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It is an understatement to say that confusion abounds over the words “evangelical” and “evangelicalism.”1 These terms have been used in wondrously different ways by scholars, researchers, church leaders, and journalists. Few would argue with historian George Marsden when he wrote of the “conceptual challenge in … [saying] what evangelicalism is”2 and when he concluded that “evangelicalism indeed appears as disorganized as a kaleidoscope. One might wonder why evangelicalism is ever regarded as a unified entity at all.”3 In fact, fellow historian Nathan Hatch once indeed concluded, “In truth, there is no such thing as Evangelicalism.”4

Nevertheless, scholars and journalists regularly analyze, report, and comment on evangelicals and their political and social views and impact. Respected research firms such as the Pew Research Center, the Gallup Poll, and the Public Religion Research Institute report and analyze the demographic characteristics of evangelicals and their social and political views. Scholarly books and articles continue to be published that analyze who evangelicals are and their impact on American social and political life. It is clear that the religious category “evangelical” is indeed being conceptualized and defined.

In this essay I first consider three ways political and other social science researchers most often conceptualize and operationalize for research purposes evangelicalism and evangelicals and argue that there are significant flaws in how most do so. Next I outline why I believe these flaws matter. I then put forward what I view as a better approach. In a final, brief section I consider how my suggested conceptualization and definition of evangelicalism can be operationalized for research purposes.

Three Ways in which Evangelicalism Has Been Conceptualized

Evangelicalism as the Heir of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Renewal Movements

The concept. One way in which scholars have understood and defined evangelicalism is to view it as the present-day manifestation of movements that first arose within Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain and America. Historian Mark Noll, while recognizing the legitimacy of various definitions of evangelicalism, has written: “The most common use of the word [evangelical] today, however, stems from the renewal movements of the eighteenth century and from practitioners of revival in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”5 Elsewhere he has written, “The basic evangelical impulses, however, have been quite clear from the mid-eighteenth century, when leaders … worked to revive churches in northern Europe and North America and so brought ‘evangelicalism’ into existence.”6 Similarly, British historian David Bebbington has written that evangelicalism “was a new phenomenon of the eighteenth century,” originating in Britain in the 1730s.7 (In spite of this quotation, as will become clear later on, Bebbington largely falls into the next of my three ways in which evangelicalism has been conceptualized.) As such, evangelicals reacted against what they saw as the sterile formalism of the more established churches—the established Anglican church in Britain and the dominant Congregational and Anglican churches in the American colonies and the new American nation. This conceptualization of evangelicalism views it as a social movement within the more established, mainline Protestant Anglo-American churches of the day, challenging the existing churches not so much on doctrine as on fervency of belief and practice. It called for renewal, for a revival of personal piety and for a spiritual renewal that would replace what was seen as a lifeless, dry Christianity in the established churches of the day. The leaders of this renewal movement were deeply influenced by the pietism that had earlier arisen within the Lutheran churches in Germany. It too had called for a renewed emphasis on fervency of belief and personal religious renewal, and reacted against what was seen as sterile, lifeless doctrines.

It should be noted that it is not that these British and American renewal movements—and the German pietism that had preceded them—were bereft of theological underpinnings. Christian doctrine was seen as logically and necessarily requiring changed lives of personal renewal and piety. What can properly be seen as a theologically based emphasis arose in a certain historical context that led the renewal leaders to insist the more established churches were ignoring the changed lives that their theology logically demanded.

Famed preachers such as John and Charles Wesley—who had clearly been influenced by German pietism—and George Whitefield led this renewal in Britain. In the American colonies the First Great Awakening was led by such powerful preachers as Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield (who preached widely in both Britain and the colonies). And in the young American nation of the early 19th century the Second Great Awakening was led by preachers such as Francis Asbury, Lyman Beecher, and Alexander Campbell. Later in the 19th century evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday carried on this revival tradition. All emphasized the need for personal, individual spiritual commitment and renewed lives of piety. It was out of this religious movement that Methodists, Baptists, and the Churches of Christ emerged, and later the holiness churches and other churches that emphasized a revivalism rooted in experience and personal spiritual renewal.

In the 20th century, evangelicalism understood as a renewal movement originating in the 18th and 19th centuries within Protestantism was carried on by evangelists such as Billy Graham and his famed crusades. Also, Pentecostalism arose with its emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in individuals’ lives, and is usually seen as a branch, or offshoot, of the earlier revival movements.

How this understanding of evangelicalism is operationalized for research purposes.

The next question is how researchers who have this understanding of evangelicalism operationalize it for research purposes. How do researchers determine who is and is not an evangelical in seeking insight into such questions as how many evangelicals there are, what their demographic and geographic characteristics are, as well as their political opinions and voting patterns? Here things become murky.

