The question used to identify evangelicals in today’s exit polls is “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” Unfortunately, this is not a great survey question.
Evangelicals & evangelicalisms
Does a candidate’s faith matter? That seems to be one of the more pressing questions being asked in opinion pieces and on blogs these last few weeks. Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s evangelicalism has raised eyebrows on the left and hopes on the right. [...]
Discussions of the secular can often be peculiarly remote. Whenever secularism is imagined as unbelief, or political neutrality, or an empty social space to be filled up with religious pluralism, it can be difficult to remember how it can also serve as a framework of corporeal experience and struggle. We are used to associating corporeal discipline and affect with religion, but not with the secular. So it might be excusable to begin with some personal reflection, not for the sake of autobiography but in order to tether analysis in some awareness of how the problem comes to have stakes. [...]
“Evangelicals”—getting a handle on the concept requires asking why we want to know.
Just when we thought we knew what to expect from evangelicals, they seem to be changing again. After more than two decades of developing a public identity as loyal Republican “values voters”—replacing their earlier image as otherworldly, backwoods bible-thumpers—evangelicals seem determined to confound our social scientific wisdom again. Just who are these people? In spite of the difficulty of definition and the constantly shifting terrain, I want to argue that there is a “there” there, but it lies in the stories being told more than in any theological or demographic categories. [...]
Pollsters, sociologists and evangelical Protestants don’t all agree exactly on who counts as an “evangelical.” It is safe to say, though, that definitions of this broad group emphasize certain beliefs, and a certainty of belief, too. Evangelicals, we often say, are Christians who take Scripture literally as the revealed Word of God, who profess a need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and seek salvation exclusively through Christ. In these terms, if any group really defines itself by specific theological beliefs, it must be evangelicals. But beyond credos on paper and professions of belief, what does it mean to be an evangelical in everyday social life? To answer this question we should listen closely to how evangelicals relate to each other and to non-evangelicals. [...]
Despite the fact that there is considerable journalistic and scholarly discussion today concerning the role of evangelicals in American public life, the label itself has become a contested term. Just who should be labeled as evangelicals? And what serves as the basis of unity for those so gathered together under that label? Does the stipulated definition of evangelical exhibit any explanatory power either historically or currently? Or, is the term so contested that it would be better to abandon the use of the label altogether? [...]
Attempts to define “evangelical” often hover between theological definitions from those who self-identify as evangelicals and so-called sociological definitions from those who take themselves to be observers of the phenomenon. Though I don’t think we can make this distinction neat and tidy, let’s work with it as a heuristic starting point. In what follows, I want to make a theological claim for emphasizing a sociological definition. [...]
Just who are America’s evangelicals? Conventional wisdom says that evangelical Protestantism is a white-bread, white people’s religion. The movement’s leading voices in public affairs discourse—Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, megachurch pastors Bill Hybels and Rick Warren and essayist Lauren Winner—all are quite white. Recent polls by the Pew Forum underscore this general impression. More than eighty percent of those polled who are members of evangelical Protestant denominations or independent churches are Caucasians. [...]
Anglophone scholars have long struggled to find a terminology with which to study non-Catholic Christianity in Latin America. We are used to studying Christianity in terms of Catholics versus Protestants, with “Evangelicals” being a subcategory of the latter. But Latin Americans tend to divide Christians into Catholics versus Evangelicals. To make matters worse, when scholars go to Latin America and start talking to those who call themselves Evangelical, they quickly realize that these are what would be called Pentecostals, as spirit baptism, faith healing and speaking in tongues all play a central role in their religious practice. [...]