What is an evangelical?

By Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge

It was not so long ago (not quite the lifetime of one author, more than the lifetime of the other) that many Americans had not heard the term evangelical and few knew what it meant. The question was raised by the successful bid for the White House from Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, “born-again”, evangelical Christian and a Democrat. Since that time, self-identified evangelicals have been overtly involved in politics to such an extent that the term is now widespread, even if many people still do not quite know what it means. That’s OK because there is considerable disagreement among academics and religious figures about what it means as well. We shouldn’t just throw up our hands and quit, however, as the discussion is an important one for both identifying this particularly important group in politics, but also because of what it reveals about how we think religious influence in society is organized.

“Evangelical” is an adjective that pertains to “the good news” – the Gospel of Jesus in the Bible – while “an evangelical” (noun) refers to a follower of the Gospel. Hence evangelism is the act of sharing the good news to others. It seems like evangelical could be a synonym for Christian, but it’s not. Evangelicals are Christians, but not nearly all Christians are evangelicals. From an academic point of view, the term has evolved to make reference to a specific subset of believers, mainly Protestants. However, identifying just who fits in this category is extremely difficult.

While we have been interested in and writing about this question for years, we were inspired to put together this post after reading an interview with Mark Noll, a historian of American religion and evangelicalism, about his new edited volume coedited with David Bebbington. We, like Eric Miller who interviewed Noll, but were a bit taken aback when he suggested the volume “stands out as complete and comprehensive.” Though we have not read the book, our inkling from the discussion about the book’s chapters suggests that there is a rather full discussion of some competing perspectives, and the reality is something even more complex. Until the discussion acknowledges born-again Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Orthodox, and others, it is not complete. At the very least, it is worth social scientists weighing in to offer mostly supportive evidence.

Why Classify Things?

First, why would we need to define a category such as evangelical? We don’t have to, but classification systems (like the domain-kingdom-phylum-…species system in biology) can be useful for helping to make sense of the world. Classification systems are based on a set of rules that point to what researchers think are important lines of differentiation at the time. An alternate perspective (developed in biology) suggests that classification systems are less important than specifying the ecological pressures that act on a particular species. Translated to human behavior, perhaps we do not need to know a person’s group label and instead can focus our energy on what forces are acting on them – what information they are exposed to, what beliefs and values they hold, and what social, economic, political, and religious environments they inhabit. Classifications, like defining an evangelical, can be shortcuts for some of those things, but often miss considerable diversity within the category and similarities across categories. We’ll highlight some of these tensions below.

There is a riot of Protestant groups in the world and one way to make sense of their diversity is to classify larger religious families and even larger groups of religious traditions: evangelicals as separate from mainline Protestants (at least in the US). The history of doing so is motivated from splits in Protestant denominations over their directions with respect to theology, slavery, ordination of women, acknowledgement of same-sex identities and relationships, and other things. Evangelical denominations tend to be on the side favoring the status quo, while non-evangelicals tend to side with change and adaptation, which is why the conflation with conservative and liberal, respectively, is so appealing. For example, the Presbyterian Church in America split with the Presbyterian Church in the US (the Southern branch of the Presbyterian Church that split in the 1830s over slavery) in 1973 over the ordination of women, racial liberalism, and more liberal theology generally. The PCA is labeled evangelical; the PC(USA) (successor to the PCUS) is mainline.

There are hundreds of denominations with their own story of formation and, naturally, their own set of beliefs and practices. Beneath those labels are tens of thousands of congregations with tens of millions of congregants. If consistency and full information ruled the day, then a classification of denominational bodies would tell us about all three levels (denomination-congregation-congregant) at once. And here perhaps we could rely on denominational membership in umbrella organizations – the National Council of Churches for the mainline versus the National Association of Evangelicals for evangelicals. That’s not quite sufficient since some theological fellow travelers do not belong to the NAE, but it takes us a long way.

Perhaps sadly, the citizenry does not conform to consistency and academic rules of classification, which leads to some strange combinations of religious attributes. That is, religion is not like a matryoshka doll. Therefore, we turn to three approaches to figure out what an evangelical might be.

Organizational Attachment

The first perspective follows the historical process laid out above, where academics follow denominational history, as well as their theological commitments, to identify like-groupings. This approach to capturing evangelicals ends up with a smattering of denominations from all over the Protestant religious family tree – some Lutherans, some Reformed, some Presbyterians, some Episcopalians (ahem, Anglicans), and many Baptists, Methodists, Adventists, and others. The American Religion Data Archive has a number of “family trees” of religious families worth checking out.

