Evangelicalism has profoundly shaped our culture, our politics, and our world. Yet the basics of who evangelicals are, what they believe, and the range and diversity of thought within the movement are often misunderstood.
Peacemaking—collaboration across lines of difference for the common good—requires vital, diverse movements to confront and transform the seemingly intractable issues of our day. A more nuanced understanding of evangelicalism will better equip peacemakers of all stripes to effectively build these movements and engage our world.
This set of Frequently Asked Questions aims to provide a basic understanding of evangelicalism generally, with an emphasis on evangelical communities in the United States. It does not (and cannot) capture the entirety of the evangelical world’s own internal and complex diversity—especially in a moment of significant evolution.
Our hope for this document is twofold: that it would 1) nuance simplistic narratives often told about the evangelical community from those outside; and 2) stretch those within evangelicalism to better understand the diversity within their own community.
The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek “euangelion,” which literally translates to “good news.” This gets at one of the core elements of evangelicalism: evangelism, or sharing the “good news” of salvation through Jesus.
Yet defining “evangelical Christianity” is, in reality, complex.
Unlike Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Protestant denominations like Presbyterianism, there is no institutional hierarchy for evangelicalism. For example, there is no evangelical Pope.
Instead, “evangelicalism” is a Christian worldview that largely (although not exclusively) resides within Protestantism. While there are evangelicals within Protestant denominations that self-define as “evangelical,” many evangelicals are non-denominational—meaning their churches are not part of a formal institutional hierarchy. As such, the way Scripture is interpreted and resources are gathered and shared tends to happen at a much more local level.
This reflects evangelicalism’s emphasis on individual conversion, personal reading of the Bible, authority of scripture, and the imperative to share the gospel (see Question #2): emphases which distinguish it from other Christian traditions.
Evangelicalism is also its own subculture. Evangelical communities across the world are unified through their engagement with Christian media, such as best-selling books, films, Bible studies, and music, as well as some news outlets. This content continues to shape what “Christian” means for many evangelicals today The prominence of this evangelical subculture may explain why some Christians hold “evangelical” beliefs, even if their official churches do not.
Self-identification is the simplest way to arrive at a number. Yet self-identification represents more of a cultural identity (and in the U.S., increasingly a political one), than an organized belief system.
The other way sociologists identify evangelicals is through their commitment to a few core beliefs about the Bible and Christianity. Known as the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” evangelicalism’s four pillars are:
Biblicism (Biblical authority): A belief that the Bible is the inspired, authoritative word of God. Some evangelicals believe the Bible must be read literally while many more read it as a mixture of historical narrative, poetry, apocryphal literature, and other genres. Yet a hallmark of evangelicalism is a high regard for the authoritative nature of the Bible as God’s word.
Crucicentrism (Centrality of Jesus): The only path to salvation is through Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross (Latin “crux”).
Conversionism (Born again experience): People must accept the faith through a conversion experience or personal decision to follow Christ. It is not enough to be born into the faith and baptized as a child.
Activism (Good works and evangelism): Expression and sharing of the Gospel through missionary work and efforts at social reform.
Using the Bebbington Quadrilateral, roughly 8% of the American electorate and 386 million people worldwide count as evangelical—numbers significantly lower than data sets based on self-identification. In fact, significant differences on doctrine and religious practice exist between this smaller group and the larger community of self-identified evangelicals.
The numbers of self-identified versus belief-based evangelicals are shifting in dramatic ways in the U.S. In the past four years, “evangelical” has become so synonymous with white, theologically and politically conservative voters that many people who once would have
self-identified as “evangelical” no longer do so, though their theological beliefs may not have changed. This includes many Black and Brown evangelicals, who are increasingly alienated by the rise in prominence of the politicized white evangelical movement (see Question #11). Some others opt-in to the label, though they might not share the core beliefs of evangelicalism, as they feel “evangelical” increasingly describes their political identity. These linguistic and cultural nuances make reaching an accurate tally of evangelicals in the U.S. difficult, though the community’s influence regardless of size is unquestionable.
3. Is evangelicalism the same as Protestantism? Why does the distinction matter?
In short: Almost all evangelicals are Protestant; but not all Protestants are evangelical.
Protestantism began in the early 16th century as a protest movement—hence the name “Protestant.” A German monk named Martin Luther sparked this protest, which became known as “The Reformation.” Luther and others sought to reform what they believed were theological excesses and abuses of power by the Roman Catholic Church.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to Castle Church’s door in Wittenberg in 1517, he ushered in a new era for the Christian faith. “Protestants” not only rejected some central theological beliefs of the Catholic and Eastern rite churches (for example, various Orthodox churches, such as Greek, Coptic, Russian and Ethiopian), they also structured themselves very differently.