Very few empirically oriented social scientists have explicitly attempted to operationalize this understanding of evangelicalism in their research. Perhaps the closest are some who have used self-identification to determine who is and is not an evangelical. They present survey respondents with a laundry list of religious categories (including “evangelical”) and ask if they identify themselves as falling into one of those categories. Sometimes respondents are also asked, either separately or in conjunction with the evangelical self-identification, if they have had a “born again” experience, since this is a term frequently used by present-day revival or renewal movements. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), whose research is frequently cited by journalists, takes this approach to identifying evangelicals. It asks white Protestant respondents if they consider themselves to be evangelical or born again. Those who answer “Yes” are classified as “white evangelicals” and those who answer “No” are classified as “white mainline Protestants.”8 Nonwhite Protestants are not asked whether or not they are evangelicals or born again. Although the PRRI and other such surveys generally are not explicitly based on a conceptualization of evangelicalism as the present-day manifestation of earlier revival and renewal movements, persons in churches with historical ties to these movements are most likely to self-identify as evangelical or born again.

A critique.9 There are problems with the conceptualization of evangelicalism as the present-day manifestation of an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century renewal movement, largely because it is overly narrow. Although the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century renewal movements should be seen as contributing to evangelicalism—they are certainly one of its facets—focusing on them exclusively as being at the heart of evangelicalism misses other, crucial facets. More on these other facets later, but conceptualizing evangelicalism exclusively or largely in terms of Anglo-American eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival movements and their present-day inheritors unduly constricts one’s understanding of evangelicalism. If one does so, how does one fit creedal, confessional churches in the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions into evangelicalism? Are they to be excluded since revivalism has played only a minor role in their recent histories? But if included, is not one going far afield from one’s basic understanding of evangelicalism? And where does one place African Americans? As slaves they did not take part in the largely white antebellum revival movements in the United States. In addition, Bebbington, as we saw earlier, identified evangelicalism as “a new phenomenon of the eighteenth century,” originating in the 1730s. Yet he also stated that evangelicalism “gave exclusive pride of place to a small number of principles,”10 and went on to list four key, often-cited distinguishing evangelical beliefs:11 a focus on Jesus Christ and his death on the cross as key for the atonement for sins and living a new life, acceptance of the Bible as the source of “all spiritual truth,”12 an emphasis on conversion as a personal, individual life-changing acceptance of the Christian message, and an activism that obliges one to share one’s faith with others. If these indeed are the defining marks of evangelicalism, one can make a strong case that they originated with the apostle Paul, not in Britain in the 1730s!

Evangelicalism as Adherence to Certain Key Doctrines

The concept. A second way in which evangelicalism is often conceptualized is as adherence to a set of religious beliefs that distinguish evangelicals from other Christians and nonbelievers. British theologian J. I. Packer insisted in a 1958 book that evangelicalism should “be given its historic meaning—fidelity to the doctrinal content of the gospel.”13 Packer thereby maintained that evangelicalism is “the oldest version of Christianity; theologically regarded, it is just apostolic Christianity itself.”14 Most British scholars have followed Packer’s lead and have defined evangelicalism in terms of adherence to a set of beliefs. Doing so leads to the conclusion, as in Packer’s case, that evangelicalism is not a new religious phenomenon arising in the 18th and 19th centuries, but historic, traditional Protestantism that has been a recognizable element of Christianity since Martin Luther— and even since the apostles and early church fathers. Thus, Oxford University scholar Alister McGrath has written that, “Evangelicalism is historic Christianity. Its beliefs correspond to the central doctrines of the Christian churches down the ages…”15 In 2015 the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) formally adopted a definition of evangelicalism based on beliefs, with the NAE’s president, Leith Anderson, insisting, “Evangelicals are people of faith and should be defined by their beliefs…”16

In large part this understanding of evangelicalism emerged in the latter years of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century when a challenge arose to traditional, orthodox Protestantism in the form of higher criticism, which challenged traditional understandings of the authority of the Bible. Also, new scientific understandings were posing new challenges. These challenges to traditional, orthodox beliefs divided Protestants into “modernists” and what were initially called “fundamentalists.” Fundamentalists defended traditional, orthodox Protestant beliefs, but in time they also took on a narrow perspective that was anti-intellectual and a separatism that stressed withdrawal from the world and its affairs. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing from there, self-labeled evangelicals—often called neo-evangelicals—took up the mantle of defending the orthodox, traditional, Biblical Protestant faith. Doctrinally, the fundamentalist and later the neo-evangelicals had much in common with the renewal movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, but they were reacting against a different “enemy”—they were confronting not a dry, sterile, formalistic church, but what they saw as a church that had fallen into heresy and had left the essentials of the Christian faith as had been held from the days of the apostles, the early church fathers, and the Protestant Reformers.

