Pollsters, sociologists and evangelical Protestants don’t all agree exactly on who counts as an “evangelical.”  It is safe to say, though, that definitions of this broad group emphasize certain beliefs, and a certainty of belief, too. Evangelicals, we often say, are Christians who take Scripture literally as the revealed Word of God, who profess a need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and seek salvation exclusively through Christ. In these terms, if any group really defines itself by specific theological beliefs, it must be evangelicals. But beyond credos on paper and professions of belief, what does it mean to be an evangelical in everyday social life? To answer this question we should listen closely to how evangelicals relate to each other and to non-evangelicals.

I am not asking whether or not evangelicals practice what they preach. I simply want to propose that there is more to the everyday meaning of evangelicalism than theological beliefs. In a recent post at The Immanent Frame, James K. A. Smith asks us not to fear using sociology rather than theology alone to define evangelicalism. He asks us to understand evangelicalism as a set of social practices and institutions, rather than trying to divine a specific set of beliefs that reliably and cleanly mark off evangelicals from other Christians. Appreciating Smith’s appeal to a sociological definition, I want to take the next, practical step. If we understand evangelicals’ social practices as realities themselves, and not simply as predictable derivatives of first-moving beliefs, we can better understand what it means to be evangelical in local public life and perhaps beyond. We can, for instance, get a better handle on inter-religious conflicts that we sometimes over-simplify as a clash of beliefs. The point is not that beliefs don’t matter in everyday life, but that we should understand how evangelicals themselves relate beliefs to acts in everyday contexts, rather than assuming from a safe distance that theologies on paper tell us everything we need to know. To begin what I intend as just a bit of a cantankerous contribution to The Immanent Frame’s ongoing discussion of evangelicalism, please indulge a quick scenario from my larger study of religious community service groups in a Midwestern city.

The Religious Anti-Racism Coalition, made up mostly of evangelical and mainline Protestant pastors, decided to hold a celebration of diversity during the time a Ku Klux Klan group from a distant town was going to be marching in their city. The celebration needed a statement of purpose, so a subcommittee that included an evangelical pastor with a Charismatic bent, a lesbian Unitarian minister, and an administrator from a regional synod of the mainline Lutheran (ELCA) church took just twenty minutes to write one. “We want to unite as people of religious faith,” they affirmed, “united in believing that all people are created in the image of God.” Evangelical and mainline Protestant members alike agreed that they, and everyone in town, ought to confess the personal sin of racism in their own lives, and they agreed too that “structural,” institutional racism is itself a sin—in addition to the racism of interpersonal prejudice. Now, the coalition had only to decide whether to identify as Christian or interfaith. The group compiled a list of activities that they agreed not to carry out together if the coalition was to be officially an interfaith group. After that agreement, however, most of the evangelical pastors still said their congregations could not participate in an officially interfaith coalition against racism. Two mainline Protestant pastors said in turn that they could not participate in a coalition that was officially ecumenical Christian but not interfaith.

Agreement on the group’s religious and anti-racist principles took literally just minutes, while arguments over how if at all to include non-Christians in a counter-Klan event took months, and nearly dissolved the coalition. A precarious compromise allowed the counter-Klan event to take place in a cinderblock-walled meeting room attached to the local sports arena. Some observers might suppose the issue was that evangelicals really weren’t strongly committed to anti-racism. Rather than look for hidden racist beliefs or weak religious rationales in evangelicals’ credos, however, we can find a more immediate reason for tensions between the pastors.

When we try to understand what any religious people do in public—from voting and volunteering to acrid debating, protesting and even committing acts of terrorism—we often assume it is deeply held beliefs and sacred texts that “make them do what they do.” Social studies of interaction add something very basic but counterintuitive to this understanding of how religion works, and I think Smith’s earlier post opens to just that point: in social life, we don’t just “apply” religious beliefs as if the beliefs existed in some pure, pre-social world separate from us, telling us what to do.

In sociological terms, applying beliefs always means taking on a religious identity in relation to other people. In any modern, complex society we construct religious identities in relation to other identities near to or far from us. People of different faiths perceive “near” and “far” identities, and draw sharper or fuzzier lines between themselves and other identities in different ways, depending on the context and the religions involved. Pastors in the Religious Anti-Racism Coalition had assumed they simply needed to agree on their beliefs about racism. As a result, they could not understand why the work continued to be so frustrating. My close-up study shows that it was this subtle but very powerful social process of self-identification and boundary drawing that made it so difficult for pastors of seemingly like minds on this issue to work together. I call this social process “mapping.” I contend that by examining the distinctive way that evangelicals do mapping, we can gain insight into conflicts that we may easily and misguidedly attribute to clashing beliefs alone.

