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“If the US had 100 People” – Observations about Evangelicals, Pew Research, and Labels

Observations about Evangelicals, Pew Research, and Labels - William Sipling
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IIn 2014, The Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public life division completed remarkably comprehensive Religious Landscape Study, a massive report detailing religion’s various classifications and categories in today’s America.

This study was and is impressive in its own right, but it caught many public eyes through its highlighting of the religiously unaffiliated, a group also known as the “nones.”

More recently however, Pew has returned to several front pages thanks to a post which summarized quite a bit of the information found in the 2014 study, in an article entitled, “If the U.S. had 100 people: Charting Americans’ religious affiliations.” Essentially, it paints a picture: if there was a neighborhood in America that was demographically representative of the religion of the entire nation, this study shows what it would look like.

If you haven’t had the chance to look over the research, please do—there are some helpful nuggets of data throughout. Much commentary could be made about it, but I want to focus on one grouping in particular—the categorization of “the evangelical.”

Who are the evangelicals?

Who all gets to be listed in this category? See this page and click around for more info. Note that Pew has received criticism due to the fact that the delineator “evangelical” is somewhat “squishy.”

I don’t believe this is Pew’s fault. In fact, it should be noted that historical theological work must have been undertaken by Pew to categorize flavors of Christianity between the “Evangelical Protestant” category and the “Mainline Protestant” category. For instance, the PCA and the PC-USA are both split into their respective parent categories. Similarly, there is also a separation of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran church and the ELCA.

If you read the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, you might have seen that one of the first listings in the “Evangelical Protestant” category is the Southern Baptist Convention. Is this an indication that Evangelical Protestants represent conservatism (theologically and perhaps politically), and Mainline Protestants represent liberalism? Perhaps. While this might seem to be an indicator as to how the groupings might have been outlined, a second glance might indicate that more nuanced religious and theological understandings could inflate or incorrectly categorize some of these divisions, potentially (note: only potentially) causing some issues.[i]

For instance, 3.6% of total the 25.4% category of Evangelical Protestants is made up of the “Pentecostal Family (Evangelical Tradition).” While many in the Evangelical camp would not consider these believers to be heretics, it is likely that some in the Baptist and nondenominational families could consider them to be outside of the evangelical category, due to fundamental differences regarding the work and role of the Holy Spirit (especially as this issue is in close proximity to the important evangelical teaching on biblical inerrancy). Also, included in the Evangelical Protestant camp is the Restorationist family—it is doubtful that Baptists and Restoration Movement churches would claim each other, with competing fundamental doctrines regarding baptismal regeneration, church polity, and more.

Can we classify “evangelicals”?

So how do we classify the differences? As far as I know, it would not be possible to code responses to a religious survey in such a way to return usable results that could specify who exactly is in line with what might be defined as “evangelical.”

Now we’re getting to the point: researchers can’t really label who evangelicals are. Those of us who claim the name—it’s hard for us, too.

This point leads me down two streams of thought. Here’s the first: since it’s hard for anyone to define evangelicals, I do not know how helpful or unhelpful it is for evangelicals to “shift the goalposts” and turn aside when a news report demonstrates a weakness those who fall under a broadly-defined category that may be commonly referred to as “evangelical.” Let me restate that a little less hypothetically: after hearing something on the news about something bad “evangelicals” have done, it may not be the most prudent response to say, “yeah, but that’s those evangelicals. I’m in a different category.”

There is certainly a time and place for more clearly defining terms. Time and place is key. Maybe we ourselves are outside of a large, broad category that may deserve criticism. Even still, there’s something else to keep in mind as well.

Back in September, we found out that a good number of evangelicals are believe in Arianism and Pelagianism. Ok, not really, but that the aforementioned study did not correlate heterodox answers to the ephemeral group of “those liberals,” but rather, to people that sit in your church (that perhaps you are a member or perhaps even the pastor of), that is to say, people that LifeWay and Barna interview. Here’s what I mean: people may want to distance themselves from an evangelical circle of people who don’t know enough theology to think in a Christ-like way, but that circle may come dangerously close to our churches—or even ourselves.

The second thought: is the opposite of the first line of thinking. Perhaps it is right to attempt to purposefully splinter off from things that don’t define a group. If we legitimately aren’t “true Scotsman,” why accept the term? Dr. Russell Moore, back in February, posted about distancing himself from the term. At what point do we—so to speak—go from reformation, to protestation? The Pew study may not help us come closer to deciding that point one way or another, but it is interesting to ponder.[ii]


[i] There are lots of statistical things that go into number crunching, and lots of theological things that go into splicing and splitting categories of religious thought. I do not want to suggest that the entire study is flawed because of this particular issue that may not even be able to fixed.

[ii] For further thoughts, I suggest listening to Dr. Albert Mohler’s The Briefing podcast on the subject: “If the US were a village of 100:” Pew Research Center offers insight into America’s religious landscape.

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