How do you know you’re an Evangelical?

George Barna released the results of a new survey he’s conducted on the trends of faith voters in the upcoming election. It’s an interesting read. This excerpt jumped out at me:

One of the most frequently reported on groups of voters is evangelicals. Most media polls use a simplistic approach to defining evangelicals, asking survey respondents if they consider themselves to be evangelical. Barna Group surveys, on the other hand, ask a series of nine questions about a person’s religious beliefs in order to determine if they are an evangelical. The differences between the two approaches are staggering.

Using the common approach of allowing people to self-identify as evangelicals, 40% of adults classify themselves as such. Among them, 83% are likely to vote in November. Among the self-reported evangelicals who are likely to vote, John McCain holds a narrow 39% to 37% lead over Sen. Obama. Nearly one-quarter of this segment (23%) is still undecided about who they will vote for.

Using the Barna approach of studying people’s core religious beliefs produces a very different outcome. Just 8% of the adult population qualifies as evangelical based on their answers to the nine belief questions. Among that segment, a significantly higher proportion (90%) is likely to vote in November, and Sen. McCain holds a huge lead (61%-17%) over the Democratic nominee. Overall, just 14% of this group remains undecided regarding their candidate of choice.

I’m curious as to what the actual “belief question” were, but either way, it’s fascinating that out the 40% of self-professed evangelicals, only 8%, according to Barna’s criteria, exhibit evangelical “beliefs”. So is it that Christians are generally confused as to what constitutes being an evangelical or is that the word “evangelical” fails to specify much at all since it’s a word that can mean anything and in the end, describes nothing. I guess when Tim LaHaye and Jim Wallis both call themselves “evangelicals”, I can see how the confusion could set in.

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4 thoughts on “How do you know you’re an Evangelical?

  1. Here are those nine beliefs from the Barna website:

    “Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”

    “Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

    Sorry it’s so long; Barna seems to want to be pretty specific when it comes to defining “evangelical.”

  2. Tony Jones commented about this recently (http://blog.beliefnet.com/churchbasementroadshow/2008/07/define-evangelical.html ) in a susinct way, pointing to how conservative christians (Barna included) use the term ‘evangelical’ to refer to beliefs, while the broader culture uses ‘evangelical’ as a cultural label (i.e. religious/buying/voting block).

    When we say ‘evangelical’ do we mean beliefs, or do we mean (as most people do) a cultural type?

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