Exploding some myths while clarifying some facts.

American evangelicals, accounting for one-fifth of the total population, representing 31 million of the nation’s adults, or 44 million if projections are extended to include the entire population, are clearly a powerful religious force in society. As a highly religious group dwelling in the midst of a society that as a whole is also highly religious, they share many of the same background characteristics. American evangelicals are most likely to be women, from the South, middle-aged, slightly less well-educated, slightly less likely to be college graduates, more likely to go to church, slightly less affluent, but better givers to church and religious causes. Like their fellow citizens in general, they believe in God, who observes their actions and rewards them and punishes them. They derive considerable consolation and comfort from their belief in God. They share with many nonevangelicals a common faith in the divinity of Christ; and in spite of their adherence to traditional beliefs, they are also subject to the secularizing influences of society: significant proportions among them are divorced or separated.

The CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup Poll supports the legend that, when youth finish high school, they become church dropouts; but when they get married and have a baby, they drop back in. Evangelicals are least well-represented in the 18 to 24 age group; they are nearly caught up with the general profile at age 25 to 29 and remain at 4 percent above the general public from age 30 on. For evangelicals, at least, it can hardly be said that the churches are full of older people. The strong showing of evangelicals in the middle years (30 to 50) promises well for the leadership of the church in the eighties.

At over 60 percent of the total, women are clearly the backbone of the evangelical church (compared to 53 percent of the populace). A representative cross section of evangelicals will have half again as many women as men. One cannot help but wonder what will be the effect of this in a democratic egalitarian society if women are not allowed to exercise leadership in the church.

The preponderance of women in evangelicalism throws additional light on the age level of evangelicals. One would certainly expect this large representation of women to give evangelicals much more than their share of the aged in view of women’s seven-year longevity over men. Such is not the case, and we may expect that when the 30- to 50-year-olds reach 50 and above, the overall percentage of evangelicals within the general populace will increase accordingly.

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Slightly more evangelicals are married, but an especially high percentage are married among the orthodox and conversionalists (82 percent vs. 67 percent of the general populace). In part, this, too, is a reflection of the high percentage of evangelicals in the 30 to 50 age group. Yet evangelicals, in spite of their strong commitment to the family and their stand against sexual laxity are only slightly less likely to be divorced (5 percent vs. 7 percent for the general populace).

As might be expected from the fact that evangelicals are more likely to be women and married and less likely to be aged 18 to 24, fewer evangelicals are in the “work force,” (50 percent vs. 61 percent for the general populace). They also tend to be less well-represented in business, the professions, and in manual labor, but are at the normal level engaged in clerical jobs and in the sales force. The sex and age of evangelicals are also reflected in their salary level. Fewer evangelicals are found in the highest bracket (above $20,000 annual income) and slightly more in the two lowest brackets (lowest brackets ($0 to $10,000). It is interesting that to $10,000). It is interesting that those who are both orthodox and conversionalist evangelicals are significantly more likely than those either merely orthodox or merely conversionalist evangelicals to be represented in the highest income brackets. If only men are considered, moreover, evangelicals turn out to be an exceptionally well-heeled group.

In the evangelical profile with which this section began, the careful reader may have noted with surprise the significant omission of white Anglo-Saxons. This study should lay to rest the myth that whites are more likely to be evangelical than blacks. Just the reverse is true. Among orthodox evangelicals blacks are represented in exactly the same proportion as whites, while among conversionalist evangelicals blacks are almost twice as likely to be evangelical as whites. Overall, blacks make up approximately 10 percent of the population but 15 percent of the evangelicals—half again as likely to be evangelical as whites.

That the South is more evangelical than the East will surprise no one. Indeed, the South, with 43 percent of the evangelicals but only 28 percent of the national population, is nearly three times as evangelical as the East (17 percent of evangelicals, 27 percent of population). Both West and Midwest rank clearly behind the South with evangelicals not quite holding their own in either area. In the West conversionalist evangelicals do better than in the Midwest, while orthodox evangelicals do better in the Midwest than in the West.

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Evangelicals are Democrats, better than three to two, over Republicans. They are also more likely to be Republican (27 percent) than the general populace (20 percent), but less likely to be independent or to have no political affiliation.

The CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup poll also explodes another myth of long standing—the suburban captivity of the evangelical church. This misconception probably arose because of a few affluent and highly advertised suburban churches. Actually, the suburbs, with only 16 percent of the evangelicals but 27 percent of the populace, are least evangelical. The inner city, thought by some to be barren wasteland as far as evangelicalism is concerned, does surprisingly well, with somewhat less than one-third of the evangelicals spread among the same portion of the total population. By contrast, nonmetropolitan cities (under 50,000), small towns (under 2,500), and rural areas contain the highest percentages of evangelicals, with half of all evangelicals residing in them (vs. 42 percent of the populace).

