For all the handwringing over what the term evangelical means in the political moment of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, only 1 in 100 Americans would take on the term if it had nothing to do with politics.
Meanwhile, the label is primarily a political identity for only about 1 in 10 self-identified evangelicals.
Overall, 1 in 4 Americans today consider themselves to be evangelicals. But less than half actually hold evangelical beliefs.
And when defined by beliefs and not by identity, evangelicals are less white (58% vs. 70%), more black (23% vs. 14%), and more likely to worship weekly (73% vs. 61%). However, they are not more likely to be Republican or Democrat.
These are among the findings of a groundbreaking survey of Americans with evangelical beliefs, released today by LifeWay Research.
Most surveys of religion and politics ask Americans a combined question—“Are you evangelical or born again?”—in order to create their “evangelical” category. LifeWay instead asked about the two self-identities separately, in order to study differences between the two groups. Then researchers compared respondents’ self-identities to their theological beliefs.
“There’s a gap between who evangelicals say they are and what they believe,” Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, told Facts & Trends.
Among the survey’s findings:
1) Evangelicals by Identity
- 24% of Americans consider themselves to be an evangelical Christian. Another 12% are not sure.
- 29% of Americans consider themselves to be a born-again Christian. Another 6% are not sure.
The survey suggests that about 5 percent of Americans accept the born-again label but are uncertain about accepting the evangelical label also.
For comparison, the Pew Research Center’s US Religious Landscape Study found that 25.4% of American adults were evangelicals in 2014, holding steady from 26.3% in 2007.
In addition to being a massive sample (35,000 Americans), Pew’s study is like LifeWay’s in that it does not separate out white evangelicals from evangelicals of color, like most surveys do. Instead, it categorized evangelicals based on their denomination.
2) Evangelicals by Belief
While the number of evangelicals has stayed strong while Christianity crumbles in America, only about half of them “qualify” as evangelicals based on their beliefs, according to LifeWay.
Researchers used a four-point definition developed by LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals. It relies on four statements:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Only those who strongly agree with all four statements are categorized as having evangelical beliefs.
According to this measure, only 15 percent of Americans have evangelical beliefs. This includes only 1 in 10 millennials; however, before Boomers get too smug, only 2 in 10 of Americans 50 and older do also.
For comparison, last year’s State of the Church report from Barna Group found that 35 percent of Americans are born-again Christians, while only 7 percent of Americans have evangelical beliefs.
Barna does not rely on self-identity or denominational affiliation for its categorization; instead, it uses a set of nine belief conditions. The first two—“have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, and believe that when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior”—qualify someone as “born again.” A further seven statements—including having a personal responsibility to share their faith and believing the Bible is accurate—qualify someone as “evangelical.”
LifeWay’s survey found that evangelical beliefs remain strongest in the South, where 23 percent of the population qualifies, compared to 15 percent in the Midwest and only 5 percent in the Northeast.
And Americans who started college but did not finish it are twice as likely to have evangelical beliefs as Americans with a bachelor’s or a graduate degree.
3) Evangelicals by Politics
- 25% of Americans would consider themselves evangelical if the term had nothing to do with politics. Another 12% are not sure.
- 62% of Americans would not consider themselves evangelical even if the term had nothing to do with politics.
The survey suggests that only 2 percent of Americans would take on the evangelical label if it was stripped of its political baggage, with 1 percent then claiming the term and 1 percent joining those who are not sure what they’d do.
The survey also suggests that the term evangelical seems to be primarily a political label for 8 percent of self-identified evangelicals, given that only 92 percent would consider themselves evangelical apart from politics.
Prior to President Trump’s campaign and election, Pew’s RLS found that the label evangelical had actually grown more popular among all Christian groups from 2007 to 2014. As CT reported in 2015:
Today, all Christians are more likely to consider themselves “born-again” or evangelical. Half of self-identified Christians described themselves this way in 2014, up from 44 percent in 2007. This includes 72 percent of those in historically black Protestant churches, up from 67 percent in 2007.
