Despite the fact that there is considerable journalistic and scholarly discussion today concerning the role of evangelicals in American public life, the label itself has become a contested term.  Just who should be labeled as evangelicals? And what serves as the basis of unity for those so gathered together under that label? Does the stipulated definition of evangelical exhibit any explanatory power either historically or currently?  Or, is the term so contested that it would be better to abandon the use of the label altogether?  This short essay addresses these questions and seeks to clarify the issues related to the use of the term in designating a portion of the American population.

The starting point of this confusion and the primary source of disagreement is whether the core definition of evangelicals should be based on (1) adherence to distinctive religious beliefs, (2) affiliation with specific denominations and churches, or (3) association with a particular religious movement.  While related, each of these definitional approaches captures different segments of American society.  Moreover, one’s choice among these three definitions implicitly embodies an underlying assumption—namely, whether evangelicals constitute little more than a categorical group (whose unity is largely created on the basis of the stipulated criteria employed) or whether they form a social group exhibiting a certain level of social cohesion.

Some scholars have focused their emphasis on identifying evangelicals in terms of the expression of distinctive religious doctrines or beliefs.  For example, the historian David Bebbington is frequently cited for his definition of evangelicals in which he identifies four major qualities that define evangelicals: (1) biblicism, a high view of the authority of the Bible, (2) crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross, (3) conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted, and (4) activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort. While helpful in specifying certain distinctive emphases of evangelical religious perspectives, however, such a listing (1) suggests that all evangelicals hold identical core religious beliefs, (2) leaves unanswered whether those who may subscribe to most, but not all, of the four specified beliefs are nevertheless to be considered evangelicals, and (3) implies that evangelicals represent little more than a categorical group unified simply by the stipulated criteria employed.

Let us consider, for example, the approach that the Barna Research Group uses to denote which respondents in its surveys are to be classified as “evangelicals,” since Barna basically follows the logic of Bebbington’s approach.  For respondents to be classified as an evangelical, Barna requires that they first indicate that they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and then, secondly, that they believe that they will go to Heaven when they die because they have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior (Barna labels respondents who pass these two initial hurdles as constituting “born again” Christians). Then, after meeting this two-fold requirement, respondents must also indicate agreement with seven other criteria in order to be labeled an “evangelical”: (1) saying their faith is very important in their life today; (2) believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; (3) believing that Satan exists; (4) believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; (5) believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; (6) asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and (7) describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.  Only those who meet these specified criteria are then classified as evangelicals.

While this approach creates a grouping of respondents who share the same religious beliefs, the resultant group of respondents reflects basically a categorical, rather than a social, group.  Such so-called evangelicals do not necessarily share any historic commonality or social unity. Anyone who meets these criteria is placed in an “evangelical” category (including those who are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or Latter-day Saints by religious affiliation).  But social groups (whether they are religious or not in nature) are not defined by all members holding the same beliefs; rather, they are defined by patterns of affiliation and social interaction. As a result, many of Barna’s “evangelicals” are unlikely to recognize each other as fellow members of the same religious group.  Nor is the resultant group likely to exhibit much social and political cohesion—given that many African-Americans are likely to meet these stipulated criteria.  Consequently, by this definitional approach, evangelicals would appear to be rather divided politically, as there is likely to be little similarity in the political attitudes and behavior between white and black evangelicals so defined.

In contrast, when linking religion to public life, journalists and social scientists have typically treated religion primarily as a social, rather than a cognitive, phenomenon.

As a social phenomenon, religion is expressed through affiliation with a local church, a specific denomination, or a religious tradition. Thus, Catholics are defined by their affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church—not whether they stand in conformity to the distinctive theological teaching of the church.  As a member of a social group, individuals share certain common experiences that derive from their group affiliations. Through distinctive patterns of association and interaction members of different religious groups acquire divergent political attitudes and behavior. They may experience distinctive patterns of communication, receive different kinds of information, experience different levels of social acceptance, be exposed to varying interpretations of political events, and be subject to different political recruitment and mobilization patterns. But these particular experiences and interactions are not necessarily uniform across all members of the group, and consequently the particular attitudes and behavior linked to group membership are not uniformly acquired or expressed.  In this sense, however, religious groups are not distinctive—they simply function like other social groups.

Of course, considering evangelicals as a social group does not specify the kind of social group it represents.  Many social scientists treat evangelical Protestants as being affiliated with a specific religion tradition in which religious traditions are viewed as comprising a set of religious denominations and congregations that exhibit similar beliefs and behaviors and which are interrelated in some historical and organizational fashion. Accordingly respondents are classified as evangelicals based on their affiliation with particular denominations and types of non-denominational congregations.  Certain objective criteria can be utilized in making such assignments (e.g., denominations associated with the National Association of Evangelicals are deemed to be evangelical denominations, while denominations associated with the National Council of Churches are deemed to be “mainline” Protestant denominations).

