For five decades, pollsters and election forecasters like me have tried to account for changing attitudes among American Christians. It’s important work, since perhaps no other characteristic helps us better track the massive cultural shifts of our era.
But as the great David French writes, there’s evidence in a new report from the Pew Research Center that our yearning to classify and label matters of faith for political purposes is having a corrosive effect on American Christianity. Once a means to discern religious attitudes, the term “Evangelical” is now itself contributing to a shift in the church as right-wing populists and nationalists pick it up as a cudgel in the culture war. “Combine the huge, unchurched ‘Evangelical’ mass with a potent neo-fundamentalist movement that is steeped in angry Christian nationalism,” David writes, “and politics and religion can easily become a God-and-country branding exercise. And in that effort, the actual Bible can be an obstacle, not an asset.”
I could hardly improve on the insights my friend and colleague offers on the state of the church. But there are other implications of this trend. Aside from distorting the very subject pollsters and sociologists are seeking to study, the use of the term “Evangelical” isn’t particularly useful anymore and ought to go by the boards. I’ll make my case, but first, some history.
Mainline Protestant denominations began to wither in the mid-1970s. It was certainly the start of a decades-long slide into irreligiousness that cut the percentage of Americans professing at least nominal belief in Christianity to 68 percent in 2020 compared to 91 percent in 1970. But the vacant pews in Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other mainline churches were also signs of a Christian renaissance with the growth of non-denominational sects, partly driven by the rise of television preachers.
Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell helped reinvent Americans’ concepts of Christianity in the 1970s and 1980s. Revivalists and religious broadcasting were certainly nothing new, but the growth of cable television afforded more space for their messages. And it came at a moment when American distrust of institutions was sharply increasing in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and amid economic malaise and diminished U.S. world standing. Many mainline denominations made matters worse for themselves by moving left on doctrinal issues and giving the cold shoulder to the growing charismatic or “spirit filled” movement in the church. The “frozen chosen” couldn’t adapt and found themselves with a lot of empty sanctuaries and collection plates. In 1975, a third of all Americans were members of mainline denominations. In 2016, it was 10 percent.
Political pollsters and sociologists struggled with how to classify the members of the corresponding explosion in mostly non-denominational, highly expressive Christianity. There was certainly not a doctrinal throughline to follow. Some, like Graham, preached old-time religion that aligned with longstanding church teaching. Some, like Falwell, embraced fundamentalism. What they really shared was a rejection of the religious establishment and the use of charismatic modes of worship.
First, pollsters tried the term “born again,” used by the apostles Paul and John to describe the inner transformation of new believers. Some political figures, most notably Jimmy Carter, embraced the term. But it was confusing to non-believers and carried—as was intended by the apostles—radical connotations. But another term favored by Graham and others looking for a via media between the Bible-beating fundamentalists and the dying mainliners seemed to fit just right: Evangelical. It sounds friendly and has a long history in the church. Indeed, every Christian should try to evangelize, to seek converts. Since the Reformation, members of revival movements have taken the name for themselves. The term grew in currency in the changing church through the 1980s and 1990s. By the turn of the century, it was widely understood inside and outside of Christianity as a catchall term for ardent believers who embraced the supernatural components of the faith. It was also, ahem, a blessing for public opinion research.
In the 2020 election, about 1 in 5 voters was a self-described white Evangelical Christian. And among them, Donald Trump got 81 percent of the vote. That was up a tick from 2016, when it was 77 percent. Similar research shows that Republican Mitt Romney got 79 percent of the white Evangelical vote in 2012, the same as George W. Bush in 2004. John McCain got the lowest share of any recent Republican nominee with 73 percent. The white evangelical share of the electorate stayed mostly constant—between 20 and 23 percent—for five presidential cycles.
A stable, predictable chunk of the electorate is a beautiful thing if you’re trying to study politics or win elections. Consider black voters, who are even more Democratic than white Evangelicals are Republican. Black voters made up 10 percent of the 2020 electorate and voted 91 percent for Joe Biden. If I am analyzing a race in a state or district, it’s enormously helpful to be able to start with some highly correlative demographic points. How many white Evangelical or black voters are in a polity tells us a great deal about how things will turn out. Groupings like these also give us a baseline to compare the performance of a candidate or issue. If a Republican candidate is far below 80 percent with white Evangelicals or a Democratic candidate is far below 90 percent with black voters, we know something is amiss.
But unlike being black, being an Evangelical is totally subjective. If we ask voters if they are Catholic, the meaning is clear: Are they a member of the Roman Catholic Church? The same goes for other demographic variables like income, age, education, and gender. The terms are clear and connected to having, being, or doing something particular. Being an Evangelical is an attitude, and one of imprecise definition.
The new Pew research, the continuing decline in church attendance among self-professed Evangelicals, and the growth of what David aptly describes as “angry Christian nationalism” all point to the same conclusion: the term Evangelical has lost its salience as a term to describe religious practice. At the very least, the term has ceased to mean what Graham & Co. intended. Increasingly, it’s just another way to say “politically conservative,” a grouping we already use.
In 2017, Timothy Keller, America’s leading Protestant theologian, wondered whether Evangelicalism could survive its deepening ties to right-wing politics. While certainly the movement and its objective to win converts will live on, the term has lost its savor as a measure of religious sentiment. Those of us looking to track America’s cultural life and forecast elections need to get busy figuring out what can replace it.