Protestants believed that faith in Jesus alone was sufficient for salvation. They rejected the institutional hierarchy of the Catholic church, and instead emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus. When the Catholic church required a lingua franca—or a common language for worship, which was Latin—Protestants (like the Eastern Orthodox) said that people should be able to worship in their own languages and with some of their own cultural traditions.
In many ways, Protestantism was not just a reformation of faith, but a reorganization of power—away from Rome and the Pope, and towards local communities and emerging nationalities.
Two centuries later, evangelicalism emerged as another reform movement—this time within Protestantism itself. There were early stirrings toward evangelicalism in English reformers such as Thomas Cranmer, William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley in the 1500s, but evangelical historian Mark Knoll cites the beginning of evangelicalism as we know it today within Protestant movements in mid-18th century Britain and the United States.
In emphasizing “salvation by grace alone,” evangelicals cultivated a less ritualistic, more personal and experiential Christianity—one they saw as a more authentic expression of faith yet still rooted in the principles of the Protestant Reformation.
Today, there are significant theological and political differences between many “mainline Protestants” (including Lutherans, Episcopalians, Quakers, and some Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, among others) and evangelicals.
While individual churches and regional governing bodies differ, evangelicals are generally more likely to place a greater emphasis on an individual conversion experience, biblical authority (and sometimes biblical inerrancy or literalism—that everything in the Bible happened exactly as it is told in the text, leading to views like Young Earth Creationism, etc.) and a solely male clergy. Many self-described evangelical churches emerged out of splits within mainline churches on these issues and others.
It depends on what you mean by “evangelical.” In short, most researchers believe the number of evangelicals is holding steady, and possibly increasing. Some recent polling suggests the opposite.
To understand these discrepancies, we must dive more deeply into the polling and the analytical assumptions on which they’re based.
According to polls done by Gallupand GSS, evangelical communities, measured both by church affiliation and self-identification, continue to hold steady at somewhere around 20-25% of the American population (or more depending on the question’s wording).
However, PRRI data from the past five years suggests a much different picture—one of a community in decline across the US. Their research shows a drop from 26% of the American population in 2006 to just 14.5% in 2020, and polling from Pew suggests a similar trend, noting a steep decline in Christians generally, including evangelicals. Yet Pew data set also shows an opposite trend to that described by PRRI, that evangelicals are increasing among the total share of Protestants.
A new Pew analysis complicates the picture even further: 6% more white Americans now identify as “evangelical” than before 2016, while only 2% have abandoned the label through that time. Pew’s data suggested a correlation between who now claims the label with positive views on former President Trump (respondents who hold positive views of Trump tended to opt-in to the evangelical label).
These seemingly incongruous trends arise from discrepancies over who counts as “evangelical,” who counts as members of other faith communities, and how race is accounted for as well (see Question #2).
PRRI, for example, automatically sorts any white Christian who chooses not to self-identify as “evangelical” as a “mainline Protestant”—but mainline Protestantism is more than just a catch-all category for white Christians outside of evangelicalism. It is a tradition with specific denominations, common beliefs, and preserved traditions of social engagement (See Question #3). Many Christians who choose not to self-identify as “evangelical” may not be comfortable labeling themselves as “mainline” either. This reality speaks to a larger and more fundamental shift happening within evangelicalism, as what it means to be an “evangelical” is being renegotiated.
Many Christians who may have once considered themselves “evangelical” and still affirm evangelical beliefs about God and the Bible now no longer self-identify as evangelical because of its associations with the politicized conservative movement (see Question #5 and #6). At the same time, others now opt-in as a form of political identity, though they may not hold evangelical beliefs about faith—as suggested by Pew’s new data. This nuance of meaning between “evangelical by faith” and “evangelical by self-identification” complicates the picture these polls tell about the community.
5. Why are American evangelicals so active and influential politically?
Evangelicals are a highly organized and mobilized voting bloc. How this came to be goes back to a mid-20th century split between fundamentalists and evangelicals.
Modern evangelicalism emerged in the mid 20th century out of the Fundamentalist movement. Fundamentalists hold many evangelical beliefs. However, they sought to separate from what they saw as a corrupt and decaying society. In contrast, evangelicals believe their faith requires them to engage the culture, marketplace, and politics of the day—as well as their non-Christian neighbors—with the “good news” of Jesus.
Early leaders of the movement in the mid-20th century include Harold Ockenga, founder of Gordon-Conwell Seminary; Carl F.H. Henry, editor of the popular magazine Christianity Today and a founder of the National Association of Evangelicals; and the evangelist Billy Graham, all of whom are still highly regarded in evangelical communities.
