America’s Definition: What is an Evangelical?

Katherine Britton | News & Culture Editor, | Friday, September 12, 2008

America’s Definition: What is an Evangelical?

September 12, 2008

While the “evangelical vote” has generated plenty of attention from both the media and the politicians, a new study shows that many Americans can’t even guess what an “evangelical” really is.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” a conservative male from Maryland said in the report.

“I’m not sure; all I can think of is Billy Graham,” a 40-year-old woman from Florida said.

“I am not sure, and I am a Christian,” a 55-year-old man from Indiana said.

In a report titled, “America’s Definition: What is an Evangelical?”, Ellison Research found that 36 percent of all adult Americans say they have “no idea” what  characterizes an evangelical. Even self-described evangelicals also had trouble coming up with a definition – 14 percent in this category did not even make a guess.

"Almost half of all Americans don’t really know what an 'evangelical Christian' is, and the rest generally can’t agree on a definition," the report said.

The most common explanations centered not on politics or social involvement, in spite of the term’s frequent use in analyzing voter categories and group stances on social issues.

Instead, those who offered a definition were most likely to define an evangelical as someone who deliberately spreads their faith to others. Ellison reported that many gave this definition in a negative context.

The other top answers defined evangelicals as a type of Christian, zealous or devoted, relying on the Bible, and holding to a particular type of theology.  

Although age, gender, religious affiliation and involvement all seemed to influence a person’s definition, political affiliation seemed to be the greatest indicator of how a person would define an evangelical.

Self-described liberals were nine times more likely than conservatives to call evangelicals “closed minded.” They were also more likely to define evangelicals as fanatics or imposing their beliefs on others. Political conservatives “much less frequently level harsh criticisms at evangelicals,” the report said, defining them instead by evangelism and theology. Political moderates made up the largest percentage of those who said they could not define what makes an evangelical.

Ellison Research also included definitions from evangelical leaders, who still defined the term as positive.

“An evangelical is a gospel man, a gospel woman,” said Dr. Leon Morris of World Evangelical Alliance said on the group’s Web site. “The gospel is at the centre of his thinking and living.”

Rich Cizik, a vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, offered a similar definition.

“I use this three-fold definition: (1) the Bible is authoritative (i.e., infallible and inerrant in original autographs) in faith and practice; (2) born-again experience (i.e., a conversion to believe in and follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord through rebirth by the Holy Spirit); (3) shares this message of faith with others through evangelism and social witness (i.e., witnessing, aiding the poor and hurting, voting, influencing public life, etc.). This is my three-fold test, although it’s not perfect,” he said.

Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, noted in a press release that the study also highlighted hard feelings towards evangelicals, including from those who could not provide a definition or a completely off-base view of evangelicals.

“Some people used language in describing evangelical Christians that we can’t even reprint in the report,” Sellers said.  “Evangelicals were called illiterate, greedy, psychos, racist, stupid, narrow-minded, bigots, idiots, fanatics, nut cases, screaming loons, delusional, simpletons, pompous, morons, cruel, nitwits, and freaks, and that’s just a partial list.  The insults and anger directed at this population group by a surprisingly large proportion of Americans was truly shocking.  Some people don’t have any idea what evangelicals actually are or what they believe – they just know they can’t stand evangelicals, whatever they might be.”

As a result, the report suggested that the once-distinctive term might soon be shaved down to include only its negative connotations, similar to how the term “fundamentalist” is viewed now.

America’s Definition: What is an Evangelical?