Another Look at Evangelicals in America Today

by Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll

About 3 in 10 white, non-Catholic Christians describe themselves as "evangelical"

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- A great deal of attention has been placed on the special group of individuals within the American religious framework referred to as evangelicals. The term has been used for decades, but in more recent years has come to define a group of people who have become increasingly visible and active in American society. Evangelicals are not the only religious group in the United States that embraces certain more fundamental or orthodox beliefs, but it is one of the few such religious groups whose members are determined to have an impact on the society in which they live.

One does not have to look far to find evidence of this impact. The Family Research Council has scheduled another "Justice Sunday" event for this weekend, with the intent of mobilizing evangelicals to take action to change the types of judges in important positions. The role of evangelicals in electing President George W. Bush in the past two elections has been heavily documented, and evangelicals have been a major part of the news coverage in recent years of such issues as federal court nominees, evolution being taught in schools, and abortion debates.

Who Are the Evangelicals?

The term "evangelical" itself is vague, and has been defined and operationalized in a number of different ways in the past.

About 8 in 10 Americans at least nominally adhere to a Christian faith of one sort or another. The term evangelicals refers to a subset of this enormous group -- a segment of Christians who by various definitions take their religion very seriously and also believe that the religious calling means that one should take action within the environment in which one lives. The most obvious such aspect of the environment is politics, and thus there has been an explosion of interest in the effect of the evangelical wing of the Republican Party on the political realm in recent years.

But, there is a great deal of confusion about exactly who evangelical Christians are. At various times, people have assumed that evangelicals are individuals who are adherents to certain denominations within the Christian faith, or that evangelicals are those who take their religion very seriously, adhere to more conservative or fundamental religious doctrine, have had specific religious experiences, or have specific beliefs about the correct relationship between religion and society.

Obviously, the aforementioned criteria produce quite different estimates of the percentage of the American population that is "evangelical." Some organizations have used a very strict criterion requiring respondents in surveys to answer affirmatively to a number of doctrinal and other questions before being considered to be evangelicals. Gallup has at times used a procedure consisting of three questions asking respondents if they have had a born-again experience committing themselves to Jesus Christ, if they have tried to encourage someone to believe in Jesus Christ, and if they believe the Bible is the actual word of God. Twenty-two percent of Americans agree with all three questions, according to a Gallup Poll conducted in May 2005.

Gallup also uses another, more straightforward approach. Americans are simply asked: "Would you describe yourself as a 'born again' or evangelical?" The percentage of Americans who say "yes" to this question has varied since Gallup first began using it in 1991, between a high point of 47% reached earlier this year, and a low of 35% in 1996.

The average agreement in four surveys conducted since December 2004 has been 43%.

Would you describe yourself as a "born again" or evangelical?


Yes


No

No
opinion


Yes


No

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

%

2005 Nov 17-20

40

54

6

1998 Jun 22-23

44

48

8

1997 Aug 12-13

45

47

8

2005 Sep 8-11

47

50

3

1997 Mar 24-26

43

51

6

2005 Apr 18-21

42

53

5

1996 Nov 21-24

41

52

7

2004 Dec 5-8

39

55

6

1996 Sep 3-5

42

52

6

2004 Jun 3-6

42

54

4

1996 Jul 26-28

36

59

5

2003 Nov 10-12

43

53

4

1996 Jun 27-30

35

58

7

2003 May 30-Jun 1

41

53

6

1995 Dec 15-18

43

52

5

2003 Feb 17-19

41

54

5

1995 Aug 28-30

39

54

7

2002 Dec 9-10

46

48

6

1995 May 11-14

39

53

8

2002 Mar 18-20

46

50

4

1994 Jun 25-28

39

53

8

2001 Dec 14-16

42

49

9

1994 Mar 28-30

45

48

7

2001 Feb 19-21

45

49

6

1993 Oct 28-30

43

51

6

2000 Aug 24-27

44

50

6

1993 Sep 13-15

44

51

5

2000 Mar 17-19

46

47

7

1993 Mar

46

50

4

1999 Dec 9-12

46

48

6

1992 Apr 9-12

42

52

6

1999 Apr 30-May 2

45

47

8

1991 Nov 21-24

41

54

5

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

But does this mean that the group of Americans who say "yes" to this question should be the group used as the popular representation of evangelicals? There are reasons to answer that question "no." Those who say "evangelical or born again" describes them include Catholics, blacks, and those who are not Christians. It seems reasonable to impose a more restrictive definition in order to isolate -- for practical purposes -- those who should be considered evangelicals.