Nearly half of all evangelicals identify as some kind of Baptist. The most highly visible evangelical denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention – which boasts over 16 million members. When the SBC meets each year for an annual convention, their political and religious stances often make news. There are a huge range of other Baptist denominations, only one of which (American Baptists) is often classified as mainline Protestant.

However, another significant portion of evangelicals are the non-denominational variety. Of course, this cuts at the heart of the organizational history approach to classification. Currently, a quarter of all evangelicals come from this type of Protestant church and they are rapidly growing. While non-denominational Protestants, on average, tend to hold to a very similar type of theology and partisanship as Southern Baptists, they aren’t as well covered by the media because of their diffuse organizational structure. The exception would be non-denominational megachurches and their sometimes superstar pastors, like Joel Osteen.

The next largest group would be those from the Pentecostal or Holiness traditions. They share some theological basics with the Southern Baptists, but place less emphasis on developing a systematic theology. But the major point of departure is worship style. These traditions are often labeled as charismatic as they have a more boisterous response to music during the weekend service and many churches encourage speaking in tongues. Pentecostal church services are intentionally emotional experiences, an approach that Baptists tend to view with suspicion.

Here is a partial list of prominent evangelical denominations:

Southern Baptist Convention, Evangelical Free Church, Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, Assemblies of God, Church of Christ, Free Methodist, Presbyterian Church in America, Vineyard USA, Christian Reformed Church.

Here is a partial list of prominent mainline denominations:

United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church, the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ.

The Theological Approach

The least common way of capturing evangelicalism among social scientists is through their theology, in part because it is not necessarily tied to any particular organization. Perhaps the most enduring definition of evangelicals was offered up by British historian David Bebbington. His “quadrilateral” included four dimensions of belief:

  1. Biblicism – having a high view of the Bible (often operationalized as being a literalist)
  2. Crucicentrism – a focus on the work that Jesus did on the cross and the atonement it provides
  3. Conversionism – a strong desire to try to convert others to the evangelical belief system
  4. Activism – an emphasis on showing the message of the Gospel through tangible actions

Most surveys have not included measures to adopt those four dimensions, but some have more belief questions than others. For instance, the figure below shows the results from a number of belief questions from the Baylor Religion Survey Wave 5 (2017; available at thearda.com) for evangelical and non-evangelical Christians (parsed using a denominational approach).

Generating more restrictive definitions of evangelicalism, of course, serve to shrink the size of the religious tradition. If denominational measures suggest that evangelicals constitute 21.5 percent of the adult population in 2018, the share of evangelicals who actually hold to typical evangelical beliefs is much lower. For instance, just 37.2% of evangelicals believe in a literal bible and only half are sure that they will go to Heaven when they die. It’s also apparent that evangelicals have a different view of the Divine than other Christians. They are more likely to say that God is angry at sin, but also more concerned with the well-being of the world and each individual. So, they do stand out as theologically distinct from other types of Christians, but large shares do not comport with the perceived notion of what an evangelical should believe.

Theological debates over who counts as an evangelical have grown quite political in recent years. For instance, after Roy Moore’s failed Senate campaign in Alabama in 2018, during which he was accused of trolling for teenage girls at the mall, evangelical elites tried to distance themselves from the label. For instance, religious historian Thomas Kidd argued that:

That is, for a time evangelical elites pushed more restrictive definitions of evangelicalism with an eye toward showing that the Roy Moore-supporting variety are not true to the faith. There is not much to this argument, however, once you systematically look at the evidence. More observant evangelicals (by affiliation or identity) have been more supportive of Trump (and candidates like Moore), not less.

The National Association of Evangelicals weighed in on this and, for once, tried to limit the size of evangelicalism. Suffice it to say that this is not common practice, as organizations tend to inflate the size of their constituencies because of the power size confers. They embraced Bebbington’s quadrilateral and Ed Stetzer’s survey question operationalization of them, suggesting that true evangelicals would “strongly agree” with each one.

Identity

At the core of evangelicalism is a sharp break, a decision point where people choose to follow Jesus. For many this is an experience and needs to be made consciously. This is why evangelicals tend to be in favor of adult baptism, but another model is to think about the apostle Paul who experienced a life changing experience on the road to Damascus. In either case, becoming an evangelical entails an identity shift. Evangelicals choose to be born again, to be followers of the Gospel and proclaimers of the good news. Exactly what people call themselves, though, is not settled. Some people use “born again”, some “evangelical”, some “Christian.” So, simply asking people for their identity is not a silver bullet of measurement. But, asking people whether they would call themselves “born again or evangelical” is a long-standing attempt at sorting among Protestants. Using the 2018 CCES, 34.6 percent adopt this identity.