Religious traditions exhibit several defining characteristics. First, they have a legacy rooted in specific historical events, and traditions develop and change slowly. Second, religious traditions have negotiated social boundaries that place limits on what any individual can do at a particular point in time and still remain within the tradition. And, while religious traditions are humanly constructed, it is also true that religious traditions can serve to shape and construct individuals and cultures. As a result, members of a religious tradition exhibit a characteristic (rather than some uniform) way of interpreting the world, based on common beliefs and practices, though not all members necessarily hold these particular beliefs or exhibit these behaviors. Nor is conscious identification with a tradition necessary for inclusion; many Southern Baptists, for example, may not choose to label themselves as “evangelicals,” although they share religious beliefs and practices with members of denominations much more comfortable with the label. Likewise, Roman Catholics, by virtue of their religious affiliation and the history of the Roman Catholic Church itself, cannot be classified as evangelical—even if such Catholics hold similar religious beliefs and exhibit similar religious behavior as evangelical Protestants.  This concept of religious tradition, along with its particular meaning and measurement of evangelical Protestants, has proven to be to be a powerful predictor of political attitudes and behavior.

There is, however, a second way in which evangelicals may be viewed as a social group.  Here evangelicals are considered to be members of, or associated with, a particular religious movement that transcends historic religious traditions. In addition to affiliation with local churches and denominations, individuals may claim affiliation with religious movements by means of identifying with the movement. Religious movements often cross denominational boundaries and, on occasion, even cross religious traditions (the charismatic movement, for example, includes both Protestants and Catholics).

“Membership” in a religious movement, however, is more nebulous than church or denominational membership, and identification with movements is something different from identification with a specific congregation or denomination, as these former types of religious associations are less concrete and more amorphous in nature.  As a result, when respondents are presented with labels related to various religious movements (e.g., fundamentalist, evangelical, charismatic) and then are asked whether they consider themselves to be such, respondents can assign whatever meaning he/she desires to the particular label advanced (as what embodies the charismatic movement is less evident than what constitutes either a specific congregation or a specific denomination).  Thus, at the mass level, this ambiguity has three important results: (1) the meaning of religious movement labels is likely to vary considerably from one individual to another, (2) individuals experience much greater latitude in their assessments of their association with these movements than they do with congregations or denominations, and (3) there is likely to be much greater measurement error in responding to movement labels than to denominational affiliation.

That said, because evangelicals are defined in relationship to a movement and not in relationship to affiliation with specific denominations, this definitional approach will reveal that evangelicals are found across many religious traditions.  Accordingly, some members of mainline Protestant denominations as well as some members of Roman Catholic parishes will self-identify as an evangelical. Conversely, many who are members of what might be labeled evangelical denominations will not claim the label as necessarily describing themselves.

Because many Protestants affiliated with “evangelical” denominations do not necessarily identify as evangelicals, some analysts have championed the use of “conservative Protestantism” to designate members of the religious tradition  However, affiliation and identification are two analytically distinct phenomena, and, as a result, there is no reason to expect that all, or even most, affiliates of an “evangelical” religious tradition (a sociological phenomenon) would identify with a religious movement label (a psychological phenomenon), just as many affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations do not choose to identify as “mainliners” despite scholarly use of that designation. Moreover, the label “conservative Protestantism” is even more problematic than that of “evangelical Protestantism.” Not only is it unclear whether “conservative” is a theological or a political designation (the two are often conflated), but the term itself is ahistorical, suggesting that characteristics that which seemingly define the tradition currently are inherent to the tradition rather than some characteristic that may change with time (thereby precluding, for example, any recognition of the fact that, less than a century ago, evangelical Protestants were among the leading social reformers within American public life). Furthermore, the “conservative Protestant” label can easily encompass groups such as Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses which, though “conservative” in some sense, fall outside the evangelical Protestant tradition on almost every social, theological, and organizational indicator.

Finally, while generally known but frequently forgotten, it should be noted in conclusion that the choice of one’s definitional approach has important consequences with regard to one’s resultant findings.  For example, the estimated proportion of evangelical Protestants within American society varies considerably by the approach adopted.  Roughly speaking, evangelical Protestants constitute about a quarter of the population when measured in terms of affiliation, about one-seventh when defined in terms of identification, and less than one-tenth of the population when specified in terms of Barna’s list of requirements.  Similarly, the political characteristics of those falling within the evangelical Protestant category will vary greatly by the approach adopted.  And, because many more African Americans will fall into an evangelical category when based on religious beliefs than when based on denominational affiliation or religious self-identification, the reported proportion of evangelicals voting Democratic in an election is far higher and the group less distinctive (and thus exhibiting lower explanatory power) than what is revealed when evangelicals are defined in terms of self-identification or religious affiliation.