What is an Evangelical, Anyway?

Ellision research is a full-service marketing research firm in Phoenix, AZ. They research all kinds of things, but recently, I saw their report entitled, America’s Definition: What Is an Evangelical? This study polled just over 1,000 Americans (age 18 or older) and asked a very simple question:

The phrase “evangelical Christian” is used in the media a lot. In your own words, how would you define exactly what an “evangelical Christian” is? Please be as specific and complete as you can in your answer.

This kind of poll really intrigues me, as it does not give silly multiple-guess answers that typically bias the respondent. Instead, it simply asks the respondent to answer the question in a free format, and then the pollsters analyze the response and try to put it into one or more specific categories. The report even quotes from some of the answers. One respondent actually started, “You really want my answer on this?” He then went on to say that evangelicals are “nutcases.”

The individual answers were quite interesting. One person, for example, said, “I never heard the word before.” Another said, “Radical Right.” The best one was probably:

Follower of the Christian right which is a very conservative group which wants to tell you what is right and not right; for example, Jerry Falwell.

The analysis of the research firm was really fascinating. After analyzing the results, they found that the responses could be grouped as follows:

36% really had no idea.

18% said evangelicals are Christians who try to spread their faith.

9% said evangelicals are just a specific kind of Christian.

9% said evangelicals are zealous or devoted Christians.

8% said evangelicals are Christians who interpret the Bible literally.

8% gave a relatively accurate theological description of evangelicals.

6% said evangelicals are defined by right-wing, ultraconservative politics. *

5% said evangelicals are fanatical (in a bad way) Christians. *

4% gave an assortment of negative descriptions, such as “annoying pest.” *

4% said evangelicals are people who are close-minded about religion. *

3% said evangelicals are people who are greedy. *

3% said evangelicals are people who impose their beliefs on others. *

2% said evangelicals are flashy, especially about worship. *

2% gave a terribly inaccurate theological description of evangelicals.

2% said evangelicals are “professional Christians.”

1% said evangelicals are people who read the Bible, go to Church, etc.

1% said evangelicals are people who try to be like Christ.

The astute reader will see that these number add up to more than 100%, since some people gave answers that had to be grouped in more than one category.

Does it distress me that more than one-third of respondents had no clue what an evangelical is? Not at all. The media is terrible at communicating anything that requires more than a fourth-grade education to understand. Thus, it is not surprising that most people honestly admit that they have no idea what an evangelical is. However, I am distressed by another piece of data in this report: 14% of those who identified themselves as evangelical had no idea what an evangelical is.

The more distressing thing to me, however, is to note that only 1% of responses included something about trying to be like Christ. If a Christian movement should be known for anything, that’s what it should be known for. Why, then, do most people not think about “trying to be like Christ” when they think about evangelicals?

Another thing to note is that if you add up all the negative comments (the starred ones), you get 27%. That means more than a FIFTH of responses were negative. This reminds me of what I mentioned in my post about Myth of a Christian Nation. It is a scandal that evangelicals are such poor representatives of Christ that they are viewed negatively by many people.

So why are evangelicals viewed so mysteriously and negatively by the American public? Well, part of it certainly can be blamed on the media. Since the news organizations are inept at communicating both religion and science, most people know little about either. Also, the fact that evangelical Christians have become so strongly associated with right-wing politics definitely does not help. I am an ultraright conservative myself. However, as I mention in my post about Myth of a Christian Nation, the Christian faith should not be associated with a specific political view. This is one reason why. Politics is a dirty, nasty game, and the church has no business getting entwined in it. We as Christians should use our faith to inform our political views, but we should not sully the name of Christ by claiming that He would want us to vote a specific way or for a specific party. Jesus doesn’t worry about how we vote. He worries about how we live.

And that, my friends, is the ultimate reason this poll didn’t turn out better for evangelicals. If we as evangelicals actually spent our time loving people outrageously, serving people selflessly, and giving what we have willingly, it wouldn’t matter how rotten the media are at communicating about religion. It wouldn’t matter which politicians we supported. It wouldn’t matter how we were portrayed in movies. If we lived like Christ, that would shine through, and it would overcome all the negative nonsense. I personally have resolved to do whatever I can to bring that “people who try to be like Christ” number to more than 1% by the time such a poll has been taken again. I hope you do, too.

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