Who Are the Evangelicals?

by Frank Newport

Estimates vary widely

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- What will likely be the Rev. Billy Graham's last U.S. evangelistic crusade starts this weekend, and the event has refocused attention on the group of religious Americans known as evangelicals. The term evangelical has been in general use for many years, but a more precise definition of exactly who this group is has been the subject of more intense focus in recent decades as evangelicals have become increasingly visible and active in American society. Evangelicals received a great deal of news coverage during the presidential election last fall, and more recently -- from a totally different perspective -- were featured in a BusinessWeek magazine cover story that investigated their influence on the U.S. economy.


About 8 in 10 Americans adhere to some form of Christianity. Who among this group are the evangelicals? There is no easy answer to that question. There are perhaps as many different ways to define evangelicals as there are those attempting to define them.

Two Approaches to Defining Evangelicals

Broadly speaking, there are two basic ways to approach the objective of defining evangelicals: adherence to some specific belief or religious practice criteria and self-definition (that is, just asking people whether they consider themselves evangelical).

The list of possible belief and religious practice criteria that can be used to qualify individuals as evangelicals can quickly become mind-boggling. Gallup at times in the past has attempted to define evangelicals as those who answer affirmatively to three questions: (1) whether they have been born again or have had a born-again experience, (2) whether they have encouraged other people to believe in Jesus Christ, and (3) whether they believe the Bible is the actual word of God. In 1980, about 19% of the adult population agreed with all three statements. In a recent Gallup Poll update in May of this year, a quite similar 22% of all Americans agreed with all three statements.

Even more elaborate criteria have been used by other researchers. One research firm (The Barna Group) argues that individuals must answer positively to as many as nine different questions in order to qualify. Not surprisingly, only 7% of the U.S. adult population qualifies as evangelical using these restrictive criteria.

The obvious problem with any procedure that qualifies people as evangelical based on agreement with a set of statements is the lack of consensus on what those statements should be. There are so many different possible criteria, one could envision a series of 20 or more statements necessary for individuals to agree with in order to be included under the "evangelical" umbrella.

The second approach outlined is much simpler, focusing primarily on a simple self-definitional question: "Would you describe yourself as a 'born again' or evangelical?" Here is how Americans have responded to this question since 1991:


Yes


No

No
opinion

%

%

%

2005 Apr 18-21

42

53

5

2004 Dec 5-8

39

55

6

2004 Jun 3-6

42

54

4

2003 Nov 10-12

43

53

4

2003 May 30-Jun 1

41

53

6

2003 Feb 17-19

41

54

5

2002 Dec 9-10

46

48

6

2002 Mar 18-20

46

50

4

2001 Dec 14-16

42

49

9

2001 Feb 19-21

45

49

6

2000 Aug 24-27

44

50

6

2000 Mar 17-19

46

47

7

1999 Dec 9-12

46

48

6

1999 Apr 30-May 2

45

47

8

1998 Jun 22-23

44

48

8

1997 Aug 12-13

45

47

8

1997 Mar 24-26^

43

51

6

1996 Nov 21-24^

41

52

7

1996 Sep 3-5^

42

52

6

1996 Jul 26-28^

36

59

5

1996 Jun 27-30^

35

58

7

1995 Dec 15-18^

43

52

5

1995 Aug 28-30^

39

54

7

1995 May 11-14^

39

53

8

1994 Jun 25-28^

39

53

8

1994 Mar 28-30^

45

48

7

1993 Oct 28-30^

43

51

6

1993 Sep 13-15^

44

51

5

1993 Mar^

46

50

4

1992 Apr 9-12^

42

52

6

1991 Nov 21-24^

41

54

5

^November 1991-March 1997 WORDING: Would you describe yourself as a "born-again" or evangelical Christian?

This question is typically asked of the entire U.S. population. The range of affirmative responses since 1991 has been between a low point of 35% in a June 1996 survey and a high point of 46% in 1993, 1999, 2000, and 2002. The average across the years is 42%, which matches the results of most recent April survey.

Further Restrictions on Self-Definitional Criteria

Some individuals who identify themselves as evangelicals are members of subgroups that many informed observers would agree don't fit in an evangelical category as conceived. These would include, in particular, people who are not Christian (but who agree with the "born again or evangelical" criterion). Additionally, for practical purposes, it is often reasonable to exclude nonwhites and Catholics from the evangelical category.

Why? Black Americans, as a whole, are highly religious and likely to say that they are evangelical or born again. Any sample of self-defined born agains or evangelicals thus includes a number of black Americans. But for the purposes of analysis involving political variables, the presence of blacks in the sample of evangelicals can be confusing. A large percentage of blacks have historically identified with the Democratic Party. Thus, for most analytical purposes, including blacks as part of the sample of evangelicals confounds the analysis, particularly when one discusses the relationship between being evangelical and certain political stances.