If one conceptualizes evangelicalism as adherence to certain key beliefs, what are those beliefs? Earlier we saw the four key, distinguishing beliefs of evangelicals that the British historian, Bebbington, has listed. McGrath has listed six “controlling convictions” in which he sees evangelicalism being grounded: the supreme authority of the Bible, Jesus Christ as God incarnate and Savior of sinful humanity, the lordship of the Holy Spirit, the need for personal conversion, the priority of evangelism, and the importance of Christian community.17 As we will shortly see, the NAE’s 2015 definition of “evangelical” is based on four key beliefs that closely parallel Bebbington’s list.18 The Barna Research Group determines who is and is not an evangelical by asking its respondents questions concerning 10 specific beliefs, such as “believing that Satan exists” and “believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works.”19

The beliefs used to distinguish evangelicals are thereby basic, biblically-based Christian beliefs in the historic, traditional, orthodox sense of Protestant Christianity. Roman Catholics largely accept these same beliefs except they would modify the belief in the authority of Scripture to also give weight to tradition as understood and passed on by the magisterium of the Catholic Church. Also, historically the Catholic tradition has assigned greater importance to the sacraments and the church as institution in the salvation process than have evangelical Protestants. Although sometimes the term “evangelical Catholic” has been used, most scholars who view evangelicalism defined by the religious beliefs to which persons hold believe greater clarity is achieved by viewing evangelicalism as a wing within Protestant Christianity.

How this understanding of evangelicalism is operationalized for research purposes.

How have researchers who hold to this understanding of evangelicalism operationalized it for survey research purposes? The answer is fairly simple: One asks respondents questions concerning their religious beliefs. Differences and challenges arise, however, in determining exactly what questions best determine who should and should not be considered an evangelical. Here, researchers vary. They have used such questions as this one regarding persons’ view of the Bible: “Which comes closest to your view: (1) The Bible is the word of God, or (2) the Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God?” Those responding that the Bible is the word of God, were further asked: “And would you say that (1) the Bible is to be taken literally, word for word, or not everything in the Bible should be taken literally, word for word?”20 Another survey asked the respondents if they believed Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation and if “the Devil really exists and is not just a symbol.”21 Similarly, the NAE, in conjunction with LifeWay Research, developed four belief statements to which respondents are asked whether or not they agree:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.22

Researchers next determine what responses qualify one for inclusion as an evangelical. Different researchers have set the bar either higher or lower. Barna, for instance, sets the bar very high with respondents having to agree with all ten of their specified beliefs.23 NAE/LifeWay Research requires respondents to agree with all of its statements to be considered evangelical, but there are only four and they are more general than some of the Barna statements.24

A critique. There is much to commend conceptualizing evangelicalism as the wing of Protestantism that holds to historic, orthodox Christian beliefs. This understanding rightly recognizes that, theologically speaking, the key divide in Protestantism is between modern, liberal revisionists who seek to accommodate their Christian faith to modern learning and those who hold to historic, orthodox beliefs. It insists that in comparison to this divide differences of denominational membership, worship styles, liturgical practices, church governance, and other trappings of religious tradition shrink in significance. Nevertheless, I have two concerns. The first is that this second way of understanding evangelicalism totally excludes consideration of a sense of earnestness or a life-changing commitment. Earlier I criticized a conceptualization of evangelicalism as focusing exclusively on the revival, renewal movements within Protestantism; it is also an error to focus exclusively on an intellectual assent to certain beliefs. Evangelicalism’s special nature, I will suggest later, is to combine an acceptance of historic, orthodox Protestant beliefs with a certain heartfelt commitment that is life-changing. The problem emerges when surveys ask about their respondents’ beliefs but do not consider the fervor or life-changing commitment with which those beliefs are held. For some they may be no more than an intellectual assent based on habit or what at the time “sounds right.” For others they may play a central role, or at least a significant role, in their lives. Yet questions asking about beliefs do not tap into this dimension. Therefore, conceptualizing evangelicalism purely as a matter of belief misses the sense of fervor and life-changing commitment that is central to the revival movements that should also be seen as part of present-day evangelicalism.

A second concern is that operationalizing the understanding of evangelicalism in terms of holding to certain historic, orthodox beliefs can presuppose a level of theological or doctrinal sophistication that is not present. One can certainly imagine there are many persons who are faithful church members on the basis that they “love the Lord” and find forgiveness through Jesus Christ and acceptance in a community of believers, but have never been exposed to or thought through questions concerning the nature and reliability of Scripture, the personhood of Satan, and other such questions with which scholars are well-acquainted. Many of the questions seeking to distinguish between evangelical and mainline Protestants are rooted in the modernist-traditionalist controversies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many churches in both the modernist/mainline and the traditionalist/evangelical sides of this dispute now take for granted the side of the dividing line on which they fall and do not dwell on these doctrinal disputes. They rarely are the subject of sermons or small-group discussions. Thus, it is understandable if many ordinary parishioners, even if deeply rooted in what researchers would identify as a clearly mainline or evangelical church, do not give the responses to doctrinal questions that scholars would expect.25 There are ways this concern can be largely met, but it remains a challenge researchers need to overcome in survey research.

