Evangelicals: By The Numbers | Sojourners

Evangelicals: By The Numbers

ev churchWhat are "the evangelicals," you ask?

Certainly not a political or ideological monolith, as recent polling and survey numbers demonstrate.

Here is a compilation of some recent statistics related to evangelicals and their political, spiritual and ideological habits.

First, a word about definitions and demographics from the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College (Ill.):

Since 1976 the Gallup organization has been asking roughly 1,000 adults the question “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born-again’ or evangelical Christian?” In that first survey 34% of the people being surveyed responded “yes.” Over the years, the number has fluctuated dramatically, reaching a low of 33% in 1987 and 1988 during the televangelist scandals, and a high of 47% in 1998.

The Gallup numbers, however, have averaged just under 39% of the population as accepting identification as born-again/evangelical. According to the most recent sampling of this Gallup poll in 2005, numbers varied from quarter to quarter when the question was asked, but usually came in somewhere between the high 30s and low 40s percentage-wise. See here.

However, describing one’s self as “born again” as the definitive label for evangelical believers–or even the term “evangelical” for that matter–is a questionable benchmark for tabulating the evangelical population (in one study, only 75% of Southern Baptists accepted either term). For a variety of reasons, some groups and individuals which one would describe as “in the team picture” simply do not use those words to describe themselves. For instance, several recent studies and surveys by sociologists and political scientists that utilize more complex definitional parameters have estimated the number of evangelicals in the U. S. at about 25-30% of the population, or roughly between 70 and 80 million people.

It should be noted, however, that even these estimates tend to separate out nearly all of the nation’s African American Protestant population (roughly 8-9% of the U. S. population), which is overwhelmingly evangelical in theology and orientation (for example, 61% of blacks–the highest of any racial group, by far–described themselves as “born-again” in the 2001 Gallup poll). When all is said and done, a general estimate of the nation’s evangelical population could safely be said to average somewhere between 30-35% of the population, or about 100 million Americans.


Emerging Religious Issues Promise to Shape 2012 Election

  • A plurality of Tea Party voters said their 2010 vote was mostly a vote to oppose President Obama (37 percent), compared to only 1-in-4 white evangelical voters. Nearly three-times as many white evangelical voters as Tea Party voters said their vote was primarily about local issues (14 percent vs. 5 percent).
  • Among those identifying with the Tea Party, more than 4-in-10 (41 percent) say repealing the health care reform law should be the most important priority for the GOP, compared to only 32 percent of white evangelicals. In contrast, four-in-ten white evangelicals say that the most important priority for the new GOP Congress is to balance the federal budget. Among those identifying with the Tea Party, less than 1-in-4 (23 percent) say balancing the budget is priority number one.
  • Those identifying with the Tea Party are also more likely than white evangelicals to say discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the country, that blacks and other minorities have received too much government attention, and to say that it is not that big a problem if some have more chances in life than others.

Attitudes on the Death Penalty

  • The religious groups most likely to support the death penalty are white evangelical Protestants (76%), white Mainline Protestants (73%), and Mormons (69%). Black Protestants (53%), and Latino Catholics (55%) are less likely than other groups to favor the death penalty, but even among these groups, a majority favor it.

On Climate Change and Evolution in the 2012 Election

  • Nearly two-thirds (66%) of white mainline Protestants, 61% of Catholics, and 77% of the unaffiliated believe humans and other living things evolved over time, compared to only about one-third (32%) of white evangelicals. African American Protestants are evenly divided on the question, with 47% affirming a belief in evolution and 46% affirming a belief in creationism.
  • White evangelical Protestants (33%) and Americans who identify with the Tea Party (31%) were significantly more likely than other religious or political groups to believe that humans were created within the last 10,000 years.
  • Strong majorities of every religious group say that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer, including 7-in-10 Catholics and the unaffiliated, 63% of white mainline Protestants, and 57% of white evangelicals.
  • White evangelicals are significantly less likely to believe that the earth is getting warmer and that changes are caused by human activity (31%) than white mainline Protestants (43%), Catholics (50%), or the unaffiliated (52%).
  • A majority (53%) of Americans say that if a candidate does not believe in evolution, it would have no effect on their likelihood of voting for the candidate. Among those who say it matters, more than twice as many say they would be less likely (32%) than say they would be more likely (13%) to vote for the candidate. White evangelical Protestants are the only demographic group among whom the balance is the other way: nearly one-third (32%) say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who did not believe in evolution, compared to 24% who say they would be less likely. Only 40% say a candidate’s belief in evolution would make no difference to their vote.
  • Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants (37%) are significantly less likely than other religious groups to believe that scientists generally agree that humans evolved over time.