Also, a perhaps surprisingly high percentage of Catholics (19%) say they are born again or evangelical. Catholics in general may think of themselves that way, but again, for analytical purposes, Catholics are historically different enough from members of traditionally non-Catholic, Protestant denominations to warrant their exclusion from an evangelical definition. Hence the usual decision to exclude Catholics from the "evangelical category."

That any non-Christians agree with the born-again or evangelical label is also surprising, but for obvious reasons we want to remove them from the calculations. That goes for those who say they have no religious preference as well.

Thus, one procedure for defining evangelicals (the one to be used in the following analysis) consists of these three criteria:

  1. Respondents must agree that the label "born again" or "evangelical" describes them.
  2. Respondents must be white.
  3. Respondents must be self-identified members of a Christian faith other than Catholic.

Twenty-six percent of Americans meet these criteria (based on an aggregated random sample of 3,000 interviews in which this evangelical question was asked in 2004 and 2005). By way of comparison, about 19% of the population is white and a member of a Christian faith other than Catholic, but do not agree with the born-again/evangelical label; 22% are white Catholics (regardless of their beliefs); 11% are black; and the rest of the population (those that do not identify as either white or black, those with no religious preference, those identifying with Eastern religions and so forth) constitute 22% of the population.

Evangelicals and Religosity

Are these evangelicals (as defined) indeed more religious than average Americans -- as we would expect? The table displays the relationship between this definition of evangelical and self-reported importance of religion:

Importance of Religion by Evangelical Grouping

Religious summary: race,
religion, born-again status

Importance of religion in life

Very
important

Fairly
important

Not very
important

%

%

%

White, Protestant/
other Christian, born again

84

13

2

White, Protestant/Other Christian,
not born again

41

38

22

White, Catholic

50

36

14

Black

83

10

6

All others

40

24

34

Total

59

25

16

It is clear that describing oneself as a born again or evangelical is tantamount to saying that religion is very important in one's life. Eighty-four percent of evangelicals agree that religion is very important in their lives, compared with just 41% white, non-Catholic Christians who are not born again or evangelical.

Here is the relationship between evangelical status and church attendance:

Church Attendance by Evangelical Grouping

Religious summary: race, religion,
born-again status

Often attend church

Once a
week

Almost
every week

Once a
month

Seldom

Never

%

%

%

%

%

White, Protestant/Other Christian, born again

53

15

11

16

5

White, Protestant/Other Christian, not born again

15

11

19

41

14

White, Catholic

37

7

17

30

9

Black

51

12

19

14

4

All others

21

5

11

27

34

Total

35

10

13

26

14

Note the significant relationship between being evangelical and church attendance. Two-thirds of those in the white, non-Catholic Christian evangelical group attend church weekly or almost every week. Those white, non-Catholic Christians who don't accept the evangelical label are less than half as likely to attend church that often.

Who Are the Evangelicals?

The table shows the percentage of a variety of demographic subgroups in the population who are in the evangelical group:

Demographic

White, Protestant/
Other
Christian, born again

White, Protestant/
Other
Christian, not born again

White,
Catholic

Black

All
others

%

%

%

%

%

TOTAL SAMPLE

26

19

22

11

22

East

15

19

34

11

21

Midwest

30

21

25

8

16

South

38

17

13

16

17

West

16

20

19

5

40

High school or less

30

17

20

14

20

Some college

27

18

22

11

22

College grad

25

21

25

7

22

Postgrad

15

24

26

6

29

Republican-no lean

42

19

21

2

17

Independent-all

17

21

22

9

31

Democrat-no lean

18

18

23

21

20

18-29

20

15

25

14

26

30-49

27

18

21

12

23

50-64

28

21

20

8

23

65+

30

24

22

8

17

Less than $20,000

24

19

18

18

21

$20,000 to less than $30,000

26

20

18

11

25

$30,000 to less than $50,000

31

17

20

14

19

$50,000 to less than $75,000

27

20

24

6

24

$75,000 and above

22

21

26

7

24

Conservative

40

16

22

9

14

Moderate

20

21

23

12

24

Liberal

12

22

21

11

34

Male

25

20

23

10

23

Female

27

18

22

12

22

It is significant to note that the representation of white, non-Catholic Christian evangelicals is not extremely strongly correlated with any demographic or regional variable. In other words, evangelicals are to a large degree represented throughout the U.S. population. Evangelicals do skew downscale, a little older, and toward the middle of the country (that is, away from either coast). But these differences are not large.

Importantly, it appears that the relationship between political variables and evangelical status (as defined here) is stronger than any other demographic or regional variable included in this analysis. There is a 24-percentage-point difference in the percentage of Republicans who are evangelicals as opposed to Democrats and a similarly large distinction between the representation of evangelicals among conservatives and liberals.

We can look at these data in a slightly different fashion. Fifty-seven percent of white, non-Catholic Christians who are evangelicals are Republicans, compared with just 34% of white non-Catholic Christian non-evangelicals who are Republicans.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with an aggregated group of randomly selected national samples of more than 3,000 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted by Gallup in 2004 and 2005. The sample is comprised of three separate surveys, which included the "evangelical" question as discussed above. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±2 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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