Evangelicalism as a Tradition within Protestant Christianity

The concept. Many scholars—and especially some very prominent political scientists and sociologists—have conceptualized and defined evangelicalism as a tradition within Protestant Christianity. It is important to examine carefully this concept and its operationalization since it is widely used by scholars of religion and public life. Corwin Smidt, in his 2013 book, American Evangelicals Today, takes this approach and has an especially clear explanation and defense of it. At the outset of his book he states that “evangelical Protestantism is defined and examined in this study in terms of affiliation with a particular religious tradition.”26 Smidt goes on to write that evangelicalism should be “viewed as a social group manifesting an organic character bound together by social ties and organizational alliances.”27

In this view, to be an evangelical one must be affiliated with particular religious bodies that exhibit some historical and organizational linkages. … Members of a religious tradition are linked together socially, whether through patterns of social interaction, networks of social memberships, weak forms of social ties, or the institutions of which the members may be a part.28

This leaves the crucial question of what defines the evangelical tradition. What are the boundaries of that tradition that determines who is in and who is out? Here things again become murky. Both beliefs and the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival movements we have already considered play a role. At one point Smidt refers to “the beliefs that define a tradition.”29 But this cannot be the whole story, since Smidt and other scholars using the religious tradition approach exclude African-American churches from evangelicalism, even though survey research regularly show that their beliefs are very close to the churches they consider to be in the evangelical tradition.30 As we will see shortly, Smidt and others who take the “religious tradition” approach to defining evangelicalism use membership in certain, specified denominations as the criterion for considering individual respondents as evangelical or not. And those denominations are determined largely by their adherence to historic, orthodox Protestant beliefs and their being woven into a network of denominations with certain historic roots in common or marked by current interactions of some sort. The latter standard means most, but not all, denominations considered evangelical will have some roots in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century renewal movements mentioned earlier. This also means that historically African-American denominations will be excluded because of their different roots and history than that of predominantly white denominations. Thus they are seen as being in a separate religious tradition, that is, as not possessing a common history or the same networks of social interactions that the white evangelical denominations do. Also excluded are mainline Protestant denominations that do not hold—or at least do not clearly hold—to historic, orthodox Protestant beliefs. They too are seen as not being a part of the same network of social interactions as are “evangelical” denominations.

How this understanding of evangelicalism is operationalized for research purposes.

In 2000 a group of sociology of religion scholars developed for research purposes a means to categorize persons by the religious tradition to which they belong.31

This gave birth to the RELTRAD (religious tradition) measure that has been widely accepted and is used by many research organizations and scholars. It is used by the highly respected Pew Research Center, including in its massive 2007 and 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Surveys. Under this scheme evangelicals are considered persons who belong to one of a number of Protestant denominations that the researchers have determined to be evangelical in nature. But what denominations are considered to be evangelical? The scholars who first developed the RELTRAD measure have written: “A religious tradition is a grouping of denominations and local churches that share a set of beliefs, practices, similar historical roots and organizational ties that distinguish them from other religious groups.”32 They cite here four characteristics that make up a religious tradition: churches’ and denominations’ beliefs, practices, historical roots, and social or interactive ties.

Thus researchers who view evangelicalism as a religious tradition typically ask respondents with what church or denomination they are affiliated. By a series of follow-up questions they determine the exact church or denomination of which they are members or, as it is often put, feel most closely aligned. Based on historic roots (here the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revivalist traditions come into play) and beliefs (especially the extent to which the official positions of the denomination align with historic, orthodox Protestant doctrines) denominations are held to be evangelical Protestant or mainline Protestant. Historically African American denominations are a third category. Also taken into consideration are denominations’ affiliations with national associations of churches judged to be mainline or traditional, orthodox (that is, evangelical) in nature. Based on the survey respondents’ church affiliation, they are then placed into one of three groupings: evangelical, mainline, or Black Protestant. Those attending a predominantly Hispanic or Asian church or denomination are usually placed in the evangelical category. Roman Catholics are placed in a separate “Catholic” category. This is the RELTRAD measure.

A critique. There is a theoretical and a practical, implementation problem with using RELTRAD to identify evangelicals. On a theoretical level RELTRAD seeks to identify the evangelical religious tradition and believes it significant that persons can be considered a part of that tradition whether or not they hold to beliefs and patterns of behavior that many consider to be evangelical in nature (as just seen in the prior section). That is why persons holding to typical evangelical beliefs who are members of a mainline denomination or of a historically African-American denomination are excluded as being evangelicals, and why persons not holding to typical evangelical beliefs or not showing even a basic religious commitment but who are members of a denomination considered evangelical are included. More on this in a moment. The problem arises from the fact that although RELTRAD is a scheme for classifying organizations, the final goal is to classify individuals.

Individuals are classified based on the church (that is, the organization) to which they belong and the findings of the many surveys that use RELTRAD—and the journalists who report them—report the opinions, activities, and voting patterns of individuals. As indicated earlier, RELTRAD makes use of beliefs and practices, but they are organizational beliefs and practices that are used as indicators of likely common historical roots or social interactions. Yet RELTRAD is used as a means to classify individuals.

