What, exactly, is Evangelical Christianity?

(Part 1 in a series on Evangelical Christianity in America)

There is much confusion about Evangelical Christianity in America, including very basic questions such as: What is it? Who are Evangelical Christians? What do they believe? How is it changing? And so forth.

So, I thought that I would start a series, guaranteed to run as long as I feel like writing about it, that simply describes the basics of Evangelical Christianity in modern-day America.

Let’s start with perhaps the most basic of questions: What is Evangelical Christianity?

There is no one answer to even this the most simple of questions, though there are fundamental characteristics associated with it.

Historian David Bebbington defines Evangelical Christianity as having four main qualities (quoted from here):
* Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
* Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
* Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
* Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort

Theologian John Stackhouse has a nice discussion of the theological aspects of the term here.

Sociologist Brian Steensland and colleagues point to these characteristics: “Evangelical denominations have typically sought more separation from the broader culture, emphasized missionary activity and individual conversion, and taught strict adherence to particular religious doctrines.”

As commonly used, Evangelical Christianity refers to Protestants only, and I will follow that convention, though there’s no reason that the general definition of Evangelicalism can’t apply to Catholics as well. In fact, Pope Francis has been labeled an “Evangelical Catholic.”

Here is where things get tricky: How do we measure Evangelical Christianity? That is, how do we know who is one and who isn’t one?

The most commonly-used approach is scholarly research is to look at religious affiliation and define Evangelical Christianity at a denominational level. So, people who go to “Evangelical” Protestant denominations are themselves Evangelicals. But… there are different approaches to doing this.

One affiliation-based approach, developed by Steensland et al., divides Protestants into three traditions: Evangelical, Mainline, and Historically Black. Evangelicals tend to be more conservative both socially and theologically, Mainline tend to be more liberal on both, and Historically Black tend to be theologically conservative and socially liberal.

A second popular affiliation-based approach, however, refers to “conservative” protestants and contrasts them with “moderate” and “liberal” protestants. Conservative protestants and then broken into different groups, including evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics.

The term “conservative protestant” in the second approach is roughly equivalent to “evangelical” in the first approach.

Which is the better approach? I tend to use the first approach since its measurement characteristics are reasonably well supported in empirical studies; however, both approaches have their problems. With the first approach, many of the people defined as Evangelical don’t identify with that term themselves (a point I’ll return to below). With the second approach, many conservative protestants are conservative in theology but liberal in politics and social issues, so painting them with the broad brush of conservatism overstates matters.

To complicate matters further, journalists and other people in public discourse (and even some scholars) use a variety of terms as synonymous with evangelical/conservative protestant, including “fundamentalist,” “born-again,” and “religious right.” Others, however, give each of these terms more precise meaning.

As a second general approach, some scholars focus on identity. To them, Evangelical Christians are people who say they are Evangelical Christians.

With other religious traditions, affiliation and identity measures yield about the same results. For example, people in the Catholic church usually think of themselves as Catholics. However, as discussed above, many people involved in Evangelical churches identify with other labels, such as “born-again Christian” or “non-denominational Christian.”

Conceptually, identity and affiliation are two different matters. For example, I live in New England (Connecticut’s state motto: “We’re between New York and Boston), but I don’t identify myself as a New Englander–still a Californian. So, at some level, whether we look at identity or affiliation depends on which aspect of the religious experience we’re interested in.

As a third general approach, a well-known marketing firm–The Barna Group–uses theological questions to identify Evangelical Christians. They start with two theology questions to identify born-again Christians. Then, among born-again Christians, they use seven more theology questions to identify Evangelical Christians.  For example, one of the seven questions regards “believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth.”

I don’t know of any scholars who use this 9-question theology test to define evangelicals, and it strikes me as convoluted and of unknown measurement qualities.

The different uses of the term Evangelical lead to all sorts of confusion. For example, using affiliation-based definition, about 25% of Americans are Evangelical Christians. But, using identity- or theology-based definitions, the number drops to 8%-15%.

What does all of this mean for the person wanting to learn about Evangelical Christianity? Basically, in reading any information about Evangelical Christianity, you, the reader, have to first assess how the author is using the term. It means more work for you, but it’s necessary for understanding what’s going on.

Enough confusing terminology! My upcoming posts will have cool graphs and numbers that demonstrate how Evangelical Christianity (as defined in the first affiliation-based approach) is doing.

(P.S., we bloggers are told that we need to add pictures to enhance our posts. But, I have no idea of how to visually illustrate an operational definition, so I just added a picture of a cute kitten).

Trends in the Religious Unaffiliated, the “Nones,” by Age

Last week I posted a figure showing the rise of the religiously unaffiliated over the past 40 years. Today I am breaking it down by age, for this helps us to understand better what is happening. As shown last week, rates of the unaffiliated rose rapidly in the 1990s and more slowly since. Two general models for this rise would be be 1) it’s happening primarily among the youth, and they remain unaffiliated as they age or 2) it’s happened to all ages over time, though youth were, and continue to be, less affiliated with religion.

