Does ‘Evangelical’ Mean What You Think It Means?

A new LifeWay study finds that fewer than half of self-identifying Evangelicals are actually Evangelical in their beliefs.

Hands raised during a worship service.
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Few movies are as quotable as the 1987 comedic romantic adventure The Princess Bride. Living on through internet memes is the oft-quoted words of the Spanish swordsman, Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Evangelical Beliefs and Identity
Chart showing Evangelical beliefs and identity. (Photo: LifeWay)

Montoya’s words are strikingly fitting for a new LifeWay study that found that, while roughly 25 percent of Americans self-identify as Evangelicals, “fewer than half of those who identify as evangelicals (45 percent) strongly agree with core evangelical beliefs.”

In order to determine how many self-identified Evangelicals aligned with the core beliefs of Evangelicalism, the LifeWay study asked the study participants to confirm four statements developed by the National Association of Evangelicals:

  • 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.

Those who strongly agreed with all four statements were considered by the survey as Evangelicals by belief, compared to those who were Evangelical simply by self-identification. The survey found quite striking differences between these two groups.

LWR Evangelical Snapshot
Chart showing snapshot of Evangelicals by belief. (Photo: LifeWay)

While Evangelicals by self-identification were 70 percent White, Evangelicals by belief had a fairly diverse demographic: 58 percent White, 23 percent African American, 14 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Other ethnicity. The diversity of Evangelicals by belief is quite enlightening, especially due to the fact that, historically, major survey organizations have conflated the terms “Evangelical” and “White Evangelical.” The result, according to Ruth Moon writing at Christianity Today, is that “…on many national survey reports of religious Americans… nearly 1.3 million evangelicals are invisible because they are not white.”

Furthermore, according to the study, both Evangelicals by belief and Evangelicals by self-identification are overwhelmingly Republican or lean toward Republican politics (at least 64 percent). Even a third group, those who would self-identify as Evangelicals if it had nothing to do with politics, were overwhelmingly Republican or leaned Republican (63 percent).

The close association between Evangelicalism and the Republican party has become a topic of discussion, especially in light of the overwhelming and unwavering White Evangelical support for GOP politicians who have been accused of sexual harassment and abuse. According to The Washington Post, 80 percent of White Evangelicals voted for Roy Moore, a professing Christian, in the special election in Alabama, even after a series of allegations were raised that Moore had sexually assaulted and pursued under-aged girls.

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What is at least clear from the LifeWay survey is that the term “Evangelical” is not as clear cut as it once was, and it may not be as helpful as some consider it to be. It has become more evident that those who self-identify as Evangelicals are more likely to align with Republican politics than Evangelical theological beliefs. One may fault major surveys for conflating “Evangelical” with “White Evangelicals.” However, these major surveys may simply be reflecting the fact that self-identifying Evangelicals are indeed heavily majority White.

Given the political, racial, and theological baggage of the term “Evangelical,” Christians of color in particular have discussed whether they should even consider themselves Evangelicals. Influential Christians of color, such as Lecrae, have recently announced their move away from White Evangelicalism. Pass the Mic, a podcast of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, recently aired a discussion between women and Black Christians about the issues they see with the term “Evangelical.”

More and more groups and individuals find the Evangelical label either unhelpful or even a hindrance to Christian ministry and witness. Several Evangelically identifying groups have dropped the Evangelical label altogether in light of these and similar issues. Several White Christian leaders have also taken the lead and no longer identify as an Evangelical.

In the past, Asian Americans and others born to immigrant parents in the United States participated in a “silent exodus” away from their parents’ immigrant churches into predominantly White Evangelical churches. Yet, in the recent several years, they have begun to make a “reverse exodus” out of White Evangelical churches as they have become increasingly made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in such spaces. As Raymond Chang, a campus pastor at Wheaton College, writes:

For all of evangelicalism’s existence, a disproportionate burden has been placed on communities of color to adapt, adjust, assimilate, and acquiesce to the white expressions of Christianity. This is why evangelicals of color broadly understand the adjective “white” being added to evangelicalism, while white evangelicals have a hard time seeing how their evangelicalism is white.

Christians in America have an important task ahead of them: determining whether the term “Evangelical” is helpful anymore. Has “Evangelical” run its course? Adapting the words of Inigo Montoya, is it now just a word that many of us keep using, yet we know nothing about what it even means?


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