Leith Anderson and Ed Stetzer on Defining Evangelicals In an Election Year


A new research method could help us get beyond political stereotypes.

These days, everyone wants to know what evangelicals believe—especially about political issues.

Researchers have asked evangelicals what they think about same-sex marriage, science, the death penalty, immigration, and, especially, whom they plan to vote for in the upcoming election.

That’s understandable. Americans who identify as white evangelicals remain a powerful voting bloc in the United States—representing 1 out of every 5 voters in recent presidential elections, according to The Pew Research Center. And most—about 8 in 10—have voted Republican in at least one election. So it’s no surprise that Donald Trump recently proclaimed, “I am an evangelical.”

But who is an evangelical? Many pollsters and journalists assume that evangelicals are white, suburban, American, Southern, and Republican, when millions of self-identifying evangelicals fit none of these descriptions.

One of us (Leith) has led the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) for a decade. The other (Ed) leads LifeWay Research, one of the largest Christian research groups in the world. We think there is a more coherent and consistent way to understand who evangelicals are—one based on what evangelicals believe.

Why It Matters

The desire to survey white evangelicals to determine their political interests inadvertently ends up conveying two ideas that are not true: that “evangelical” means “white” and that evangelicals are primarily defined by their politics.

But voting isn’t the only thing—or the main thing—that most evangelicals do. Politics are important, but politics aren’t our defining characteristic, nor should they be.

And clearly not all evangelicals fit the white evangelical category. Our country has become more diverse over the past half-century, and so have evangelical churches. To equate “evangelical” with “white evangelical” leaves out many people with evangelical beliefs.

“You never hear about black evangelicals,” Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, said last year. “Watch the 2016 election. When they talk about evangelicals again, they won’t go to Bible-believing black evangelicals. They’re going to talk to white people.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Leith Anderson and Ed Stetzer