But one cannot assume that someone who is a member of an “evangelical” denomination is thereby an evangelical in any meaningful sense. Nor can one assume that someone who is not a member of an “evangelical” denomination is not nevertheless evangelical in some important ways. Many surveys have shown that many individuals classified as “evangelical” under RELTRAD are only marginally involved in the churches to which they belong. For example, the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey revealed that a surprising 27 percent of persons classified as “evangelical” under RELTRAD attend church “never” or only “a few times a year.” It also found that 21 percent of RELTRAD evangelicals reported that religion is only somewhat or not important in their lives.33 Smidt has reported that 25 percent of RELTRAD evangelicals agreed that “all major religions are equally good ways of knowing about God.”34 Yet under RELTRAD such persons are classified as an evangelical and their political and social opinions are reported as indicating where evangelicals are on the political and social map. Also, many persons who are not members of an “evangelical” denomination can be considered to be evangelical in some important ways. In fact, surveys have found that 15 to 20 percent of the members of mainline denominations are evangelical in terms of beliefs or by self-identification.35

There are also practical challenges in classifying persons as belonging to an evangelical or a mainline church. In responding to them RELTRAD seems to violate some of its own principles. Certain denominations cannot have been included in the white evangelical tradition because of roots in a distinct religious tradition marked by social interactions and a common history or ethos. This is true of churches with a strong creedal tradition, such as those in the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions. There are also churches with a strong restorationist background such as the Churches of Christ, most of whose leaders would insist they are simply “Christians” and avoid the evangelical or any other label. Yet these churches are considered by RELTRAD to be evangelical based on denominational beliefs even though their social and historic ties and current interactions with “evangelical” denominations are limited. Here beliefs trump roots in a historic tradition or current social interactions. At best, these churches are on the periphery. What clearly stamp them as evangelical are their beliefs. But then there are also historically African-American congregations and denominations. Here beliefs are ignored and they are excluded from the evangelical category based on an absence of historical roots and present-day social interactions. The absence of historic roots or current social interactions trumps common beliefs.

Also instructive is how RELTRAD handles ambiguous situations. Some respondents, when asked their denominational affiliation, will simply say “Presbyterian” (or some other generic tradition, such as Methodist or Lutheran). But for RELTRAD purposes it makes a big difference if respondents are members of the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or the Presbyterian Church USA (all considered mainline denominations by RELTRAD) or the Free Methodist Church, the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, or the Presbyterian Church in America (all considered evangelical denominations by RELTRAD). The 2007 Pew Landscape Survey found that even when respondents were probed for what specific denomination one was a member of, some would answer, “Just Presbyterian,” “Just Methodist” or “Just Lutheran.” This is not a rare problem for RELTRAD. In fact, the 2014 Pew Landscape Survey found 38 percent of its Protestant respondents fell into this ambiguous category.36 It solves the problem by assigning persons into the evangelical category if they, in response to another question, reported they had been “born again” and to the mainline category if they reported they were not born again.37 Here individual self-reporting or self-identification governed where a person was placed. Ambiguity also enters in for respondents who report they belong to one of the increasing numbers of nondenominational churches. The 2007 Pew Landscape Survey again used self-reported born again status to decide if a respondent was to be considered evangelical or mainline.38 Other studies have inexplicably placed respondents in the evangelical category if they reported “at least moderate church attendance.”39 RELTRAD in more than a few cases has had to turn to individual self-reporting or even church attendance in order to place respondents in a religious tradition, an approach taken by some other researchers but rejected by RELTRAD.

In summary, upon closer examination, RELTRAD turns out—in its attempt to operationalize the concept of religious traditions—to include a mixture of membership in a church or denomination, race, self-identification, and even on occasion religious behavior. Membership predominates, but other factors enter in. And the classification of whether a denomination of which respondents are members falls into the evangelical or the mainline category sometimes largely rests on the religious beliefs held by the denomination; sometimes largely on common historical roots or organizational interactions.

A Better Way

It is always easier to criticize than to point to a better way. Thus after freely offering criticism of current efforts to conceptualize evangelicalism and to operationalize it for research purposes, it is incumbent on me to outline what I believe to be a better way. First and foremost, evangelicalism can at heart best be understood as a distinctive religious category, differentiating evangelicals from other Christians and nonbelievers. Earlier we saw the confusion to which understanding evangelicalism as a religious tradition can lead. Confusion and misdirection are compounded if, as is sometimes done, it is seen as a right-wing political and social movement. Clarity is gained if at the outset evangelicalism is considered a religious grouping or category. Whether or not evangelicals constitute a social grouping marked by interactions and a common tradition or whether or not they constitute, even in a loose sense, an identifiable political movement are questions best settled by means of research, not something to be presupposed in the definition of “evangelical.”

If evangelicalism is understood as designating a category marked by certain religious distinctives, what are those distinctives? For historical and clarity reasons I believe evangelicalism can best be viewed as emerging from three historical movements or eras, each of which contribute to or reinforce what today is evangelicalism. Focusing on any one of the three to the exclusion or downplaying of the other two results in a distortion. All three should be given their due. First is the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their fellow Reformers reacted against corruption in the late Medieval Catholic Church. They argued for Scripture as the sole authoritative, binding source of religious truth and for justification by faith alone. Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide were the watchwords. As such the Protestant Reformers saw themselves as going back to the church of the apostles and early church fathers. There was a strong restorationist emphasis in their teachings. A second stream that feeds into evangelicalism are the renewal and revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. The leaders of these renewal movements reacted against a dry, sterile formalism and—influenced by pietism—reintroduced a personal piety rooted in a heartfelt, life-changing commitment to Jesus Christ. Then in the latter decades of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th, Protestant Christianity faced a new challenge in the form of biblical higher criticism and findings of modern science that seemed to undermine the teachings of historic Christianity. Most of the large—and what came to be called mainline—Protestant denominations made their accommodations to these scholarly and scientific developments, playing down or reinterpreting the doctrines of orthodox, historic Christianity. This gave rise to the third stream that feeds into evangelicalism: efforts that reemphasized and defended traditional, orthodox Protestant Christian teachings such as the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture, the reality of miracles including the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, and forgiveness of sins through his death on the cross and his bodily resurrection from the dead. All three of these streams contribute to what can most appropriately be referred to as evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is thereby a division or branch within Protestant Christianity that is marked by (1) belief in the traditional, historic, orthodox Christian beliefs as found in the New Testament and articulated and reemphasized in the Protestant Reformation and in twentieth-century defenses of historic, orthodox Christianity, and (2) a personal, heartfelt, life-changing commitment in accepting those beliefs. McGrath has stated it well:

