Define “Evangelical” — Again

It’s an election year, which means the folks in evangelical Protestant pews know exactly what will happen if they choose to talk to a political pollster.

The dispassionate telephone voice is going to ask about abortion and then about same-sex marriage. Finally, the pollster will want to know how crucial these wedge issues will be on election day. And is there any chance they might change their presidential options?

“There is this internal debate going on. … Evangelicals are reluctant to say that they’re focused on these two issues, even though all of the evidence shows that they still are,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., which is known for its defining niches inside American Christianity.

“The key is that a rising number of evangelicals are adamant that they are not going to overlook social justice issues. They want to find a way to combine their concern about abortion and family issues with other moral and social issues that really matter to them. The question is whether that’s possible in American politics, right now.”

It’s easy to see this dilemma in between the lines of recent surveys.

In a 2007 poll, the Barna researchers found that nine out of 10 evangelicals said abortion is a major problem, which meant that this issue was “still far and away” their most pressing concern, said Kinnaman.

Meanwhile, nearly eight in 10 evangelicals said they were very concerned about issues linked to gay rights.

However, evangelicals who participated a new Barna survey split down the middle when asked if they thought their peers would focus primarily on the big two social issues when voting. On one side, 48 percent said it was true that evangelical votes would be driven by abortion and sexuality, while 45 percent disagreed. Meanwhile, 55 percent of non-evangelical Christians and 58 percent of non-Christians were convinced that these hot social issues would drive the votes of evangelical voters.

What about all of those news reports that some evangelicals — symbolized by the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church and a host of other label-shunning younger leaders — are trying to pursue a broader social agenda?

Kinnaman noted that only 28 percent of evangelical participants in the new survey thought that members of their tribe would give other social issues, like poverty and the environment, short shrift. In a sign that this wider-agenda debate has legs, 69 percent of evangelicals polled disagreed with that statement.

Outside the evangelical camp, 46 percent on non-evangelical Christians and 54 percent of non-Christians thought that evangelical voters would “minimize social justice issues.” These same two groups were convinced — by 57 percent and 59 percent — that evangelical voters will continue to push American life to the political right.

Meanwhile, some Americans are getting confused and even angry about all of this, even though they admit that they know little or nothing about evangelicalism.

According to surveys by Ellison Research of Phoenix, 36 percent of Americans polled indicate that they have no idea “what an evangelical Christian is” in the first place. Only 35 percent of all Americans believe they know “someone very well who is an evangelical,” while a stunning 51 percent are convinced they don’t know any evangelicals at all. On the left side of the aisle, some critics have grown hostile.

One of the surprises of a new Ellison study is “how much abuse is aimed at evangelicals,” noted company president Ron Sellers. “Evangelicals were called illiterate, greedy, psychos, racist, stupid, narrow-minded, bigots, idiots, fanatics, nut cases, screaming loons, delusional, simpletons, pompous, morons, cruel, nitwits, and freaks, and that’s just a partial list. …

“Some people don’t have any idea what evangelicals actually are or what they believe — they just know they can’t stand evangelicals.”

For political activists, the reason all of this matters is easy to see. In the new Barna survey, 59 percent of American adults are convinced that the decisions made by evangelical voters will have a significant impact on the upcoming election.

“Many Americans are convinced that evangelicals are some kind of a political bloc,” said Kinnaman. “If you look at things that way, then this really is all about politics instead of religious beliefs and doctrines. … Some people think evangelicals are part of a political movement that is held together with religious rhetoric and that’s that.”

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  • jgcase

    I recently participated in one of those surveys that Terry Mattingly talks about in this article, a telephone-automated one. After a few introductory questions, the recorded voice asked if I was a registered Democrat or a Republican. When I keyed in my answer, I got another set of questions that was probably determined by that choice. These asked me all the usuals about life issues and “gay rights,” plus a few others.

    After that series, the voice then asked me if I was an evangelical Christian. I answered “Yes,” since, not only am I a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order–a Third Order which acknowledges being “evangelical” as one of its charisms–but I am also in complete agreement with Dn. Keith Fournier who asserted that “the word, ‘evangelical,’ is an adjective, not a noun,” in the Acknowledgments in the front of his book, EVANGELICAL CATHOLICS (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990, p. viii). I both think and believe that all the baptized are called by God to evangelize, and that those who consciously apply themselves to do so are evangelicals, no matter what their particular Christian denomination happens to be.

    Unfortunately for the pollsters, they probably designed the question with non-Catholic Christians in mind…and my answer no doubt skewed their data a bit. The format of the poll allowed no comments to explain my answer.

  • trailblazer

    So, the question remains, what does it mean to be evangelical. I applaud the reasoning of jgcase amd Deacon Keith Fournier but, I doubt many Catholics, maybe even myself without the insight from jg’s posting, would have defined themselves as evangelical Catholics. Something to think about and work towards. May the God of all time and space release upon this time and space an evangelical fervor in the Catholic Church.


  • carly0corday

    “It’s an election year, which means the folks in evangelical Protestant pews know exactly what will happen if they choose to talk to a political pollster.”

    Please, I beg you. Evangelicals are rarely “Protestants.” Protestant denominations are those that trace their history back to the Catholic Church. Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian (or Anglican), just about covers the Protestants. Protestant means “ones who protested,” and what they protested was their own faith at the time, Roman Catholicism.

    Even Baptists aren’t actually “protestants.” They came much later, an offshoot of some Protestant sect or other, no doubt. I may look it up. Neither are Mormons. Quakers, Amish, Menonite, I tend to think of as Protestants, though they may be like Baptists, offshoots of something later in history than all the Protestant Reform that took place hundreds of years ago. In the case of Quakers, Amish, Menonite and so on, this distinction doesn’t matter with regard to what I want to say. In the case of Baptists, it may matter greatly. Baptists are evangelical. “Evangelical” mostly just means they feel a constant duty, a duty they enjoy, to preach THEIR religion to others, and rather forcefully. Billy Graham was a famous “evangelist.” I think the term sprang from there, and went its own way ever since.

    The fundamentalist churches are not Protestant churches, and most Protestant church pews don’t contain a single “evangelical” Christian, whether at election time, or any other time.

    The United Methodist Church, for instance, along with some others, perhaps including some bishops of the Catholic faith, sent a letter to George W. Bush demanding an end to the illegal war-for-profit in Iraq. This is why evangelicals and fundamentalists now refer to the older faiths, Catholic and Protestant, as “dead churches.” There is a vast gulf of difference between the old and the radical new.

    It’s really very insidious. I worry every time I see them referred to as “evangelical Protestants.” Their rhetoric is causing more and more agnostics to become angry, outspoken, bigoted anti-Christians and outright athiests. The new Athiest has no inkling of the difference between Christians and Fundamentalist christians. They think we are all pro-war, Bush-loving, Sarah Palin following nut jobs. If this mischaracterization continues to grow, it will be a terrible fate for all.

    End of sermon! Thank giving me this space in which to rend my clothes, tear my hair, and RANT. I’m bad about that. 🙂

    Good reading at this website! I’m enjoying it.