“The Good News About Evangelicalism”

Are American evangelicals declining in number? Are young evangelicals becoming more liberal? No, according to this article by Byron Johnson, Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

Here’s a taste:

Evangelicalism is not what it used to be. Evangelicals were once derided for being uneducated, unsophisticated, and single-issue oriented in their politics. Now they profess at some of our best universities, parse postmodernity, and preach “creation care” with liberal fervor. . . .

The evangelical movement is undergoing a sea change, to be sure, but it is not the sort most observers imagine. For starters, evangelicals have not lost members. This was confirmed by the Baylor Religion Survey, an in-depth study of American religious beliefs and practices using data collected by the Gallup Organization. . . .

Nondenominational churches, almost exclusively evangelical, now represent the second-largest group of Protestant churches in America, and the fastest growing section of the American religious market. Many denominational churches, especially newer ones, avoid advertising or communication strategies that feature their denominational affiliation. Consider Saddleback Church. All of its members know that their pastor is Rick Warren, but not all know that their congregation is Southern Baptist. Typical is Christ Community Church, near Nashville, Tennessee—a member of the Presbyterian Church of America that does not highlight this fact in Sunday services or sermons.

This trend has affected popular statistics and has also served to exaggerate the loss of religious faith and evangelical influence in America. Most previous research missed a new phenomenon: that members of nondenominational churches often identify themselves on surveys as unaffiliated or even as having “no religion.” Because traditional surveys do not provide categories that adequately describe those who attend nondenominational congregations, their members often check “unaffiliated” in typical surveys and questionnaires. . . .

Another false conclusion frequently drawn from the 2008 election is that young evangelicals are leaving the “Christian right” and becoming social liberals. Early in that election year, ABC World News ran a story titled “Are Young Evangelicals Skewing More Liberal?” The report claimed that young evangelicals were moving to the left on social issues. (The subtitle was “Observers Say Younger Christians Have Longer, Broader List of Social Concerns.”) Similarly, the conservative National Review ran “Among Evangelicals, a Transformation,” an article that drew the same conclusion. Pundits on the left seem hopeful this is true; those on the right fear it may be true. But what do the data tell us?

There is some evidence for this contention. Analyzing data from the Baylor Religion Survey, Buster Smith and I found that young evangelicals were more likely than older evangelicals to think more should be done to protect the environment (57 percent versus 43 percent) and less likely to say that the government was doing too much (52 percent versus 61 percent).

We found no statistically significant difference between younger and older evangelicals on other moral and political issues, however. Younger evangelicals were, in fact, sometimes more conservative than their elders. More of the young believed that abortion of a child conceived as the result of rape was almost always or always wrong (61 percent versus 50 percent of older respondents), and more believed that stem cell research was almost always or always wrong (61 percent versus 51 percent). Younger evangelicals were no less conservative than their elders on marijuana use (72 percent versus 73 percent thought it almost always or always wrong); on homosexual marriage (85 percent versus 83 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed); on government spending on health care (63 percent versus 61 percent thought the government was doing too little); and on the war in Iraq (39 percent versus 37 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that going to war was right).

Read the rest of Johnson’s piece here.

I don’t think that statistics like these are always the most reliable sources of data on the changing nature of American religion. (I prefer a more ethnographic/anthropological approach.) But Johnson’s report makes some compelling claims about the future of conservative Protestantism.

HT = The Way of Improvement Leads Home


About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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