Evangelicals in the counter-Klan coalition imagined a different context, a different map, from the one that mainline Protestants were assuming. Each side defined the coalition’s insiders and outsiders differently, despite their shared, religiously-motivated anti-racism. Evangelicals did not worry seriously that contact with non-Christians would threaten their Christian commitments. As one pastor told me about associating with Hare Krishnas: “Oh, being at the same event—that’s fine, fine. I rub shoulders with them. We’re in the world together.” The issue, rather, was that he and other evangelicals defined non-Christians—more than racists—as the “outsiders.” Evangelicals did not want to be known publicly as associating closely with non-Christians; that would dilute their reputation as sincere Christians. Mainliners for their part defined racists—not non-Christians—as the outsiders. They did not want to be known as working ecumenically only, rather than interfaith, for that would dilute their reputation as inclusive anti-racists. At stake on each side was public identity and the right sense of distance on the map.

Scenes such as these suggest that being an evangelical means drawing fairly strong cognitive boundaries between Christians and non-Christians, even when Christian beliefs lead evangelicals to agree with non-Christians on some issues. That does not necessarily mean evangelicals who say racism is a sin don’t really believe it. It means they believe that statement in a different context—in relation to a different map—from the one that mainline Protestants and perhaps many social scientists take for granted. Mainliners were not “less” Christian and evangelicals were not “less” anti-racist, because “less” would imply a shared starting point. A better interpretation would point out that the two sides really were on different maps altogether. No wonder each side sometimes found the other simply unfathomable.

To understand evangelicalism’s public presence and its public consequences, we need terms of discussion that help us grasp these social dynamics. The “mapping” idea can help. As Christian Smith argues, American evangelicals generally adopt a powerful, sub-cultural identity. That social fact would be hard to glean from an exegesis of the Bible or evangelical texts alone. One might counter that in the case of the Religious Anti-Racism Coalition’s evangelicals, “beliefs about Christ” simply were more important than “beliefs about race.” Yet we can learn more about people by watching closely and looking for patterns in what people say and do together. If we translate what religious people say and do directly into pre-existing beliefs that we then assume must have motivated those people, then we bypass the social, practical process of religious action. By beginning with beliefs, we turn lived religious sensibilities into a silent list of items that we impute to religious people ex post facto. From a social-science point of view, beliefs and texts don’t talk or act; people do. If we want to understand what it means to be an evangelical in practical terms, we need to investigate not only evangelicals’ beliefs, but also their distinctive ways of wearing their beliefs, building groups and ties around beliefs and assigning reputations to other groups. These social facts are not mere add-ons to the “real” evangelical sensibility underneath. In the sociological view, they are inextricably part of what it means to be an evangelical.

It would be easy to assume that evangelicals are even more strongly creatures of their theological beliefs than other Christians are, since evangelicals focus intensely on faith and the Word. Adding to the confusion is a compound of common-sense notions that detract from a fuller, more socially-grounded view of religion in general: first there is the widespread, common-sense understanding that sees religion ultimately as a matter of pre-social, God-given beliefs and values in the head. In this common-sense view, the more authentic religious beliefs are, the freer they are from any social embodiment. It does not help that this common-sense definition quite often has seeped into American social science writing. To add an extra twist, this default approach to religion, with its emphasis on individual beliefs and strictness of adherence to beliefs, ends up mirroring rather than giving us reflective distance from evangelical Protestants’ self-understandings. Listening to evangelicals in local community service groups, I heard people talking to one another about their “faith levels,” and referring—as inscribed on popular bracelets and bumper-stickers—to “what Jesus would do.” In this context, it is especially easy to go on our default assumptions and treat religion as essentially a matter of adherence to beliefs, ignoring the social processes of identification and mapping that are always going on even as people are professing a deeply individual faith. This beliefs-centered, decontextualized approach does not fit all religions equally well, and in any event it risks naturalizing rather than highlighting interesting features of evangelicalism in the U.S. Public debate, as well as research on evangelicals, benefits when we approach religion as a social process of identification and communication, not only an individual process of maintaining and applying beliefs.

Of course, this is hardly to say that evangelicals’ beliefs do not matter. Whether or not the group dynamics I saw in a Midwestern city would hold for evangelicals in national arenas or only local ones is a question for more research. But if my ethnographic work is some indication, evangelical mapping affects how evangelicals ally themselves with or separate from other public entities, apart from what their Christian beliefs tell them about public issues. Surely that should help us piece together a more accurate, if more complicated, picture of what it means to be an American evangelical, and how those meanings intersect with politics and public life.