The growing movement formalized in 1974 with the drafting of the Lausanne Covenant, an ecumenical confession signed by over 2,300 world leaders. The Covenant defines what it means to be an “evangelical” and emphasizes the importance of world evangelism, while also affirming orthodox Christian beliefs. Its signing began a new era for the evangelical movement, which was now defined, global, and unified.
Meanwhile, the expansion of evangelicalism came at a period of dynamic social change in America. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and other liberation movements, the rise of feminism, the sexual revolution, environmental activism, the war in Vietnam and Watergate, and the Cold War, are all part of the environment in which primarily white evangelicals began to see themselves as a voting bloc within the American political system. Out of these changing social mores, evangelicals emerged as a force fighting to preserve what they saw as a traditional, Christian social fabric; protecting it became a matter of existential survival for the community.
Strikingly, Jimmy Carter, a self-professed “born-again” Christian and Democrat nominee, was elected President with substantial evangelical support in 1976. But soon after, conservative leaders within evangelicalism galvanized political support behind leaders who shared their policy priorities of anti-Communism, resistance to school desegregation, opposition to legalized abortion, protection of traditional family structures, and limited government.
Ronald Reagan was on the receiving end of such support, and his election to the presidency in 1980 was the first to receive overwhelming evangelical support for the Republican nominee. Since then, evangelical communities have consistently supported Republican candidates.
The leaders behind this shift in political expression were men like Jerry Falwell, founder of an influential political organization called the “Moral Majority,” and Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition.
But both of these men were more fundamentalist than evangelical in belief. Their rise as “evangelical” leaders represents the birth of a politicized cultural movement, which sometimes has little connection with the evangelical spiritual movement. This is why today sociologists and pollsters use different definitions of “evangelical”: Some people who self-identify as “evangelical” locate themselves within this larger political movement but don’t hold evangelical views on faith; and others who might hold a theologically “evangelical” worldview may increasingly want to dissociate from or feel no connection to the evangelical political movement, even if they share convictions on a core set of issues with religious right leaders (See Questions #6–9).
In terms of spiritual leadership or authority, however, most “evangelical” Christians according to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, and not just self-identification, don’t read books or listen to talks or sermons given by men like Falwell, Robertston or contemporary religious right figures like Jerry Falwell Jr, former president of Liberty University, or Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas.
These voices and the political views they champion resonate with the larger percentage of Americans who still identify with the cultural label, “evangelical.” Indeed, 80% of white self-identified evangelicals voted for President Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections. Though prominent evangelical leaders focused on spiritual formation (e.g. Tim Keller, Beth Moore, and Francis Chan), while still conservative, tend to hold generally more balanced views on political engagement, the momentum established by evangelicalism’s early leaders toward a largely conservative framework has taken deep roots. (See Questions #6 and #7).
6. What are some of the key issues evangelicals care about?
American evangelicals are much more politically diverse than is often portrayed (see Question #7). Yet the majority of white evangelicals have organized into a politicized movement that significantly influences American politics and policy.
When evangelicals first engaged in politics as a voting bloc, they brought with them commitments to a core set of issues including those relating to individual and religious liberty (see Question #16), support for Israel (see Question #9), and abortion (see Question #8). Behind many of these commitments were deep anxieties about what was considered moral and cultural decline in America—which for some white evangelical communities, though by no means all, was sparked by desegregation and changing gender roles.
Evangelicals also care about humanitarian and justice issues (see Question #20), as evidenced through individual giving—a third of philanthropic gifts given by evangelicals go directly to nonprofits working on humanitarian causes. Contrary to the way evangelical organizations spend advocacy dollars, individual giving is increasingly focused on issues like human trafficking, community development, and medical services.
Evangelicals today are generally more conservative on social issues than other Christians or the general population. For example, they have historically been some of the most ardent opponents of gay-marriage and legalized abortions, and advocate strongly for policies that they believe strengthen traditional family structures.
Nevertheless, many evangelicals (including top evangelical leaders) may hold these values but tend not to engage in politics aside from major elections. They argue that politics are a distraction from the essential work of sharing the gospel, which should be every Christian’s top priority.
7. Are all evangelicals politically and theologically conservative?
Simply put, no.
The world of evangelicalism contains as much internal diversity as any other engaged, vibrant, and international community. Evangelicals in Uganda, China, and the U.S. may hold the same core convictions on essential matters of faith, but they engage in society in vastly different ways (see Question #19). This is true even within the U.S., where Black and Brown evangelical communities often approach political life differently than white evangelical communities (see Question #14).