Evangelicals are slightly over-represented among those who completed only grade school and slightly under-represented among college and university graduates. This, no doubt, is like characteristics of regional, racial, and income patterns of evangelicals.

Evangelicals are a churchly people. Disillusionment with the organized church is apparently not characteristic of the American people as a whole, but it is certainly not true of evangelicals; 92 percent of them are members. Well over a third attend church twice or more per week by contrast with only 4 percent of the nonevangelicals. When it comes to attendance at least once weekly, the nonevangelicals do better. Their average jumps to something under one quarter, but contrasts with 82 percent of evangelicals who attend church regularly on a weekly basis.

While 34 percent of the general population claim to have had a powerful religious experience that changed the direction of their lives, nearly four-fifths of the evangelicals make such a claim. To Lutherans and many others in the “mainline” denominations, it will be no surprise to learn that one-fifth of the evangelicals do not claim such an experience and that a majority of 57 percent describe their experience as not sudden but gradual. Of all who ever had such a life-changing experience, including the general public, a full 95 percent maintain that it is still important to them, and 79 percent describe it as an identifiable turning point, which included asking Jesus Christ to be their personal Savior. Despite occasional highly advertised “converts” who later drop out, it is apparent that overall the dropout rate is exceedingly small. Conversions that bring a change in life direction do stick—in 95 percent of the cases.

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Evangelical giving habits are amazing. Nearly half of all evangelicals (46 percent) tithe (give one-tenth or more of their income to the church or religious causes) by contrast with only 8 percent of nonevangelicals. Two-thirds of the evangelicals give more than 5 percent of their income to religious causes, whereas only 19 percent of nonevangelicals do so. And evangelicals share not only their money; they also share their faith. Three times as many evangelicals (44 percent) as nonevangelicals (15 percent) share their personal faith at least weekly with someone from a faith other than their own. By contrast, only one in six nonevangelicals do so. Still, more than 10 percent of the evangelicals never share their faith with anyone of a different faith, although the conversionalist evangelicals, as might be expected, do better on this point than do the orthodox evangelicals.

In spite of their belief in Christ and their full acceptance of biblical authority, evangelicals display no clear understanding of Christ’s deity. By definition, of course, they acknowledge that he is divine and repudiate the suggestion that he was merely a good man. But the barber on the street in ancient Constantinople had a sharper understanding of the deity of Christ than does the average evangelical today.

Approximately three-fifths of the evangelicals maintain that their greatest personal need is salvation or closeness to God, with physical well-being a very poor second (14 percent) followed by the need for love and affection and a need for purpose and meaning in life (at 9 percent each). Except for the clear-cut priority of salvation and closeness to God, the felt needs of the general public are amazingly similar. One quarter of them designate physical health as the first need but for them, too, salvation represents a prominent felt need (21 percent listed it first), with love and affection and purpose and meaning in life following in the same order as for evangelicals. This certainly explains both the ready response of Americans to invitations to turn to God or to come to Christ; it also shows why the ministry of physical healing becomes an effective accompaniment of some evangelistic outreaches.

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Given the fact that evangelicals already comprise one-fifth of the population, contribute much more generously to the church than nonevangelicals, understand their own faith better, are far more ready to speak out to others about their faith, and place high priority on winning others to their evangelical faith, it is hard indeed to escape George Gallup’s conclusion that evangelicals will have much to do with how religion shapes up in the United States during the 1980s.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The CHRISTIANITY TOADY—Gallup Poll produced results that were both predictable and surprising with respect to evangelicals and the American public. Probably most significant is that so many are now in fact evangelical in their beliefs. What was inconceivable 25 years ago is now a reality by the grace of God. It is not the strength, virtue, or brilliance of evangelicals that accounts for this present ascendency. It is that in God’s timing the all too obvious failure of liberalism has coincided with a hunger for basic morality and a revitalization of fundamental Christianity. This has created a day of unprecedented opportunity for evangelicals to present the gospel to the world in which we live as well as to effect substantive changes for good within our own society. We must now show the world that evangelicals care and know how to translate theology into compassonate action.

The first section of the poll covered the rather broad area of theological beliefs in America. We have looked so far at only some general topics representing the whole. In later issues, CHRISTIANITY TODAY plans to move into more specific areas of theology and in greater detail in order to explore the best course of action to follow in the years ahead. We will begin by looking at the charismatic phenomena and the Holy Spirit, followed by an analysis of American attitudes toward the Bible and what place biblical knowledge plays in our society, coupled with a look at the educational task of the church in that light. Next will come an in-depth study of the American clergy, and finally, a careful analysis will be provided of American church life.

As the last two decades of this century begin, it is clear that God has given evangelicals an opportunity to do something. The CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup Poll is suggestive of where we are, and this series of articles is intended to show where we ought to go from here.

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