Are these the same people who inhabit evangelical denominations? Not quite. In the 2018 CCES, denominational evangelicals constitute 27 percent of the weighted sample, though evangelical identifiers constitute 34.6 percent. The two measures of evangelicals are only correlated at r=.471. Put another way, 16.4 percent of the sample constitutes evangelical identifiers as well as denominational affiliates; 10.3 percent are affiliates, but not identifiers; and 10.5 percent are identifiers but not affiliates. That’s a considerable amount of slippage between measurements. Identity is not the same as affiliation. There are many reasons for this, including that specific identity labels vary in use across religious groups – the evangelical label is more common among some Baptists than others, for instance. It is also more common among frequent attenders. Despite the slippage between identity and affiliation, Burge and Lewis show that despite the differences in who identifies as an evangelical and who attends an evangelical congregation, the estimates of politically important properties are equivalent. That serves to highlight just how much diversity there is within religious groups defined either by affiliation or identity. PRRI commonly uses an evangelical identity measure to differentiate among Protestants.

But it goes quite a bit further than that. It turns out that lots of people outside of Protestantism adopt an evangelical identity too. This has been long noted – Leege and Welch (1991) investigated the phenomenon of evangelical Catholics, which Burge updated recently. It turns out that 9 percent or so of Catholics identified as evangelical in 2008, which grew steadily to 16 percent in 2016 in the CCES data. The identity is more common among those with less education, but it does not appear to have a racial component nor does it seem to have a partisan component either. But the identity is much more common among those Catholics who attend more. As shown below, when asked as an experience rather than an identity, even more Catholics agree (27%). It seems clear that you do not have to be Protestant to be born again.

We began this section suggesting that people call their conversion experience with different names. Of course, that’s a communal choice – religious groups will give it a label that is meaningful to them. One way we can see that is by state. As the following figure shows using 2018 CCES survey data, the percentage of denominational evangelicals and mainline Protestants who identify as evangelical rises as the proportion of evangelicals in the state rises. It is notable that the maximum of evangelical identification among denominational evangelicals is just shy of 80 percent in Alaska. In every other state, the ratio of identifiers to affiliates is lower, often much lower. In New Hampshire, only 30 percent of evangelical affiliates identify as evangelical.

Are Evangelicals Just White?

Given their political visibility, it is common for people to assume that evangelical = white evangelical. It’s clearly false that evangelicalism is limited by race, which the figure above just demonstrated – a huge proportion of black Protestants admit to having a born-again experience. And the relative stability in size of evangelicalism (using the denominational affiliation approach) is only because of an increase in non-whites, particularly latinos. But the very fact that there are separate, historically black denominations indicates the problems that evangelicalism, centered in the South, has had (and continues to have) with race.

Moreover, white evangelicals stand out as politically distinctive relative to non-white evangelicals and others. They are considerably more Republican, more supportive of Trump, more supportive of Trump policies, and generally more aligned with the religious right than any other group, suggesting there is not likely to be an Evangelical Crackup with the Republican Party any time soon. So, in a religious context it is not appropriate to conflate evangelical with white evangelical, but when we are investigating public opinion and political behavior, it is appropriate to separately classify evangelicals by their racial group.

Concluding Thoughts

In this long post, we sought to discuss the reasons for engaging in classification, some strategies for identifying a religious group, and described the pitfalls from engaging any one of them. We have used these various strategies at different times for different projects. Some of the best advice is to use the measurement scheme that is appropriate for your research question, but beware of making strong assumptions about any one of them – they are likely quite wrong.

Religious classifications are useful tools for description, but they are not particularly useful for generating explanations. There are simply too many settings, experiences, and beliefs, among other things, that are conflated with these categories. When we find evangelicals, however measured, behaving or believing distinctively, that is the beginning of the research process rather than the end of it.

See these other posts in our “explainer” series:

What is a Black Protestant? Why do they have their own category?

What is a Mainline Protestant?

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

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

5 comments

  1. I am black and I consider myself an evangelical. It amazes me that we all profess to believe in Jesus Christ, but we are divided by race and status and other things that take our focus off of Jesus and the Word! Because we are Believers and can read we shouldn’t have to guess what Jesus would think about certain things. For instance, homosexuality is a sin, but not the only sin. Don’t murderers, liars and others have a place in the lake of fire if we don’t repent. Don’t we all fall short of the glory of God? Is there a special reward for those who teach false doctrine and lead the flock astray? Will all Believers be judged? Don’t we want to spend eternity with Christ?

    Like

  2. Thank you. I wasn’t sure exactly what the difference was between evangelicals and mainline before. It is a curious think that people would assume that all evangelicals are Caucasian. I have African-American relatives whom I think would be considered evangelical.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s