1] That could be the reason that there are so many born-again individuals who identify as “nothing in particular” or “something else.” They read the list of choices and they didn’t feel comfortable with picking any of the other options so those two served as a type of catch-all.

Consider this scenario. A survey is distributed to a sample. It contains a question that asks a person’s political ideology ranging from “strong Democrat” to “strong Republican.” A hypothetical person chooses strong Democrat. Then the survey continues by asking a series of questions that try to ascertain their political opinion on a number of issues. That same person who says that they are a strong Democrat indicates that they are completely pro-life, 100% opposed to any restrictions on the Second Amendment, and believes that the government should end the Social Security and Medicare programs. Should a survey researcher just switch their partisanship? Or ignore it all together?

Maybe there is some measurement error here. It’s possible that people are just rushing and checking random boxes. That’s really difficult to identify in a post-hoc analysis. It may just be that people can hold contradictory opinions. For example, Broockman and Ahler found that large swaths of people simultaneously hold opinions that are all over the ideological map.

Does it Matter?

Let’s briefly take a look at how these two different measures perform on both religious and political activity. When considering religious attendance there is a clear pattern: born-again Protestants are more likely to attend church than those who say they are born-again but not Protestant. 57.1% of born-again Protestants attend weekly or more, while only 42.9% of those who are just born-again attend weekly or more.

What about the political dimension? According to the graph below, born-again Protestants were much more likely to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign. That maybe be due, in part, to the face that born-again non-Protestants are more racially diverse. Most notably, Latinos make up 12.4% of the born-again non-Protestants, but only 4.9% of the born-again Protestants. Taken together it seems that born-again Protestants are more religious active and more conservative politically.

How do we decide?

I hope that this has been an even handed and empirical look at two possibilities of classifying evangelicalism. I must admit that I’m not 100% satisfied with either approach. It seems theological consistent to ensure that respondents have to be born-again and Protestant to be evangelical, but it seems paternalistic of the academic community to essentially tell survey respondents: “It’s obvious you don’t know what you are talking about.”

My hope is that this is another entry in the debate of defining religiosity.

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

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.



  1. […] A quick methods aside. There are two ways to measure evangelicalism. One is based on denominational affiliation. For instance, if a respondent says that they are Southern Baptist, they are classified as an evangelical even if they don’t know what that word means. The other is determined by self-identification. The survey asks: “do you consider yourself born-again or evangelical?” And if a respondent says, “yes” then they are an evangelical even though they may not even be a Protestant. I tackle the pros and cons of both approaches here. […]


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