A significant percentage of Muslims and even Hindus are self-identifying as evangelicals in surveys, according to a researcher who says the term “evangelical” has changed meaning in the culture and is now closely tied to politics.
Ryan Burge, who teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University and is the author of the book The Nones, says in an Oct. 26 New York Times column that evangelicalism’s ties to the Republican Party has drawn “more people to embrace the evangelical label” – including groups that typically would not be expected to accept it.
“The share of Catholics who … identified as evangelicals (or born again) rose to 15 percent in 2018 from 9 percent in 2008,” Burge wrote. “That same pattern appears with Muslims. In fact, there’s evidence that the share of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Orthodox Christianity and Hinduism who identify as evangelical is larger today than it was just a decade ago.”
Further, Burge added, half of Muslims who “attend services at a mosque more than once a week and align with the G.O.P. self-identify as evangelical.”
The fact that non-evangelicals are now identifying as evangelical, Burge said, helps explain a recent Pew Research Center survey that showed the number of white Americans who identify as evangelical grew from 2016 to 2020.
Another explanation for the surprising data, Burge said, is that an increasing number of people who rarely attend church identify as evangelical.
“For instance, in 2008, just 16 percent of all self-identified evangelicals reported their church attendance as never or seldom,” Burge said. “But in 2020, that number jumped to 27 percent. In 2008, about a third of evangelicals who never attended church said they were politically conservative. By 2019, that had risen to about 50 percent.”
What it means to be an evangelical, Burge wrote, is “being radically remade.”
“What is drawing more people to embrace the evangelical label on surveys is more likely that evangelicalism has been bound to the Republican Party,” Burge wrote. “Instead of theological affinity for Jesus Christ, millions of Americans are being drawn to the evangelical label because of its association with the G.O.P.”
Burge is the author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are and Where They Are Going and the forthcoming 20 Myths About Religion and Politics in America.
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.