Are (White) Evangelicals Really Dwindling? A Debate Heats Up

Reading the same piece by Robert Jones in the Atlantic that I wrote about in my post Tuesday, about dwindling numbers of white evangelicals in the South, Religion News Service’s Tobin Grant, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University, has some questions. The drop in evangelical affiliation, he contends, is inexplicable, unless you unpack some definitional terms that might underlie the declines Jones discusses. Grant:

Self-identifications are more fluid than the choices people make about their religious community. The first surveys to bother to use questions on being “born-again” weren’t until the late 1970s. The addition of “evangelical” as an identification came even later, in part because being known as “born-again” was problematic. But where people go to church is far more durable.

* * * *

Is it really possible that evangelicals have lost one-fifth of their members while there has been such very, very little change in denominations? The answer is “yes” only if you use a definition that isn’t based on where people go on Sunday.

Self-identification with the “born-again” label is generational and has changed over time. Like “feminist,” “conservative,” or “environmentalist,” self-identification means different things to different generations. It’s not surprising that Americans born after Time declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical” no longer identify with the same labels as their parents.

* * * *

Put another way: we see over 50% more evangelicals when we use their church, not their self-identification as “born-again”. They still go to Baptist, pentecostal, and non-denominational churches with conservative theology and social views. They don’t embrace an identification that they see as quaint. They see themselves as people with a “personal relationship with God,” or “just Christian” even as they go to the same church as gray-haired evangelicals who have always been “born-again Christians.”

So which is it? Are evangelicals (broadly defined, not just by self-definition, but by the other metrics Grant lays out) really declining, or not? I put Grant’s questions to Jones, who tells me, via email, that Grant’s criticisms “are simply off the mark.” In particular, Jones says that his firm, Public Religion Research Institute, uses “one of the most widely-used methods in the social sciences and is used by the exit polls, Pew, Gallup, and a whole host of others” to determine evangelical identity. That is, PRRI asks, “Would you describe yourself as a “born-again” or evangelical Christian, or not?” What’s more, he says, his methodology employs another standard practice, distinguishing evangelicals by race. As a result, the white evangelicals identified by his survey are “white, non-Hispanic Protestants who describe themselves as born again or evangelical.”

With regard to Grant’s quibble that Jones failed to probe denominational identity, Jones maintains that probing the denominational identity of white evangelicals “would be possible, but very complicated.” Because those affiliations are “so complex,” Jones says, and because he used the same standard self-identification definition used by Pew and others, he was able to compare his own data from this year with Pew’s data from 2007. In other words, those comparisons were not apples and oranges.

That said, Jones added, even”if you set aside the definition of who is evangelical and who is mainline and look at white Protestants overall (who lean Republican in the South), the thesis of my article is still true. Between 2007 and 2013, there has been a significant drop in the proportion of white Protestants in each of these states, ranging from a high of a 15-point drop in Arkansas to a low of an 8-point drop in Louisiana.”

Notwithstanding this dispute between Jones and Grant, the outcome of the election will turn, obviously, on a range of complex factors that are not explained solely by the numbers, even the declining numbers, of white evangelicals in the South, or even of declining numbers of conservative Protestants, whether defined as evangelical or mainline. As I noted in my earlier post, intensity and turnout will drive the outcome of these races. Regardless of the outcome, though, one thing is certain: there is going to be an ongoing dissection and discussion of the numbers of evangelicals (and conservative Christians broadly defined) as 2016 approaches.


  •' DKeane123 says:

    If there hasn’t been a large drop in white evangelicals, where did all the nones come from?

  •' joeyj1220 says:

    one can only hope…

  •' Jim Reed says:

    You can see the change by looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, the non-believers, and by looking at the 50 year trends. Back then, there weren’t many non-believers, or if there were any they were almost all pretty quiet about it. Everybody was a Christian to some degree, and it was also kind of acceptable to be Jewish or Catholic. There were variations like born again or Pentacostal. There were social penalties for not being at least a nominal Christian. The dominate religion could herd everyone and keep society in line.

