The Evangelical Brand is Not as Tarnished As Most People Think

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University 

The word “evangelical” has launched a thousand books, blog posts, and tweets – many of them authored by myself. But, at least in the world of social media, the consensus seems to be that the term “evangelical” is irreparably damaged, in large part due its cooptation by politically conservative Christians who support policies that many perceive to be immoral, while also providing unflagging support for President Donald Trump.

And, it’s become somewhat of a trope now that evangelicals are in decline. But, I honestly don’t think that’s as true as most people believe it to be.

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.

So, with all the baggage surrounding the term “evangelical,” we should expect fewer people choosing that term as the years go by. But, here’s the statistical reality: that’s just not true.

I compared the two data sources I have that ask about being born-again or evangelical – the CCES and GSS. Note that the GSS asks the question slightly differently, “Would you say you have been “born again” or have had a “born again” experience – that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?” So that leads to a slightly different outcome, but we are more interested in trends here than absolute levels.

The share of Americans who say that they are evangelical or have had a born-again experience has, at a minimum, stayed constant or maybe even risen slightly in the GSS configuration. 33.2% of CCES respondents in 2008 said they were “born-again or evangelical” and in 2019 that was 34.6%. That’s no sign of decline. And in the GSS, there was an increase of four percentage points in ten years to the born-again question.

But, if you look under the hood you begin to notice the religious composition of self- identified evangelicals may actually be shifting just a bit.

In the 2010 GSS, 72% of those who said that they had had a born-again experience also identified as Protestant. That was up just slightly eight years earlier to 73.5%. But, among self-identified evangelicals in the CCES, the share of evangelicals who were self-identified Protestants dropped four percentage points from 2010 to 2018. But, recall that the overall share of this group did not change during this time period. What is filling that gap?

The answer is that evangelicalism has somewhat broken away from its Protestant moorings and has been embraced by a wider range of individuals outside of Protestantism. When comparing the evangelical subgroup in 2010 vs. 2019, it’s clear that larger shares of Catholics, nones, and other faith groups (like Mormons and Muslims) have taken up the evangelical label.

What people seem to forget is that while the term “evangelical” has become toxic to a very vocal group on social media, at the same time the melding of evangelical theology with conservative ideology has actually led other people to latch on to the term, even though it’s not an integral part of their faith tradition. For instance, I wrote previously about how a growing share of Catholics are identifying as evangelical, largely because they see it as an appropriate label for Christians who are devout in their religiosity and politically conservative.

And that’s true among other religious traditions, as well.

Note that the share of non-evangelicals who identify as Republicans has stayed extremely stable between 2010 and 2019. However, that’s not the case for those who self identify as evangelical. In 2010, 55% of Protestants who identified as evangelicals were Republicans, that’s up to 62% in 2019. For Catholics, it’s up 1.7%, for those of other faith traditions it jumped over twelve percentage points.

It may be more appropriate to say that evangelicalism today is not smaller, it’s just more religiously diverse and politically homogeneous. I think this speaks to a central theme of American religion and politics over the last two decades. Political partisanship is one of the driving forces altering the American religious landscape – and the evangelicalization of many faith traditions is a phenomenon that will force its way into the national consciousness in the coming years.

Ryan P. Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. Syntax for this post can be found here

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