I have stressed that although evangelicalism has a solid core of doctrines that are inferred directly from Scripture, it is not characterized purely by a set of doctrines. … It is no dead orthodoxy, but a living faith. Scripture is treated as far more than a theological source; it is the basis of Christian life and devotion, personal and corporate.40

Both of these characteristics are crucial in conceptualizing evangelicalism and should be given their due in defining it and in operationalizing it for research purposes.

Certainly those who call themselves evangelicals see themselves in this light. One can go back to the beliefs that scholars such as Packer, Bebbington, and McGrath have emphasized and see that they manifest all three streams that have contributed to evangelicalism: the Protestant Reformation, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival movements, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century defenses of historic, orthodox Protestantism. This is the Christianity of widely recognized current or recent neo-evangelical leaders and organizations. I am thinking of such persons as Carl H. F. Henry, John Stott, Billy Graham, Richard Mouw, and Philip Yancey; leading institutions such as Wheaton College in Illinois and Fuller Seminary in California; the widely recognized flagship neo-evangelical periodical, Christianity Today; student organizations such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship; and associations such as the National Association of Evangelicals. But this is not the entire picture. Evangelicals are a diverse lot. Also included are persons with fundamentalist leanings, such as the late Jerry Falwell, a wide variety of Pentecostal and charismatic leaders and associations, independent leaders such as James Dobson, and African-American leaders such as T. D. Jakes and Bishop Charles Blake of the Church of God in Christ. Given the great diversity in evangelicalism, researchers will appropriately often wish to subdivide evangelicals into various subgroups, such as region, race, theological differences, historic roots, and other such characteristics. But this ought not to change the fact they are all indeed evangelicals.

Evangelicalism as I have conceptualized and defined it here is at its heart a distinctive religious category (that is, its members share certain distinctive religious characteristics but do not necessarily interact or have regular social contacts or share a common history to any great degree). Thus African-American, creedal, Pentecostal, separatist Protestants, and others are all a part of the evangelical camp. Although acceptance of certain religious beliefs and a heartfelt, life-changing commitment to them are the defining marks of evangelicalism, they are often—even though not always or necessarily—accompanied by social interactions and common, often interdenominational communication and ties. The extent to which this is the case is properly the subject of research, not something presumed in the definition of evangelicalism. Perhaps evangelicalism can best be understood, as Bebbington does, as a family of religious groups.41 It is composed of differentiated religious groups united in basic religious beliefs and a heartfelt commitment to them.

Does Any of this Matter?

But does any of this matter? As long as researchers make clear what they are studying, how they are defining their categories, and how they are operationalizing those categories for research purposes, is there any reason for concern? Does it make any real difference if one conceptualizes evangelicalism as I do here or in some other way? I believe it does. It matters deeply. The heart of my concern lies in the fact that when evangelicalism is defined in terms only of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival movements, or only in terms of the beliefs to which individuals hold, or only in terms of belonging to a certain religious tradition, a distorted, or truncated, understanding of what should be a broad, rich, and deep—and distinctive—religious division or branch within Protestant Christianity results. Evangelicalism is made to appear shallower, less diverse, more Anglo, and more white—with more uniformly conservative views political and social questions—than it otherwise would appear. It is then all too readily seen as a recent, and perhaps passing, religious phenomenon. It is easier for academic and journalist elites to write it off as a fringe phenomenon, and not see it as one of the great traditions within Christianity with its roots going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Or worse, it is easier to view it as a rather peculiar, very recent, politicized, white, American distortion of mainstream Christianity.

RELTRAD in particular excludes as evangelicals two especially important groups: African-American Protestant Christians and evangelicals within mainline Protestant denominations. As seen earlier, some researchers have estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the members of mainline Protestant denominations hold to traditional, evangelical beliefs, many no doubt in a heartfelt, life-changing sense. As also seen earlier this is even more true of African-American Protestants. Under my conceptualization of evangelicalism, both groups should be included. As also seen earlier, RELTRAD includes persons as evangelicals who under my conceptualization are excluded, namely, members of evangelical denominations who are largely uninvolved and hold to beliefs at variance with historic, orthodox Protestantism. Yet RELTRAD ignores individual beliefs and commitments and instead uses membership in an organization to study the political and social opinions and behavior of individuals. Also, when evangelicalism is defined as the present-day manifestation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival and renewal movements it becomes easier for secular scholars and journalists to write off evangelicalism as a strange phenomenon and not to be taken seriously.