In the U.S., white evangelicals on average support conservative theological and political views (see Question #5). But some portions of the community not only care deeply about Christian engagement in politics, but are also challenging assumptions about what that looks like. Many established and rising leaders are building new constituencies that are transforming the community’s engagement in society.
For instance, activist Shane Claiborne is reimagining what it means to be “pro-life” by advocating for the abolition of the death penalty and promoting an ethic of nonviolence. Justin Giboney and Michael Wear are building a Christian movement beyond partisan affiliation, emphasizing “compassion and conviction” on policies such as immigration and welfare. Famed Bible study creator Beth Moore is pushing back against Christian Nationalism and an ends-justify-the-means approach to politics (see Question 11). And authors Beth Allison Barr and Kristen Du Mez are advocating for women’s rights and an end to Christian patriarchy.
Furthermore, some evangelicals are also stretching boundaries theologically. Anglican churches in the mid-Atlantic are ordaining women as priests, a role broadly seen as off-limits for women in most evangelical churches. Movements to create more multicultural and multi-ethnic congregations are gaining steam across many traditionally white evangelical communities. And in rare circumstances, some non-denominational churches are beginning to ordain LGBTQ clergy.
Though traditional approaches remain the norm, these movements are a growing minority within the evangelical community, especially among younger generations (see Question #13). Many within these movements, though their politics may disagree, choose to stay in their communities where a sense of belonging is strong. On the other hand, many others are now claiming the label of “post-evangelical” or “ex-vangelical” to distance themselves from the political associations of mainstream evangelicalism (see Question #4).
8. Why is abortion and the sanctity of unborn life so important to evangelicals?
Over the last 40 years, no issue has defined or motivated evangelical political action like the issue of abortion. Interestingly, when the Supreme Court handed down its seminal 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, evangelicals had more diverse views on abortion than those they are associated with today. At the time, opposition to legalized abortion was more associated with Catholics than evangelicals.
Since the 1970s, however, this diversity within the evangelical community has largely disappeared as abortion evolved into a highly partisan issue. Since the 1990s, the Democratic Party’s position on abortion has evolved from policies making it “safe legal and rare” to equating abortion rights with human rights in 2020, promoting largely unrestricted access.
The Republican Party, taking cues from evangelical voters and in opposition to its Democratic counterpart, has opposed access to abortion since around the same time. The evolution in the party’s stance on this issue played a significant role in strengthening evangelical commitment to the Republican party. 69% of evangelical voters in 2016, for example, cited abortion as an important deciding factor when considering candidates.
Today, most evangelicals see abortion as possibly the most significant issue in our society. Their consistently anti-abortion stance (more than two-thirds of evangelicals believe abortion should be illegal except in the cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life) is anchored by the belief that life begins at conception. Many evangelicals see defending the sanctity of life in the womb as a central calling for Christians in the modern age.
Many evangelicals have historically voted with the intention of eliminating public funding for abortions and electing judges who will uphold pro-life legislation and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade, which finally happened in June, 2022. This historic decision, which represents the culmination of strategic work by pro-life advocates (including some evangelicals), was met with a variety of responses from evangelicals: Some were jubilant, some had more muted but positive responses, a minority publicly rejected it, and movement leaders began to discuss new next steps in further limiting abortion access now that the Supreme Court had rejected a constitutional right to an abortion.
In addition to political advocacy, some evangelicals have also established a network of crisis pregnancy care centers which connect pregnant women and new mothers to services and government programs—though some of these centers have been criticized for using manipulative tactics to convince women not to receive abortions or only supporting women until the birth of their child but not after. Many Christian pro-life activists, however, are re-imagining what it means to be “pro-life” and equipping churches to be supportive communities for women and children during and after pregnancy.
One key political issue for most American evangelicals today is support for Israel. In fact, US evangelical organizations spend the greatest number of their advocacy dollars every year on Israel. For many evangelicals, this support is rooted in Christian Zionist beliefs.
While there are many variations of the theology known as Christian Zionism, almost all Christian Zionists believe the modern State of Israel plays a key and unique role in God’s plan. For some, supporting a Jewish state in Israel is a way of atoning for Christian antisemitism in the past. For others, support for Israel is based on an End Times belief that the Jewish people must return to the biblical land of Israel to bring about the Second Coming of Jesus—a coming, under this theology, which would spark Armageddon and the destruction of all but 144,000 of the world’s Jewish population. Others care about Israel because they understand Jews to be God’s “chosen” people or believe that if they “bless Israel,” God will in turn bless them. Whether for political or theological reasons, Israel plays a prominent role in the worldview and political/social advocacy of many evangelicals.