    Things have changed because now people can be openly non-believers. This group, 20% or 30% or whatever it now is has safety in numbers, and that lets them take advantage of not having to believe in things that can be rationally seen as not true. This is not a stable society because that large of a number being based on rational thinking is going to put pressure on the irrational segment to face their beliefs. That means the next 50 years will bring bigger changes than the last 50 years did, and it probably won’t even take 50 years.

  •' Rmj says:

    But does this “change” mean actual change, or simply a willingness to state a new self-identity?

    I think Grant’s challenge is an interesting one, and Jones doesn’t really substantively respond to it. And so long as we don’t have a true baseline, which is the problem Grant’s analysis raises, it’s very difficult to say how much true change there is, or what it means for the near future.

    Besides, “Christian to some degree” was a problematic statement even 50 years ago. I’ve known atheists who, because of their actions towards others, I still considered “Christian to some degree.” Does that mess with the categories, or not?

    If we could just make these definitions stand still and force people to neatly fit into one….

  •' JamesMMartin says:

    You answered in your first paragraph, Ms. Posner, the cavil I had with the headline’s suggestion of decline: how do you define the word, “evangelical.” Let’s face it, Joel Osteen is an evangelical, and he is the most successful con man running the game. He makes so much moolah on his books he can claim that he draws no salary from a church that makes at least $800,000 a weekend, probably more at Christmas and Easter. The problem is, there is no way of legally monitoring how much Osteen makes. Churches are not even audited. By law, they are exempt from filing profit and loss and other statements. Nothing. Nada. The evangelicals ultimately will be seen to have acted against the best interests of the American people (sending money to Israelis to build more settlements on Palestinian land in order to hurry up the “Rapture”) and in all ways “on the wrong side of history.” Where religion is concerned, it’s the old Army gripe: SNAFU.

  •' GeniusPhx says:

    you believe because someone is kind to another, they must be christian to some degree? our morality does not come from religion, but from evolution. Mammals who carry their young to term and care for them for years later are moral and empathetic toward others, well before religion was invented 12k or so years ago. If people were kind before religion/christianity existed, it cant be because of christianity.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    Evangelical means witnessing to convert people. The concept is if everyone can be converted to Christianity that will make it almost the same as if the religion was true.

  • I don’t think it’s very loving of you to label people against their wills. Is it really that threatening and challenging to your worldview to imagine that non-Christians are decent human beings without your having to wheatpaste them over with the images and labels that make you feel more comfortable?

    I’m not kind to people because I’m “Christian to some degree.” I categorically reject every single truth claim Christianity makes. I am not Christian to a single degree. If you have to label me as “Christian to some degree” before accepting that I’m a decent human being, then that’s your malfunction and not mine.

  •' JamesMMartin says:

    OK, so this year, so far, I have been the object of proselytization by the Mormoms and, by osmosis, the J.W.’s. I encountered these fools in the State of Oaxaca. Mexico is no longer solidly Catholic. Is that a good sign or a bad one? To me, all religions are cons and ponzi schemes.

  •' Jim Reed says:

    I would say overall it is a good sign. The last time the Mormons went to Mexico in Romney’s day it was to practice polygamy.

  •' CitizenWhy says:

    Isn’t the formally named Evangelical Lutheran Church mostly liberal? The term evangelical was originally Lutheran and simply mean Bible based, including making efforts to convert others. I would prefer to know what churches people actually attend, and how often, plus whether they consider themselves Christian without the need for a church (usually conservative). OK, you could add self-decription terms but please, what churches do people attend, if at all?

  •' CitizenWhy says:

    The South is pretty much committed to hating the Federal Government because it destroyed the Confederacy, school segregation, Jim Crow and “imposed:” the Voting Rights Act on them. Religion in the south reinforces political grievances and organizes people to vote for the Dixiecrat Party, now called the Republican party. But lack of freligion does not interfere with loyalty to the Dixiecrat party.

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