Long ago, when George W. Bush first ran for President, election exit polls asked, "Are you a member of the Religious Right?" In later elections the McCarthy-esque question morphed into the one that Gallup has been asking for years: "Would you describe yourself as a 'born-again' or evangelical Christian?" When many pundits compare 2004 exit polls with those from 2000, they equate the two measurements, even though the number of those answering "yes" to each differs dramatically.
Treating evangelical, born again, and Religious Right as synonyms has miscast the movement. When Bush won a second election, warnings of an impending theocracy jumped to The New York Times best-seller list. Now Bush is leaving office with no secularists hanging from the gallows, no unwed mothers being stoned in the streets, and freedom of religion intact. What happened?
One new book's misguided answer has the potential to shape media narratives and public opinion in the way the now-discredited theocracy freakout books did. In The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, former Dallas Morning News religion reporter Christine Wicker says evangelicals have dramatically inflated their numbers, and the movement is "about to go the way of the butter churn."
Wicker has a nontraditional definition of evangelical: "those people who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior and as the only way to heaven, who accept the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and who are scaring the bejesus out of the rest of America. They're not the only evangelicals, but they're the only ones that count."
Count for whom? Wicker's attempt to deflate evangelical demography is wrongheaded from the start. She asks, "Why do 25 percent of Americans tell pollsters that they are evangelicals?" Well, they don't. Most research surveys don't use Gallup's question. Social-science surveys ask what church a person belongs to. If you attend a church in a largely conservative denomination, you get classified as an evangelical. Under this methodology, between 26 percent and 34 percent of Americans are evangelicals.
But only a third of those classified as evangelical say they would use that label, and only 3.1 percent indicate that evangelical is the best religious identifier for them. Wicker thinks America's evangelical population is around 7 percent, in line with the George Barna research she cites heavily throughout her book. Evangelicalism isn't just small, she says; it's also dying, because "evangelicals are not converting and cannot convert non-Christian adult Americans, especially native-born white people, in significant numbers." Reliable survey data doesn't back her up, but Wicker notes that most "conversions" are among existing churchgoers.
Indeed, we do need to do better among "unreached" Americans. Wicker's book reminds us that we need to do better among the "reached," too. Our neighborhoodsand churchesare full of nominal Christians, even nominal evangelicals, who still need conversion. Evangelical is not a synonym for "committed Christian." There is a massive difference in behavior and belief between those who affiliate with evangelical churches and those who actually attend them.
Evangelicalism has always been a movement that wants to bring renewal to the churches while preaching Jesus to the unchurched. Real evangelicals don't see nominal evangelicals as a political bloc to be manipulated. They see them as a mission field. Wicker thinks it's a scandal that the megachurches are full of uncommitted Christians. The megachurches think it's an opportunity.
Wicker, a former Southern Baptist, grounds her book in far too many false assumptions. Perhaps her worst is thinking that evangelicals are calling their neighbors to become evangelicals. We'd rather call themand ourselvesto become better disciples of Jesus.
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