This often comes at a great cost to Palestinians—both Muslim and Christian. Politically organized Christian Zionists send hundreds of millions of dollars a year to Israel, some of which supports its most controversial policies, such as illegal Jewish-only towns and cities built on Palestinian land. Christian Zionists have also been the most vocal constituency opposed to any territorial compromises widely regarded as necessary for peace. Palestinian Christians, who represent the oldest segment of the global Christian community (what Christians call the “Body of Christ”) have largely rejected Christian Zionism and have instead called on Christians to engage them and the region differently. Yet the largest “pro-Israel” organization in America, with more than 10 million members, is a Christian Zionist organization.
Many Jews also see many threads of Christian Zionism as antisemitic. Some Christian Zionists hold certain End Times theologies, mentioned earlier, which ultimately instrumentalize the Jewish people as a means to end—an end which involves their destruction no less. Within much of the Jewish community, this kind of theology is considered antisemitic. Other Christian Zionists place emphasis on the Jewish People’s “chosenness,” which many Jews experience as “philosemitic”—a kind of one-sided support that instrumentalizes this chosenness as a means of personal blessing (see our Evangelicals and Israel/Palestine FAQ). Christian Zionist organizations which entrench a one-sided approach to Israel/Palestine only serve to perpetuate conflict, robbing Israelis and Palestinians alike of hope for a secure and free future..
Dispensationalism is one reading of the Bible that allows Christians to make sense of God’s larger story. Largely developed in the 19th Century by British theologian John Nelson Darby, dispensationalism is the theology that gave birth to Christian Zionism and some other Christian traditions that emphasize prophecy and the End Times.
Dispensationalism charts a progressive unfolding of divine revelation and activity over different “dispensations”, or eras, of time from Creation through the End Times, culminating in the final establishment of God’s kingdom. It stresses that certain books of the Bible be read as predicting or prophesying a coming period of tribulation and war, the “rapture” into heaven of believers, the return of Jesus, and a final victory of good over evil. Dispensationalists then will interpret some modern events, like 1948’s establishment of the State of Israel, as fulfilling Biblical prophecy and thus signaling Jesus’ impending return.
While most evangelicals and even some Christian Zionists today reject dispensationalism, this relatively modern theology is foundational to the movement as many of its precepts have been popularized into evangelical culture through books like The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) and the Left Behind series of novels (1995-2007).
Other evangelicals expressed concern over his personal morality and his governing style, but chose to support him anyway for more transactional reasons. In a culture fueled by secular and progressive elites who some evangelicals feel are subverting American culture and diminishing Christian influence, the community’s policy goals became matters of existential importance outweighing the dangers of electing an immoral leader to office.
In 2016, Donald Trump promised evangelicals that he would help them fulfill these long-desired goals. Primarily, he promised to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, overturn Roe v. Wade, promote individual liberty by protecting the 2nd amendment, support Israel carte blanche, and protect the country from socialism. As a result, Trump was often described as the “most pro-life” and “pro-religious liberty president” in history.
In 2020, President Trump ran for re-election on his successful track record: he appointed three conservative justices to the Supreme Court, blocked gun control regulations even after increased public support following mass casualty attacks, and moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As a result of this and other interventions, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu termed President Trump “the greatest friend” Israel has ever had in the White House.
Finally, support for President Trump among certain segments of evangelicals can be seen as divinely ordained with biblical precedents. Some evangelicals saw President Trump as “anointed” by God “for such a time as this.” They viewed him in biblical terms, like the Persian King Cyrus—a surprising vehicle to enact God’s will. The evidence for Donald Trump’s divine appointment primarily lay in his absolute embrace of white evangelicals and their policy positions.
12. Who are Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians? How significant are these evangelical movements?
Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity is one of the most significant Christian movements today. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians can be found within evangelical denominations and communities across the U.S., but they have a number of important distinctives that separate them from evangelicals.
At Pentecost, described in the Bible in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles of Jesus and gave them special, spiritual gifts: speaking in tongues (unknown heavenly languages), physical healing, and prophecy to name a few. Pentecostals believe these gifts exist today for Christians who are baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Pentecostals see this “Spirit Baptism” as a distinct Christian experience following conversion. As a result, Pentecostal Christians and churches are often characterized by their powerful, sometimes ecstatic spiritual experiences, as well as their strong commitment to evangelization, physical healing ministries, and democratization of church hierarchy.
Though Pentecostalism emerged as a distinct movement, many mainline Protestants and Catholics began to bring pentecostal emphases on the Holy Spirit and its gifts (Greek: charismata) into their own churches in the 1960s and 70s. This sparked what became known as the charismatic movement. Christians who are charismatic can be Catholic, Anglican, or Methodist, for example.
