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Definitions of the Christian term "evangelical"

A 2008 public opinion poll


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Public opinion poll:

A survey conducted in 2008 by Grey Matter Research & Consulting concluded that: "Almost half of all Americans don’t really know what an 'evangelical Christian' is, and the rest generally can’t agree on a definition." 1,2

They asked the 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."

The survey involved 1,007 American adults. The margin of error is about ± 3.5%

They note that evangelicals "... are variously defined by their activities, their theology, their politics, their level of devotion, their view of the Bible, their efforts to tell others about their faith, their style – but none of these definitions is embraced by even one out of every five Americans." 

The dozen most common definitions were:

  • 36% of American adults say they have no idea at all what an evangelical Christian is; they could not even guess.
  • 18% define an evangelical by the importance they give to spreading their beliefs.
  • 9% define them as a type of Christian -- non-denominational, born-again, Protestant, etc.
  • 9% say they are Christians who are particularly zealous and devoted to their faith.
  • 8% say they focus on the Bible.
  • 8% define them by an item of theology: they believe in the born-again experience, or eternal life through Christ, etc.
  • 6% define them by their conservative worldview or political activity.
  • 5% define them by their fanaticism.
  • 4% define them by some negative characteristic: racist, stupid, hate-filled, illiterate, etc.
  • 4% say they are defined by their close-mindedness
  • 3% define them by their greed
  • 3% define them by their drive to impose their beliefs on others.

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Grey Matter Research and Consulting also found that:

  • Individuals who describe themselves as political moderates are more likely to have no idea what an evangelical is.
  • Political liberals are more likely to have negative comments about evangelicals. They found that:
    "Liberals are nine times as likely as conservatives to define evangelicals as being closed-minded, more than three times as likely to feel they are fanatics, four times as likely to level assorted criticisms at them (e.g. that they’re stupid or racist), and over three times as likely to say they are defined by their drive to impose their beliefs on others."
  • 11% of Americans describe themselves as evangelical.

Some subjects gave some a really off-base and occasionally amusing definition of "evangelical:"

  • "One living as close to the Torah as they know how."
  • "Is a Mormon"
  • "A devoted Catholic"
  • "Sounds like someone who follows Billy Graham. Also sounds like the worship of angels through Christ."
  • Someone who follows the Old Testament and wants no one to deviate from it."
  • "A New Age Christian."

Grey Matter Research commented:

"Another thing to take away from this study is how much negativity there is toward evangelicals in general -- and not just from political liberals. Evangelicals were called psychos, stupid, narrow-minded, bigots, idiots, manipulative, fanatics, greedy, pushy, loud-mouthed, nut cases, hypocrites, illiterate, screaming loons, delusional, fake, annoying pests, frauds, simpletons, idolatrous, racist, pompous, morons, dangerous, ethnocentric, cruel, liars, dishonest, crazy, nut jobs, nitwits, and freaks. And that is not including some comments which cannot be reprinted here because of the language and/or bodily references involved. The invective and vitriol directed at this population group by some Americans was truly shocking.


Conclusions:

It would seem that there is not a clear understanding among Americans of the meaning of the term "evangelical."

Reporters, newscasters, Internet bloggers etc. might wish to either use another term to describe evangelicals, or to pre-define the term in their reports. Jeffrey Weiss, religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News comments:

"Theologically, anyone who says he or she is Christian and takes the Great Commission seriously could be considered to be 'evangelical.' But that definition is much broader than current popular usage. in her new book, Christine Wicker makes a case that the term has become synonymous with 'Religious Right.' But I think that’s a bit more narrow than current popular usage. When I use it, I try to pair the word with some actual beliefs or positions relevant to what I’m writing about, but that’s not always possible. I think for most people, an evangelical Christian is someone who says they take the Bible very seriously and may well use the word 'inerrant,' believe they have an urgent divine mandate to proselytize people of other religions, consider ‘soul-saving’ mission work as ultimately more important than ‘social gospel’ mission work, and probably consider themselves to be politically conservative.

That scratches the surface of a complex and hardly monolithic public understanding of a complex and hardly monolithic religious identity." 3

Evangelicals may have a public relations problem among those numerous Americans who have a very negative view of their faith; they may wish to commit effort to improve their image.

Evangelicals may wish to try to agree upon a single definition of "evangelical" and promote it among the media.


References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Grey Matter Research and Consulting's home page is at: http://greymatterresearch.com/
  2. "America’s Definition:  What Is an Evangelical?: full study" Grey Matter Research, 2008-SEP-03. at: http://greymatterresearch.com/ This is a PDF file.
  3. Ibid, Page 15.

Site navigation:

Home > Christianity > Groups > Belief systems > Evangelicals > Definitions > here


Copyright © 2003 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-APR-8
Latest update: 2011-FEB-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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