Elections and Evangelicals

This is the write-up by Leith Anderson and Ed Stetzer on re-defining an evangelical:

To ensure the questions asked would be helpful to future researchers, we field tested the questions, with the help of LifeWay and with input on the process from sociologists Rodney Stark at Baylor University, Christian Smith at the University of Notre Dame, Penny Marler of Samford University, Nancy Ammerman at Boston University, Mark Chaves at Duke University, Scott Thumma at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, and Warren Bird of Leadership Network.

Our research suggests that, when it comes to statistical prediction, four belief statements in particular proved extremely helpful. We asked a representative sample of Americans whether they agree or disagree with the following 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.

Those who agreed with all four statements were also likely to self-identify as evangelicals, thus bridging the gap between belief and belonging. They also attend church on a regular basis—meaning these four questions about belief also correlate with behavior (church attendance).

Though there are many other factors or belief statements many evangelicals would include here, these four, taken together, create a tool that predicts all the other things evangelicals could include.

Do these four questions bring some Christians into evangelicalism who might never call themselves evangelicals? Conversely, are there self-described evangelicals who will be excluded because they don’t strongly agree with every one? Yes and yes. That’s the case with every research tool.

Even so, the questions help us reliably identify which Americans hold classic evangelical beliefs.

Some evangelicals equate evangelical with “real Christian” or “orthodox Christian.” The tool does not determine the depth or sincerity of faith—only God can do that. It helps only to clarify which Americans hold these classic evangelical theological commitments.

When all is said and done, about 30 percent of all Americans have evangelical beliefs as described by the four questions. Broken out by ethnicity, 29 percent of whites, 44 percent of African Americans, 30 percent of Hispanics, and 17 percent of people from other ethnicities have evangelical beliefs.

But won’t adding one more definition only add to the confusion about the e word?

Not as long as we contextualize our definition. We can’t say, without qualification, that someone is an evangelical. We need to distinguish between a self-identified evangelical, a person affiliating with an evangelical denomination, or someone with classic evangelical beliefs. These describe evangelicals in different ways, and for the purpose of analysis, they create different subgroups of people.

But we trust that our definition will become a useful tool for researchers to more fully understand who evangelicals are. More important, we hope that as this tool is used, more Americans will see through the unfortunate cultural and political stereotypes and recognize evangelicals as a diverse people of faith who have given their lives to Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Leith Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals in
Washington, D.C.

Ed Stetzer is executive director of LifeWay Research in Nashville, Tennessee.

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