While some evangelicals adopt various elements of Pentecostalism, most within the community—especially within reformed circles—reject that Christians today can still possess the
gifts of the Spirit given at Pentecost. However, many sociologists often group the communities together, and they can sometimes be hard to distinguish: Pentecostals largely agree with the four core commitments of evangelicalism as defined by the Bebbington Quadrilateral.
The results of a new poll in May 2020 confirmed this shift in voting patterns and also showed a dramatic shift in opinions on Israel among evangelicals aged 18-29. The survey found that almost half of the group voted for President Biden and a larger share identified as Democrat (33.7%) over Republican (24.8%). The poll also found young evangelical support for Israel dropped from 69% to 34% since 2018, with 42% of respondents indicating a balance of support for both Israelis and Palestinians—a marked shift from traditional evangelical positions on Israel.
For many young evangelicals, the consevative theological commitments of their community don’t necessarily translate to conservative political beliefs, making a distinction that older generations of evangelicals have not. On abortion, for example, they’re less likely than their parents to fight for the repeal of Roe v. Wade and more likely to advocate for other policies that would reduce the rate of abortions, such as improved access to healthcare and contraceptives, and increased support for young mothers.
Despite expectations to the contrary, most analysts hold that young evangelicals are not leaving the faith as their political views are shifting more leftward. The number of young evangelicals appears to be holding steady over recent decades. On the other hand, the number of young mainline Protestant Christians appears to be dwindling. Notably, that decline coincides with the dramatic rise of those who identify as unaffiliated with any religious group, religious “nones.” In 2018/2019, that number was 26%, up ten points from a decade earlier.
However, one complicating data set from PRRI found that evangelical numbers are declining and mainline Protestant Christians are increasing, though they classify anyone who does not self-identify as evangelical as mainline protestant. Even if young people decline to self-identify as evangelical, they may still hold beliefs that would classify them as evangelicals elsewhere. (See Question 4). We believe more data and analysis is required to reconcile these different data sets and interpretations.
Nevertheless, the number of evangelicals who attend church weekly shrank seven percentage points to 52% in 2019, and about 25% attend church seldom or never (as opposed to 15% in 2008).
14. How are Black and Brown evangelicals different from their white counterparts?
Black Protestant Christians in the U.S. have a long history of exclusion from white Christian spaces.
Many of the predominantly Black denominations we know today were birthed in the era of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation—all of which pushed Black worshipers into separate communities. This exclusion and oppression under a system of racialized policies and white supremacy, as well as the survival of traditions carried over from African cultures, have led to distinct traditions and even theological beliefs among many Black and Brown Protestants today.
Black and brown Christians are not a monolith, however. In fact, the percentage of Black voters who voted for President Trump increased from around 6 to 8% between 2016 and 2020, though it’s not clear whether the increase was among Christians. The same was true for Latinx voters, who voted for President Trump at a rate of 32% in 2020 (up from 29% in 2016), a change that was particularly pronounced in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio.
Applying the evangelical label to all Black Protestants, however, is tricky. When self-identifying, as much as 68% of Black Americans say they are born-again or evangelical, but only about 14% say they attend evangelical churches, versus 53% who attend historically Black Protestant denominations (See Question #2).
15. How do evangelicals see other Christians and people of other faiths or no faith?
While evangelical Christianity stresses an ethic of “neighbor love” and outreach to those outside of the community, polling data suggest American evangelicals have a high degree of skepticism towards those of other faiths—particularly Muslims and atheists.
In a survey done by Pew in 2017, white evangelicals had the second lowest favorable opinions among any religious group for their attitudes toward Muslims and atheists. Some polling data suggests this trend is due in part to the fact that most evangelicals do not have relationships with members of other faith communities.
Furthermore, many evangelicals are skeptical of Christians of other traditions. The Protestant schism from the Catholic church, and later the fundamentalist and evangelical differentiation from mainline Protestant churches, are seen as necessary to preserve an authentic faith from leaders who had strayed from the core tenets of the gospel—understood as the four core evangelical beliefs (see Question #2). These theological disputes have led some evangelicals to consider other self-proclaimed Christians as not “saved” or “true believers.”
This skepticism does not extend to all faith communities however. Many evangelicals place special emphasis on the Jewish people, who they often see as God’s “chosen people.” This attitude, often referred to as “philo-semitism,” is behind many Christian-Jewish interfaith and outreach movements (see Question #9).
Evangelicals also tend to emphasize missionary efforts and evangelism over building interfaith movements focused on relationship building, arguing that the best way to love someone is to share what they believe to be the life-saving good news of the gospel.
