A Less Imperfect Measure of Evangelicals

Who is an evangelical? Is it someone who attends a church traditionally considered an evangelical denomination? Is it someone who checks the “evangelical” box on a survey?

In his thoughtful reply to my argument that evangelicals’ political attitudes are indistinguishable from non-evangelicals, Ryan Burge uses the RELTRAD definition of evangelical and finds different empirical results. I do not contest his findings, but argue that the REBORN+ measure I use (detailed here) is a better measure of who is an evangelical because it better captures the racial diversity, denominational preferences, and minimal religious criteria of evangelicals.

At first glance, it appears there are not significant differences between the RELTRAD measure and REBORN+ measure of evangelicals.  The RELTRAD and REBORN+ measures identify 25% and 30% of Americans as evangelicals respectively. As the table below shows, with the exception of race and gender, the two groups of evangelicals also have similar demographic profiles.

t3

However, the two measures identify two different groupings of evangelicals.  Only 66% of RELTRAD evangelicals are also REBORN+ evangelicals while only 55% of REBORN+ evangelicals are RELTRAD evangelicals.

So which measure is a less imperfect measure of evangelicals?

I argue that the REBORN+ measure is better than the RELTRAD measure in three key ways.

First, the REBORN+ measure does not exclude minority evangelicals.  The RELTRAD measure undercounts black evangelicals who share similar beliefs and practices of white evangelicals since those who attend Black Protestant churches, not considered a traditional evangelical denomination, are not counted as evangelicals.

Using the RELTRAD definition, 19% of blacks are evangelicals and only 12% of evangelicals are black. By contrast, using the REBORN+ measure where black evangelicals can be counted regardless of what church they attend, I find 51% of blacks are evangelicals and 26% of evangelicals are black.

Second, the RELTRAD measure also does not capture the changing denominational preferences of evangelicals. Historically, evangelicals may have only attended evangelical churches.  However, contemporary evangelicals blur the distinctions between evangelical and non-evangelical denominations.

For example, the RELTRAD measure does not include the United Methodist Church as an evangelical denomination.  However, not only does the president of a prominent evangelical seminary identify as both evangelical and United Methodist, but the official statement of the denomination emphatically defines itself as an evangelical church.  Using the REBORN+ measure, I find that in fact, 31% of United Methodists can be identified as evangelicals.

Similarly, the RELTRAD measure does not allow Catholics to also be counted as evangelicals.  However, the growing prominence and number of evangelical Catholics suggests that an evangelical Catholic is no longer an oxymoron. Indeed, using the REBORN+ measure, I find 16% of Catholics identify as evangelicals.

Finally, the REBORN+ measure is better because it excludes those who have not had a born again experience. While not meeting the comprehensive criteria established by the National Association of Evangelicals, a commitment to Jesus is essential to being an evangelical, someone who has accepted the Gospel (good news or euangelion) of Jesus. While all REBORN+ evangelicals meet this essential criteria, nearly 1 in 4 (23%) of RELTRAD evangelicals have not had a born again experience.

Any measure of personal religiosity and evangelical convictions will be imperfect and incomplete. However, the REBORN+ measure is a less imperfect measure of evangelicals than the RELTRAD measure because it does not undercount minority evangelicals, counts evangelicals who do not attend traditionally evangelical denominations, and excludes anyone who have not experienced personal conversion and commitment to Jesus.

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