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Polling Matters
The Thorny Challenge of Defining Evangelicals
Polling Matters

The Thorny Challenge of Defining Evangelicals

The practical challenge arising from any analysis of evangelical Protestants in the U.S. is finding a reliable and valid way to measure the group. Much of the data about evangelicals comes from surveys, creating the need for a lucid and straightforward measure that can be easily incorporated into questionnaires.

In recent decades, this challenge has more often than not been met by using the question, “Would you describe yourself as ‘born-again’ or evangelical?”

Gallup began incorporating this question into its surveys in the summer of 1986, primarily as a way of understanding political issues. As Gallup researchers said at the time, “Since the views of the large bloc of evangelical voters likely will be a major factor in the 1988 presidential election, The Gallup Poll regularly will report the vote of both evangelicals and nonevangelicals in three key dimensions: candidate popularity, basic party strength and issues.” Of note here is the fact that Gallup’s analysts used the shorthand evangelicals for the group of those saying yes to the born again or evangelical question, a tradition that has endured since.

This measure of evangelicals is now commonly used in the survey world, including in the widely used exit polls that form a primary basis for the analysis of presidential election results. When one reads that “X% of evangelicals support candidate Y,” it is a good bet that evangelicals were measured using this traditional born again or evangelical question.

Problematic Aspects of the Traditional, Born Again or Evangelical Question

But the traditional question is double-barreled -- it contains two attributes (born again, evangelical) yet demands that the respondent reply with only one answer. (Examples of similar yes/no questions include, “Do you identify as a Democrat or a liberal?” and “Did you enjoy the food and the service you received at this restaurant?”)

Gallup looked into the issue in 2018, when we used a split-sample procedure to ask a half-sample of Americans the traditional born again or evangelical question and the other half just about their identity as an evangelical. The results showed a smaller percentage identifying as evangelical than said yes to the traditional question. As I said at the time, “It is clear that the inclusion of the term ‘born-again’ resonates with more Americans than just the word ‘evangelical’ by itself, suggesting that the words ‘born-again’ have more universal applicability than the term ‘evangelical.’ These findings reinforce how important wording is when facing the basic challenge of determining who evangelicals are in U.S. society today.”

More recently, political scientist Michele F. Margolis of the University of Pennsylvania conducted additional research on the use of the double-barreled born again or evangelical question, publishing the results in a detailed and important article, “Born Again but Not Evangelical? How the (Double-Barreled) Questions You Ask Affect the Answers You Get” in the Fall 2022 issue of the journal Public Opinion Quarterly. Margolis found big differences in the percentages of Protestants identifying as either born again or evangelical when these questions were asked separately, and both of these percentages were different from those answering the combined born again or evangelical question affirmatively. (Margolis also investigated significant demographic differences in self-identification with the two terms.)

New Gallup research conducted in April of this year replicates the findings of the earlier Gallup and Margolis research. The data show the predicted wide difference in the percentage of Americans who identify as born again and those who identify as evangelical when these questions are asked separately. Twenty-seven percent of American adults in the Gallup Panel interviews identify as “born again,” while 12% identify as “evangelical.” Gallup research and the evidence from Margolis' work suggest that both of these estimates are likely different from what the traditional question that asks both questions together would find.

Thus, as Margolis notes in her conclusion, the group that results from the use of the traditional born again or evangelical question is mislabeled if it is shortened to evangelical. Affirmative responses to the traditional question include people who explicitly do not identify as evangelical (but do identify as born again.) The single question that includes both terms is thus misleading unless it is labeled precisely as born again or evangelical, which is rarely done.

And as previously noted, the born again or evangelical question can sow confusion in the minds of respondents who may agree with one term but not the other. The question forces the respondent to give a single yes or no in reference to what are actually two distinct identities -- not an optimal survey experience.

Evangelicals Have Long Been of Interest to Researchers

Interest in evangelicals in the U.S. is not new. Historians can trace the movement back to specific periods in the late 1700s, when Protestant leaders led what came to be called the First and Second Great Awakenings. In the centuries since, groups of Protestants have maintained and morphed the beliefs and practices associated with this movement in many different forms and fashions. The term evangelical has endured but is applied unsystematically across the extraordinarily complex Protestant landscape in the U.S. today -- providing researchers with real challenges in their attempts to measure evangelicals and their impact on society.

Plus, Protestants who are generally within the evangelical space have become more involved in politics over the past half-century or so, giving the evangelical movement significant political overtones that, in turn, affect measurement results.

Despite all of this, there is continuing if not heightened interest in the group today -- represented by headlines such as “In Need of Success in Iowa, DeSantis Starts Making His Pitch to Evangelical Voters,” “Pence Plans To Focus On Evangelical Christian Voters in Bid for U.S. Presidency,” and “The 2024 Jockeying for Evangelical Voters Begins.”

Alternative Measurement Procedures

As we have seen and as has been widely discussed in recent years, exactly who is represented by these references to evangelicals and evangelical voters is not precisely known. Conclusions about evangelicals are inextricably related to how they are measured. And the most common method of executing such measurement -- the traditional born again or evangelical question -- is confusing and inexact.