Some recent polling suggests millennial Christians remain committed to being a “witness” for Jesus but are less likely than older Christians to seek to convert someone of a different faith to Christianity. A growing number of evangelicals are seeking to establish connections, grow empathy, and find opportunities for collaboration with other religious communities as an expression of the Christian ideal of loving their neighbor.
16. What is Christian nationalism and are evangelicals Christian nationalist?
“Christian nationalism” is an ideology that fuses nationalism with Christian faith. It is an ideology that goes beyond a healthy sense of patriotism and opposes a multifaith, multiethnic, pluralistic American vision.
“Christian nationalists” typically share many, if not all, of these core beliefs:
Scholars Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead in Taking America Back for God, define “Christian nationalism [as] a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates of fusion of Christianity with American civic life.” Their research says that around 80% of white evangelicals either passively support or are ambassadors of Christian nationalism.
However, the distinction between self-identified and Bebbington evangelicals (see Question #2) is important here: Their research also showed that people who spend more time participating in organized Christianity are less likely to adopt Christian nationalist views. So while a large majority of evangelicals hold some Christian nationalist views, it appears the ideology is located predominantly within broader social and cultural trends than church institutions or Christian theology.
White evangelicals are the strongest supporters of Christian nationalism, but they are not the only faith community who have bought into the ideology. Majority portions of white mainline, Catholic, and Black Protestant Christians are friendly to the ideology too.
This fusion of Christianity with nationalism and American identity helps explain a number of trends within evangelical and even broader American Christian culture. For instance, evangelicals often support public and government sponsored displays of Christianity while simultaneously opposing government efforts to strengthen religious pluralism (e.g. ending Christian prayer in schools). It also helps explain why evangelicals hold some of the most restrictive attitudes toward immigration of any religious group, particularly those who are non-white or of another faith. For Christian nationalists, changing social and religious demographics threaten the very soul and future of America.
17. Why do some evangelicals seem to be such vocal supporters of life on the one hand, and guns, the military, and the death penalty on the other?
To understand what to many non-evangelicals might look like a glaring contradiction, it’s important to look at the many underlying values and worldview which inform these stances.
On the issue of gun rights, evangelical theology and culture prioritizes an individual over a collective understanding of identity—a tradition that has its roots in Protestant theology that developed in Western Europe during the Reformation and has been augmented by the commitment to American individualism. As a result, personal liberty is a central value within evangelical communities.
This is strengthened by friendly attitudes toward Christian nationalism, which espouses the belief that Christians are under attack by a secularizing culture hostile to Christianity (see Question #16). Policies which seem to restrict personal freedoms are then experienced as a form of persecution, from which personal means of protection become ever more necessary.
With this acute sense of threat, evangelicals have over the past century migrated toward leaders who exude confidence and strength. Historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez documents the history of evangelical culture in her book, Jesus and John Wayne. She reveals how both the internal threat of liberalization (particularly of traditional gender roles) and external threat of communism produced a culture of fear within evangelical circles that leaders met with signs of strength. These leaders promoted a faith that fought back against its perceived threats, supporting a strong military to counter communism and other threats abroad, tough-on-crime policies, the protection and promotion of virtue in public life (especially “family values”), and a commitment to strong, male leadership.
For many evangelicals, these positions aren’t exclusively for self-protection. Though they largely understand their identity more on an individual than collective level, they nonetheless believe their policies benefit the common good. Spreading democracy and Christianity abroad,
strengthening the traditional two-parent family unit, protecting liberty, and maintaining public order are all necessary for a thriving society, they believe.
Support for the death penalty is often rooted in the (evangelical) theological conviction that evil must be punished in order for justice to be done and social order preserved. It is seen as a defense of the dignity of human life and the just response to its violation. This position connects to broader emerging debates within evangelicalism about the nature of justice. These debates weigh whether the Bible’s vision of justice is primarily retributive and punitive or restorative.
Dominionism (or dominion theology) calls for Christians to gain political power.
Dominionists believe that God’s plan of redemption and reconciliation for the world includes appointing Christians to high office. This way, they can steer political and cultural institutions according to God’s will as revealed in the Bible.
Dominionism rejects the fundamentalist view that Christians must separate themselves from the world, asserting instead that Christians must engage in politics and culture to shift both towards following the laws and morals revealed in the Bible.
Though a form of dominionism has roots in some mainstream evangelical movements, a more recent iteration called Seven Mountain Dominionism emerged in the 2000s as a largely charismatic tradition. Most evangelical Christians would not claim to be dominionists or support Dominionism’s core tenets—many do not even know what the term means—but its impact on how some evangelical leaders and their communities engage politics has significant ramifications. For instance, it has brought new leaders and movements, like Paula White and Bethel Church in California, into the fore of evangelical political action.