More specifically, there are two reasons why I believe the confusion arising from the way many scholars and other researchers conceptualize and operationalize “evangelical” is a serious problem with negative consequences. First, it can drive persons away from churches that identify as such. If persons see becoming a Christian (in an orthodox, evangelical sense) involves identifying with a white, Anglo tradition with uniformly conservative views on social and political issues, many will be driven away from the church. Every time researchers, sociologists, political scientists, or other scholars present “evangelicals” as an almost entirely white, Anglo tradition whose members hold uniformly conservative political and social views, I fear the church is losing members or potential converts, especially among racial and ethnic minorities and among Millennials and other young persons.

A second negative result of the current understandings of evangelicalism is that it becomes easier for the secular news media and secular academics to write off evangelicals as largely irrelevant to serious considerations of social, economic, and political issues. When Mark Noll, a historian who himself is a self-identified evangelical, can write “how prone evangelicals have been to violate decorum, compromise integrity, upset intellectual balance, and abuse artistic good taste,”42 one can see the problem. But this observation is only true, if one defines evangelicalism in terms of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival movements and some of their more recent incarnations. This means that when a scholar makes an observation such as this—even though he is being accurate when “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” are defined in a certain way—it is far from accurate when evangelical and evangelicalism are understood as a broader, richer division within Protestantism. The end result is that academic and journalistic elites often write off evangelicals in the broader sense based on a more narrow definition. Examples abound. For example, a political reporter for the New York Times wrote in analyzing the 2016 presidential race: “These candidates would tack predictably to the right during the primaries to satisfy the evangelicals … and other inconvenient but vital constituents who made up the ‘base’ of the [Republican] party.”43

Similarly, when scholars conceptualize evangelicalism as a religious tradition, they are likely to end up with a population that is whiter and more uniformly conservative in its voting patterns and social and political opinions than are evangelicals conceptualized as persons with a sincere, life-changing commitment to certain religious beliefs. The latter are more likely to cut across racial, ethnic, and denominational lines. The problem is that academic and journalistic elites are again led to write off evangelicals in the broader sense.

In short, evangelicalism, properly understood and defined, is a deeper, broader, richer Christian tradition within Protestantism than many are led to believe by the way it is often conceptualized and analyzed by today’s researchers.

Can “Evangelical” be Operationalized in Survey Research?

One final question is whether or not my conceptualization of “evangelical” can be operationalized for survey research purposes. I believe it can. What researchers could do is to determine, first, if their respondents consider themselves to be Protestant. Next, they can ask some very basic questions concerning the respondents’ religious beliefs with an emphasis on basic beliefs of historic, orthodox Protestants. Especially helpful would be questions asking concerning one’s views of the Bible and concerning the divine nature of Jesus and he being the only way to salvation. Researchers must be careful not to go too deep into issues that ordinary church members cannot be expected to have thought through. But this can be done. The 2007 Pew Religious Landscape survey, for example, asked respondents whether they believed the Bible to be the word of God or a book written by men and not the word of God (the two options the survey gave them). They also were asked if they believed “My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life,” or believed “Many religions can lead to eternal life.” Those who gave the first of these two sets of responses would signal they held to historic, orthodox Protestant beliefs. Or researchers could use the four belief statements presented earlier in this essay that were developed in 2015 by the NAE and Lifeway Research. In both these instances the belief questions are sufficiently specific and discerning without assuming an unrealistic level of theological sophistication. Similarly, one can tap into a sense of commitment or earnestness. Again, using the 2007 Pew Landscape Survey as an example, it asked the respondents concerning church attendance, daily prayer, and attendance in a religiously-based small group. One should not set the bar to be considered an evangelical too high or too low. One could, for instance, require that to be considered an evangelical one would have to engage in two of three practices: attend church at least weekly, engage in daily prayer, and attend a small group at least once every two weeks. Thus to be considered an evangelical one would have to (1) be Protestant, (2) believe the Bible to be the authoritative word of God and Jesus to be the only way of salvation, and (3) engage in at least two of the three religious practices just mentioned.

This is one example of how my conceptualization and definition of evangelicalism could be operationalized for survey research purposes. It would categorize individuals based on their religious beliefs and religious commitments in practice, not on the basis of organizational membership, beliefs alone, self-identification with a traditionally revivalistic or charismatic movement, or some other characteristics that tend to be uni-dimensional. The end result is a category of “evangelical” that is less intrinsically white, less Anglo, and perhaps less uniformly conservative than is now often found by scholarly researchers and reported in the news media. This approach is both clearly rooted in a historically justified conceptualization of evangelicalism and will lead to a picture of evangelicals and evangelicalism that is broad, yet more discerning.

