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Just how monolithic are American Evangelicals?

ASK THIS | October 31, 2005

Evangelical Protestants were widely credited for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, and one of their own, former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, was assumed to be a cultural conservative almost entirely on the basis of her religious affiliation. Political scientist Laura Olson asks an important political question: To what extent are evangelicals a political monolith?

By Laura R. Olson
(864)  656-1457

Q.  What is an evangelical Protestant?

Q.  Are evangelical Protestants demographically different than other Americans?

Q.  Do evangelical Protestants constitute a political monolith?

Q.  Is there an evangelical Left in politics?

Evangelicals are white or Latino Protestants who value strict interpretation of scripture, work to develop personal relationships with Jesus Christ, and fervently wish to spread the “good news” of their faith. They worship in a wide range of churches, some of which belong to organized denominations (such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God) and others of which do not. 


Increasing numbers of evangelical places of worship are called “megachurches” because of the enormous size of their sanctuaries and congregations. Distinctive subcategories of evangelicals include fundamentalists (note that the two terms are not synonymous), who are theologically the most conservative, and Pentecostals, who embrace a highly emotional worship style and believe in  “gifts of the spirit” such as speaking in tongues. Altogether, evangelicals constitute approximately 28 percent of the U.S. population.

There is tremendous religious diversity within the evangelical world, but is there also political diversity?

Evangelicals were once seen as the “poor relation” of socio-economically elite mainline Protestants (e.g., Episcopalians, Presbyterians). Until the mid-twentieth century, evangelicals tended to isolate themselves and eschew modernity. That changed after the Rev. Billy Graham began teaching that it is possible to be a “Bible-believing” Christian and also participate in the secular society. According to data collected by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in 2004 for the PBS television series Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, evangelicals do not differ from the rest of the American population in terms of educational attainment. However, they are more likely to be married than non-evangelicals (64 percent versus 51 percent), and they are more likely to live in a rural area or a small town than non-evangelicals (52 percent versus 35 percent). They also attend religious services more often than non-evangelicals (66 percent of evangelicals attend at least once a week compared to 46 percent of non-evangelicals).

In 2004, Karl Rove decided that a Bush-Cheney key to victory lay in mobilizing evangelicals. Bush had lost the popular vote in 2000 by a relatively slim margin and Rove correctly reasoned that if the Republican base could be persuaded to go to the polls in large numbers and vote for Bush in 2004, the debacle of the previous election would be avoided and the president reelected. A sustained grassroots initiative was organized through an Internet site to mobilize conservative Christians, who Rove saw as Bush’s most reliable base constituency.

Despite massive efforts, however, national data from a 2004 survey undertaken by political scientist John Green at the University of Akron show that evangelical Protestants were only slightly more likely than Americans at large to vote—63 percent of evangelicals as opposed to 61 percent of the entire electorate. To be sure, white evangelicals voted for Bush at much higher rates (78 percent) than did the electorate at large (51 percent). However, “traditionalist” Catholics (those who attend mass frequently and adhere closely to the teachings of the Church) turned out at an even higher rate than evangelicals (77 percent) and voted for Bush almost as often as did evangelicals (72 percent), according to the same survey. The Bush-Cheney campaign’s success was due in substantial part to this unprecedented alliance between conservative evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics.

All the political emphasis on evangelicals has been on the Republican right. Is there such a thing as an evangelical left? One might think not, but in fact there are several evangelical interest groups that advocate moderate-to-progressive politics, especially regarding issues of poverty, racial justice, and the environment. Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourners and editor of the magazine of the same name, is probably the most visible representative of the evangelical left. Sojourners made news in 2004 when they launched a national public awareness campaign under the slogan “God is not a Republican … or a Democrat.” Wallis also founded Call to Renewal, a Christian antipoverty organization, in 1995. Another leader of significance is Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, who has worked diligently for peace and justice for three decades.   

Are Wallis, Sider and a few others lone voices in the wilderness? While most evangelical Protestants did vote for Bush in 2004, the University of Akron survey found that 52 percent of “modernist” evangelicals (those who displayed the least conservative religious beliefs and practices) voted for John Kerry. Fully 44 percent of modernist evangelicals said they were Democrats—and only 30 percent claimed to be Republicans—in a separate national pre-election poll done by the University of Akron. However, according to Akron political scientist John Green, only about one in every ten evangelicals should be characterized as modernist. Thus it is fair to say that evangelicals do not constitute an entirely solid political monolith. Even though the fact remains that a sizable majority of evangelicals are conservative Republicans, we should not assume that every evangelical holds conservative views on every issue on the public agenda.

Posted by Tim
04/03/2009, 02:28 PM

Why in the world do you define evangelicals as only white or Latino Protestants? I am an academic myself, in religion, and I have never heard African-Americans defined out of evangelicalism. Nor have I seen it denied that evangelicals actually do appear in the Catholic and Orthodox churches as well.

I'm afraid you're letting your political preferences color your sociology.

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