The goal of this current dominionist movement is to help believers establish dominion over “seven leading aspects of culture: family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government”, often by installing “mountain kings” in offices like the US Presidency or the head of a national broadcasting company. At its most extreme, this form of dominionism
believes that the second coming of Christ will not happen until Christians head all seven “mountains.”
In this context, for example, President Trump losing the 2020 election wasn’t just a loss of one political party to another but an existential loss—that of a “mountain king” whose position must be filled by a God-appointed leader prior to Jesus’ second coming. By one estimate, more than 3 million people in the US attend churches connected to a Seven Mountain Dominionist movement called the New Apostolic Revival (NAR), including former President Trump’s spiritual advisor Paula White. NAR is spreading rapidly internationally in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
19. Historically, are there ways evangelicals have undermined support for human dignity and participated in injustice?
Evangelicals, along with other Christians, have at times used biblical justifications for injustice. In an effort to promote Christian values, they have measured the “good” of churches planted or people baptized and “saved” as outweighing the evils of dehumanizing or unjust practices. For example, the complicity of Christian leaders and communities in the U.S. in offering theological justifications for the horrors of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow is well-documented. These theological justifications often included the idea that enslaved people converting to Christianity was a reason to support slavery.
Evangelicals in the US and globally were also some of the most ardent supports of unjust regimes like apartheid in South Africa. Christian Zionists are the American constituency most committed to the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories (and ultimately antisemitic End Times theologies—see our separate FAQ on Evangelicals and Israel/Palestine). In each of these cases, many evangelicals defend(ed) these unjust systems as part of God’s natural order or necessary for the accomplishment of God’s larger plans of salvation.
20. Have evangelicals been involved in positive social change movements?
While evangelicalism has sometimes been used to sanctify injustice (see Question #17), evangelicals have often also been on the forefront of reform movements. These have included abolitionism in the US and United Kingdom in the 1800s, efforts to end modern day slavery, prison reform, disease and global poverty eradication, and the fight against human trafficking—to name a few examples.
Evangelicals were particularly prominent in the abolition movement. The Clapham Sect, of which the 19th century British abolitionist leader William Wilberforce was a member, was an organization of wealthy and powerful evangelical Anglican leaders who worked for the liberation of enslaved people, abolition of the slave trade, prison reform, and the prevention of cruel sports. These evangelical reformers held five seats in the House of Commons and ran various political campaigns for these causes as well as establishing charities for impoverished and exploited women.
This commitment in evangelicalism to abolition continues to this day. International Justice Mission, an evangelical non-profit organization, partners with local justice systems around the world to free victims of human trafficking, strengthen local law enforcement and reform justice systems.
Prominent evangelical women, such as Frances Willard, began political advocacy for women’s rights and suffrage through participation in the temperance movement and later became a leader in the Suffrage movement. Willard was motivated by her faith and belief that women’s equality was an issue of divine justice. She was also a strong anti-lynching advocate and worked for education and labor reforms.
Evangelicals were also deeply involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the Global South during the Bush administration. Faith-based organizations were instrumental in lobbying for federal funding for The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and Christian ministries provide the largest amount of funding outside of the government to many PEPFAR-receiving countries.
Evangelical communities are some of the most generous in the nation: In 2018, 10 million US tithers donated $50 billion to churches and other non-profits working on humanitarian and other support-related causes. Nevertheless, evangelical communities often hesitate to involve themselves too deeply in issues considered to be about “social justice.”
In some ways, this hesitancy is a core tenet of evangelical theology: Evangelicalism was born in part out of a reaction to what was perceived as mainline churches’ preoccupation with issues of social justice over evangelism. Today, evangelicals are sometimes critical of other Christians working on issues of justice as promoting a “social justice gospel,” which they see as elevating political and social reform above “saving souls” through individual faith in Jesus.
21. What does the global evangelical movement look like?
In the 20th Century, evangelicalism was centered in the United States. During the late 20th Century and early 21st, the center of evangelicalism moved to the Global South (the group of developing countries located across Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Oceania and Asia) where more than 75% of evangelicals are located today. International evangelical communities were often planted by foreign missionaries but grew exponentially under local leadership.
While American evangelical beliefs were largely exported through American missionary movements and media platforms, American liberal foreign policy has also enabled or supported its spread, including through humanitarian initiatives. Many evangelicals understood spreading freedom, democracy, and even Christianity as part of the divinely-ordained purpose for the United States. From Puritan leader John Winthrop’s vision of America as a “shining city on a hill,” to John F. Kennedy, to Ronald Reagan, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been used to explicitly align American exceptionalism and interventionism with a sense of Christian purpose in the world.