More surprisingly, a rising share of adults in other Christian traditions self-identify as born-again or evangelical, including: mainline Protestants (27% in 2014 vs. 25% in 2007), Catholics (22% vs. 16%), Orthodox (18% vs. 16%), Mormons (23% vs. 21%), Jehovah’s Witnesses (24% vs. 17%), and spiritualist Christians (24% vs. 15%).
Though evangelicals are often treated as a synonym for “Republicans” in American politics, LifeWay found that roughly two-thirds identify as Republicans while one-third identify as Democrats. This holds true whether defining evangelicals by self-identification or by belief, or even apart from politics (only 1% shift).
By comparison, born-again Americans are slightly more balanced: 56 percent identify as Republicans while 39 percent identify as Democrats.
This is similar to Pew’s RLS findings on evangelicals by denomination: 56 percent were Republican, 28 percent were Democrat, and 16 percent were neither in 2014. (In the 2007 RLS, 50 percent were Republican and 34 percent were Democrat.)
4) Evangelicals by Race and Ethnicity
While white evangelicals get the most attention in US politics, more than 4 in 10 Americans with evangelical beliefs are non-white—and nearly 1 in 4 is African American.
LifeWay found that self-identified evangelicals are 70 percent white and 14 percent black, while Americans with evangelical beliefs are 58 percent white and 23 percent black. This suggests that about 15 percent to 20 percent of evangelicals—whether by identity or belief—are Hispanic, Asian, or of mixed ethnicity (since the samples were too small to be broken out).
Born-again Americans fall between evangelicals by belief and by identity, at 62 percent white and 20 percent black.
Similarly, PRRI recently found that 1 in 3 evangelicals is a person of color, according to its massive American Values Atlas study of 101,000 people across all 50 states.
PRRI found that about a quarter of all Americans (26%) are self-identified evangelicals. About two-thirds of those evangelicals are white (64%), while 19 percent are black, 10 percent are Hispanic, and the remaining 6 percent are Asian, mixed race, or other ethnicities. Additionally, half of evangelicals under 30 years old are now nonwhite (50%).
By comparison, Barna’s research has found that half of US evangelicals—according to its nine criteria—are white (52%), while 16 percent are black, 11 percent are Hispanic, and 2 percent are Asian.
In LifeWay’s survey, switching the criteria from personal identity to theology increases the share of African American evangelicals from 14 percent (identity) to 23 percent (belief), even above their born-again share of 20 percent.
This captures what many know anecdotally to be true: many black Protestants qualify as evangelicals theologically, but don’t claim the label due to politics. (Even Pew, which usually studies “white evangelicals” and “black Protestants,” estimates that two-thirds of black Protestants are evangelicals.)
In fact, LifeWay found that African Americans are the most likely group to have evangelical beliefs (30%), much more than the share of whites (13%), Hispanics (13%), or other ethnicities (9%). They are also most likely to identify as born-again (49%), compared to whites (27%), Hispanics (24%), or other ethnicities (19%).
“For many African-Americans, the term ‘evangelical’ is a turn-off, even though they hold evangelical beliefs,” McConnell told Facts & Trends. “The term ‘evangelical’ is often viewed as applying to white Christians only. And that’s unfortunate. It’s lost some of its religious meaning that actually unites these groups.”
5) Evangelicals vs. Born Agains
Researchers also examined the overlap between the two usually combined religious labels.
- Less than half of self-identified evangelicals have evangelical beliefs (45%).
- Less than half of self-identified born-again Americans have evangelical beliefs (45%).
When looking at only self-identification, both evangelicals and born-again Americans hold evangelical beliefs at the same rate: 45 percent.
However, evangelicals are more likely to also consider themselves born-again than born-again Americans are to also consider themselves evangelical (79% vs. 67%).
Born-again Americans are strongest in the South (42%) and among African Americans (49%).
When it comes to church attendance, 73 percent of Americans with evangelical beliefs say they worship weekly or more, compared to 61 percent of self-identified evangelicals, 59 percent of politics-free evangelicals, and 56 percent of born-again Americans.
LifeWay Research surveyed 1,000 American adults between November 10 and 12. The margin of error is about 3 percent.
CT has previously examined how to define evangelicals by belief and how politics keeps evangelicals white.
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