The data shown in the table, compiled from December 2004 to November 2005, show that 19% of Catholics say "yes" when asked if they are evangelical or born again. While that is considerably lower than the 43% of all Americans who agree that they are born again, it is not an insignificant number.

The Catholic religion, it goes without saying, is very different from most Protestant or non-Catholic Christian denominations. There are major differences between the Catholic and Protestant approach to Christianity, differences in the structure of the church, and different historical traditions. There can certainly be debate on this issue, but many considerations of the impact of evangelicals in American society today focus mainly on Protestants. Given this fact, and the reality that Catholics at least nominally operate within a framework of much more prescribed dogma than is the case for Protestants, it seems defensible to exclude Catholics from a working definition of evangelicals.

What About Race?

Black Americans are among the most religious groups in America. They are also, for the most part, Protestant Christians. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that 70% of blacks in the combined aggregate sample of surveys say they are evangelical or born again.

But for most practical, analytic purposes, including blacks in the mix of those defined as evangelical makes little sense. Data show that blacks are overwhelmingly Democratic in political orientation regardless of their religion. At least 9 in 10 blacks vote for the Democratic candidate for president each election. So, the inclusion of blacks in a group of "evangelicals" being defined for analytic reasons obscures analysis to the degree that the purpose of defining the group is to measure their influence on political life in particular.

Thus, while it may be reasonable to look at black evangelicals in some situations and for some purposes, for the current purposes evangelicals will be defined as only whites.

Finally, there is a small percent of those who say they have no religion, or identify with non-Christian religious, that say they're evangelical or born again. Although this raises interesting questions in and of itself, it is reasonable to exclude these non-Christians from a practical definition of evangelicals.

Thus, when all is said and done, there is a group of about 28% of the adult population in America today who are white, non-Catholic Christians and who describe themselves as evangelical or born again.

Who are these people? One way is to look at the composition of evangelicals as defined thusly against the composition of the entire U.S. population:

White, non-Catholic Christians
who are evangelicals or born again

All
national
adults

%

%

Gender

Men

44

48

Women

56

52

Region

East

13

23

Midwest

25

23

South

45

32

West

16

22

Education

High school or less

46

38

Some college

33

32

College graduate

12

14

Postgraduate

9

15

Income

Less than $20,000 a year

14

14

$20,000 to $29,999 a year

13

12

$30,000 to $49,999 a year

31

26

$50,000 to $74,999 a year

16

17

$75,000 or more a year

25

30

Age

18- to 29-year-olds

11

18

30- to 49-year-olds

38

40

50- to 64-year-olds

26

23

65 years and older

24

19

Party Affiliation

Republicans

54

35

Independents

25

32

Democrats

22

33

Ideology

Conservative

58

39

Moderate

31

40

Liberal

11

20



Several conclusions arise from consideration of these data:

  • Evangelical Christians, as defined, are slightly more likely to be female and aged 50 and older than the overall national adult population.
  • Evangelical Christians are somewhat less likely to be college graduates than the total population, but have an income structure that generally mirrors the national population.
  • Evangelical Christians are overrepresented in the South, and are underrepresented in the East and, to a lesser degree, in the West compared with the basic U.S. population distribution.
  • Evangelical Christians skew strongly Republican in terms of their political orientation. More than half (54%) identify themselves as Republicans, compared with 35% of the total population. On the other hand, 22% identify as Democrats, compared with 33% of the total population.
  • Along these same lines, almost 6 in 10 evangelical Christians are conservatives, compared with just about 4 in 10 national adults, and they are less likely to identify themselves as moderates or liberals.

Bottom Line

There is no hard-and-fast definition of who "evangelicals" are in America today. For practical purposes, one approach is to define evangelicals as white, non-Catholic Christians who agree that the label "evangelical or born again" describes them. Recent survey data suggest that about 3 in 10 American adults meet these criteria. Compared with the overall national population, this group of evangelicals tends to be slightly more female and older, a little less well educated, more likely to live in the South, and much more likely to be Republican and conservative.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 5,019 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted across four surveys from December 2004 through November 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error 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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