In this first figure, I plot the percentage of Americans who report being unaffiliated with religion by three age groups: the young, ages 18-29, the middle-aged, 30-49, and us old folks, age 50+. Using data from the General Social Survey, I was able to go back to 1972, and to smooth out the lines, I collapsed data into five-year intervals (e.g., 1970-74, 75-79, 80-84, etc…)

As you can see, rates of the religiously unaffiliated have increased rather steadily in all age groups. Yes, the young are more likely to be unaffiliated the the middle-aged or the old, but it’s been this way all along. Something that I did’t appreciate until I broke down the data this way is that the religious revival in the 1980s seems to have taken place primarily among the young. The strong rise in the unaffiliated in the 1990s happened mostly among the young, as they lost the religious gains of the 1990s.

In terms of relative trends by age, the above figure is a little difficult to interpret because each group started at a different baseline. So, to standardize starting points, I set each group’s 1972 level to equal “1,” and then I plotted relative changes from that shared reference point. As such, a score of “2″ would indicate that the rate of being unaffiliated had doubled.

Once again, the percentage of being unaffiliated increased in each group, but relatively speaking, it’s increased most among the middle-aged and the elderly. In both the percentage of the unaffiliated more than tripled, compared to the 2.5x increase in the young. There is some lagged effect, as the elderly are catching up the middle-aged in the past decade, but overall, the rise of the religious nones is something that spans all age groups. Thus it’s a societal-wide change more than just an age or generational change.


The Rise of the Unaffiliated–The Religious Nones

One of the big changes in American religion over the past several decades has been the increasing number of the religiously unaffiliated. These are people who may or may not believe in God or a higher power (and, actually, most do), but they do not align themselves with a particular religion.

Last year the Pew Foundation released an informative report on the nones that had the punchy subtitle “1 in 5 adults have no religious affiliation.”

While the rise of the nones, as Pew calls it, is receiving a lot of attention, most the action happened in the 1990s. Before then, a steady 6-7% of Americans did not affiliate with religion, but during that decade it about doubled.

Here’s a figure that I put together that illustrates the number of religiously affiliated American adults. It contains data from three sources: the General Social Survey, American Religious Identification Survey, and the Pew Data. Despite measuring religious affiliation with different questions, the three sources are surprisingly in agree.


As you can see, the rise of the nones has three movements… steady, low levels in the 1970s and 80s, rapid growth in the 90s, and slower growth in the 2000s.

What will happen next? Who knows. Some assume that runaway secularization will promote unaffiliation to even higher levels, but others are more cautious. In fact, demographer Eric Kaufmann makes the case based on deconversion rates and birth rates, the percentage of Americans who do not affiliate with a religion will soon level out.

Does Christianity, Like Not Eating a Marshmallow, Make You More Successful in Life?

A longstanding theme in the sociology of religion is how religious beliefs and practices affect one’s place in society. I’ve been reading lately some psychological studies of self-control, and it seems that self-control might prove to be an important mechanism by which Christianity influences its adherents’ place in society.

Having high levels of self-control has all sorts of benefits (at least, that’s what I’ve heard). It helps people make good impressions on others, get more education, do better in the workplace, and avoid crime.

Previously, some researchers assumed that self-control was a static characteristic, perhaps developed in early childhood, and indeed childhood self-control levels are predict future success in life. This was illustrated in Mischel’s famous marshmallow study in which children were given the choice of eating a marshmallow at that moment or waiting five minutes for a second marshmallow. The marshmallow was placed in front of them, so to get a second one, they had to exert self-control for five minutes by not eating it. The kids who could wait ended up being described as more competent and having higher SAT scores.

Another view of self-control has come into play, and that is self-control is a muscle. It can be worn out from overuse (again, that’s what I’ve heard), just like a muscle can, and it can also be built up over time with practice. Studies have found that simple self-control exercises can make a long-term difference, exercises such as always sitting up straight, refraining from &%@!*^% cursing, and brushing your teeth with your left hand. What makes this potentially powerful is that these exercises provide a straightforward means of improving one’s life—by developing greater self-control.

Here’s where the practice of Christianity comes in. A dominant theme in Christian teaching is the practice of self-control. Pray regularly, read the Bible, attend church, watch how you talk, watch what you look at, be loving to everyone, and so on. The Bible even identifies self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5).

In short, being an active Christian means daily working out the self-control muscle, and so it follows that following the faith produces a higher level of self-control. This, in turn, is associated with all sorts of other good things. Put succinctly:

Practicing Christianity = increased self-control = greater success in society

To be clear, I’m not implying that other religions or belief systems are unrelated to self-control. Also, I recognize that Christianity redefines what success means, and so perhaps Christians with strong self-control don’t pursue “worldly” success as vigorously as they would without faith. I also recognize that self-control is not the only linkage between religion and social status, and that others may accentuate it or counteract it. Nonetheless, this mechanism has interesting implications for the effect of Christianity on general effectiveness and even one’s place in the world.