Cite this article
Stephen V. Monsma, “What is an Evangelical? And Does It Matter?”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:4 , 323–340


  1. This is a shortened and revised version of a paper first given at the Henry Symposium on Religion and Politics, Calvin College, April, 2015. I would like to thank George Marsden and Corwin Smidt for reading an early draft of this paper and making many helpful comments and suggestions. Any remaining errors of fact or weaknesses in interpretation are mine alone.
  2. George Marsden, ed., Evangelicalism and Modern America (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), p. viii.
  3. Ibid, p. ix.
  4. Nathan O. Hatch, “Response to Carl F. H. Henry,” in Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), p. 97.
  5. Mark A. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 13.
  6. Ibid., The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 8.
  7. D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism and Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 1. Also see p. 20 where he writes that the decade following 1734 witnessed “the emergence of the movement that became Evangelicalism.” It should be noted, however, that Bebbington, as here, capitalized ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Evangelicalism’ to refer to the specific religious movement that first arose in the 1730s in Britain. He recognizes the evangelicalism not capitalized can appropriately refer to a broader religious tradition dating back to the Protestant Reformation.
  8. See Public Religion Research Institute, “American Values Atlas,” FAQ question: “How do you determine Americans’ religious affiliation?” Available at http://ava.publicreligion. org/faq.
  9. In an essay that deals with such a broad sweep of historical movements within the church, the following critique and the critiques I will make of the following two ways of conceptualizing and operationalizing evangelicalism are necessarily not as thorough as I would like. But I remain persuaded that these critiques, however briefly sketched, touch on genuine shortcomings.
  10. Bebbington, Evangelicalism and Modern Britain, 2.
  11. Ibid, 2-17.
  12. Ibid, 12.
  13. J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 38.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Alister McGrath, Evangelicalism & the Future of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 94.
  16. Quoted in “NAE, LifeWay Research Publish Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition,” (November 19, 2015). Available at research-publish-evangelical-beliefs-research-definition/. Also see Leith Anderson and Ed Stetzer, “Defining Evangelicals in an Election Year,” Christianity Today (March 2, 2016). Available at election-year.html?share=35a6ZrIaP7VRbgv0XqmwQ0piNAZ3BGib.
  17. McGrath, Evangelicalism & the Future of Christianity, 55-56 and 59-85.
  18. See “NAE, LifeWay Research Publish Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition.”
  19. The Barna Research Group has reported its methodology in many places. See, for example, style#.VEfnk10yM8.
  20. From the Pew Research Center’s 2007 U. S. Religious Landscape Survey. Available at www.
  21. From the Henry Institute National Survey on Religion and Public Life. Available at the Henry Institute National Survey on Religion and Public Life 2008, Grand Rapids, MI, the Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, Calvin College.
  22. “NAE, LifeWay Research Publish Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition.”
  23. See out-of-style#.VEfnk10yM8.
  24. “NAE, LifeWay Research Publish Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition.”
  25. For a study that shows “evangelicals” (defined by self-identification plus church attendance) hold to many unorthodox—from a traditional, historic Protestant sense—beliefs, see Kevin P. Emmert, “New Poll Finds Evangelicals’ Favorite Heresies,” Christianity Today (October 28, 2014). Available at poll-finds-evangelicals-favorite-heresies.html. This article is based on Ligonier Ministries, “The State of Theology: Theological Awareness Benchmark Study.” Available at http:// gy-FullSurveyKeyFindings.pdf. Meanwhile, many members of mainline Protestant churches hold to what many consider “evangelical” beliefs. Wheaton College political scientist Mark Amstutz reports that based on their theologically conservative, orthodox beliefs, “a large segment of believers within mainline denominations are Evangelical.” Mark R. Amstutz, Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 42.
  26. Corwin E. Smidt, American Evangelicals Today (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), 15.
  27. Ibid., 41.
  28. Ibid., 56.
  29. Ibid.
  30. See ibid, 67 and 91. Mark Noll has also taken note of this fact. See Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 73-76.
  31. Brian Steensland, Jerry Z. Park, Mark D. Regnerus, Lynn D. Robinson, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Robert D, Woodberry, “The Measure of American Religious Traditions: Toward Improving the State of the Art,” Social Forces, 79 (2000): 291-318.
  32. Robert D. Woodberry, Jerry Z. Park, Lyman A. Kellstedt, Mark D. Regneus, and Brian Steensland, “The Measure of American Religious Traditions: Theoretical and Measurement Considerations,” Social Forces, 91 (2012): 66.
  33. As reported by Smidt, American Evangelicals Today, 61 and 91.
  34. Ibid., 97.
  35. See, for example, Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 32-36.
  36. Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Appendix B: Classification of Protestant Denominations, 100. Available at http://www.pewforum. org/files/2015/05/RLS-08-26-full-report.pdf.
  37. Ibid., 101–107.
  38. Woodberry, Park, Kellstedt, Regneus, and Steensland, “The Measure of American Religious Traditions,” 69.
  39. Ibid.
  40. McGrath, Evangelicalism & the Future of Christianity, 57.
  41. As cited in Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 13.
  42. Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 269.
  43. Jim Rutenberg, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ben Carson?” New York Times Magazine (March 22, 2015): 47.

Stephen V. Monsma

Pepperdine University
Stephen Monsma is a Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University.