So what are we to do? There is clearly an enduring interest in understanding groups of American Protestants and how they fit into today’s social and political landscape. The challenge is how to go about measuring them.

From a survey research perspective, there are several potential answers to that challenge.

  1. Continue using the traditional question that asks if one is born again or evangelical.

This works in a general sense, given that the traditional, double-barreled question isolates a group that, even though not very specific and usually mislabeled, is broadly in the evangelical space. This is in essence a “broad net” question that combines people who have differing but related religious identities. Continuing the traditional question also has the advantage of maintaining long-term trends. But as we have seen, the measure is imprecise and may be confusing to respondents. I think researchers are coming to the conclusion that an improved measurement process is needed.

  1. Ask people a simplified question: “Would you describe yourself as an evangelical?”

This is an elegant solution in some ways. It follows time-honored procedures in survey science. If people say they are X, then this social fact has analytic value in and of itself. Perceptions, in other words, are in many ways a meaningful reality.

One challenge here is evidence that this self-identity measure may not capture the desired target group. As we have seen, many Protestants will accept the born again but not the evangelical label. Who are these people, and how problematic would it be to exclude them from the evangelical group?

It’s also possible that some Protestants who in reality meet other definitions of being evangelical shy away from the evangelical label because of its political associations. Those with identical underlying beliefs and practices may vary in willingness to self-identify as an evangelical based on their ideology (those who are politically conservative may be more likely to self-identify as an evangelical). As Baylor historian Thomas Kidd has noted, “Surveys commonly use self-identification to define who counts as an evangelical, a method that usually tells us more about public impressions and the political behavior of the movement than about the beliefs and spiritual habits of the interviewees.”

  1. Ask people questions about their beliefs and practices that are identified as being indicative of evangelicalism.

Asking people to agree or disagree with a specified set of beliefs and then labeling those who agree with the statements as evangelicals is seemingly logical, but largely impractical. There is the initial challenge of deciding on a set of beliefs and practices to use in defining evangelicals. The National Association of Evangelicals, for example, developed a set of four statements it asserts constitute the best measure of being an evangelical. But these in turn can differ from those developed by others. Barna Research, as a case in point, developed its own set of nine beliefs and practices it claims people must agree with in order to be classified as an evangelical.

Others could come up with their own set of statements. Gallup tried a version of this process in 1980, using three conditional belief statements to define evangelicals, but by 1986 had switched to the born again or evangelical measure I’ve been discussing in this article. There are also other practical problems. Most surveys don’t have the space or the time to routinely include a lengthy set of complex theological questions. And many respondents may not be conversant enough with the theological terminology used in these questions to be able to provide quick and valid answers.

A subset of this possibility is to ask people only one belief question, “Would you describe yourself as born again?” This is a simple alternative driven by the common use of this term in evangelical circles. But it would require more research on what that term connotes to people and how it relates to other evangelical measures.

Margolis discussed still another possibility along these lines -- routinely asking all survey respondents both the evangelical and born again questions separately. That would provide the researcher with a lot of interesting data but would require decisions to be made on which of the three resulting measures to use (born again only, evangelical only, both born again and evangelical). And there may be an order effect that would need to be dealt with; asking one of the questions first can affect the responses to the question asked second (although Gallup’s recent research did not show much of this type of difference when we asked respondents about both identities but rotated the order of presentation).

  1. Measure people’s religious activation.

I discussed this approach in my recent article looking at Jimmy Carter and his history with the evangelical movement. As I said there, “If the objective is to segment the Protestant population into meaningful groups that, in turn, help explain other variables of interest, religious activation -- the actual impact of religion in one’s daily life -- deserves consideration.” This isn’t a new idea. Religious groups are quite often subdivided on the basis of how closely and devotedly their members adhere to church doctrine. Jews can be divided into segments on the basis of their orthodoxy, or belief in and adherence to what they perceive to be the core elements of Judaism. Catholics can be divided along similar dimensions, resulting in groups of devout versus lapsed Catholics.

This process would not distinguish between religious traditions within Protestant faiths and can lump together strange bedfellows from different types of religious groups. But it can provide a succinct, meaningful way of understanding groups of non-Catholic Christians and the manner in which their religion does or does not relate to other aspects of their lives.

Bottom Line

The traditional born again or evangelical question has become the dominant method used to identify evangelicals in survey research today. But it is problematic. The question in a crude sense does the job of isolating a group of Protestants who share a basic set of beliefs and practices, but at a cost of imprecision and inaccuracy.

For practical purposes, the challenge is to think harder about the way we operationalize the concept of evangelicalism. The term has entered the everyday lexicon of cultural discourse but remains maddeningly difficult to pin down in empirical research. It may be time to consider shifting to a different approach, to abandon the effort to isolate a group called evangelicals in routine survey practice and to focus on other measures of religiosity that provide more straightforward and meaningful results.

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Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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