On Voting Choice and Religion (July 2011):

  • Among all Americans, President Obama holds a slight edge over both Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann in head to head matchups for the 2012 election. Forty-four percent of Americans say if the election were held today they would vote for Obama compared to 36% who say they would support Romney. Obama’s lead over Bachmann is similar (45% to 37%).
  • Among those who identify with the Tea Party, Bachmann garners greater support than Romney in a matchup against Obama (78% and 71% respectively).
  • Among white evangelical Protestants, Bachmann leads Obama 60% to 17%, while Romney leads Obama 55% to 18%.
  • Majorities of every religious group say it is important that a presidential candidate have strong religious beliefs, including white evangelicals (73%), minority Christians (74%), white mainline Protestants (57%), and Catholics (57%).
  • Currently, Republicans (50%) and those who identify with the Tea Party (50%) are significantly more likely than the general public (40%) to know Romney is Mormon. Only 44% of white evangelicals know Romney is Mormon.
  • More than 7-in-10 Americans say that Mormons have somewhat (26%) or very (46%) different religious beliefs than their own, including 81% of white evangelicals.

Generational Differences in Attitudes toward GLBTQ Issues:

  • Forty-four percent of white evangelical Millennials (ages 18-29) favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to only 12% of evangelical seniors and 19% of evangelicals overall.
  • Majorities of non-Christian religiously affiliated Americans (67%), Catholics (52%), and white mainline Protestants (51%) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.
  • On the other hand, 6-in-10 (60%) African American Protestants and approximately three-quarters (76%) of white evangelical Protestants oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans agree that gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society, including majorities of all major religious groups except white evangelicals.
  • Among religious groups, 73% of non-Christian affiliated, 64% of Catholics, 60% of black Protestants, 59% of white mainline Protestants, and 51% of white evangelical Protestants say places of worship contribute either a lot or a little to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth.

On Sexual and Financial Misconduct by Public Officials:

  • More than three-quarters (76%) of white evangelicals say that an elected official should resign if they have sex with a prostitute compared to 54% of white mainline Protestants and Catholics, and only 42% of the unaffiliated.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of white evangelicals say that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life CANNOT behave ethically in their public life, compared to 43% of white mainline Protestants, 49% of Catholics, and 26% of the unaffiliated.
  • Seven-in-ten (70%) white evangelicals say that elected officials should be held to a higher moral standard than people in other professions, compared to 68% of Catholics, 58% of white mainline Protestants, and 51% of the unaffiliated.

On Economics, Wealth and Poverty:

  • Among white evangelical Protestants, 55% say that one of the biggest problems in the country is that more and more of the wealth is held by just a few people compared to three-quarters (75%) of Americans with no religious affiliation. Nearly one-third (32%) of white evangelical Protestants say that this is not that big a problem.
  • Strong majorities of all religious groups except white evangelicals also say it’s fair for wealthier Americans to pay more. White evangelicals are evenly divided on this question (50% agree, 49% disagree).
  • Sixty-one percent of minority Christians, 61% of Catholics and 51% of white evangelical Protestants say this is an important issue for clergy to address.
  • Among those identifying with the Tea Party, more say it is important for clergy to address social issues like abortion (61% very important) than economic issues like reducing the deficit (37% very important).
  • Nearly 6-in-10 Americans (58%) believe that the federal budget is a moral document that reflects national priorities while 41% disagrees. Americans across the political and religious landscape agree that the federal budget is a moral document that reflects our national priorities.


On Religious Identity post 9/11

  • Throughout Europe, most Christians think of themselves primarily in terms of their national identity. Fully 90% of French Christians take this view. The clear exception is the U.S., where Christians are divided: 46% primarily identify as American and 46% as Christian. Seven-in-ten white evangelical Christians in the U.S. identify first with their religion.
  • Both of the major religious communities in Israel identify primarily with their religion. Nearly six-in-ten (57%) Jews identify first as Jews, while among the country’s Muslim community 77% think of themselves first as Muslims.

On Whether Republicans Are Ready for a Mormon President

  • Overall, being a Mormon is hardly an asset for presidential candidates, but it is not a deal-breaker for most Americans. A quarter of Americans say they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate who is Mormon, while 68% say it would not make a difference. For perspective, about the same number say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who has used marijuana in the past.
  • But an important group within the Republican base, white evangelical Protestants, is more uncomfortable with the idea of a Mormon candidate than are other Republicans. Among all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 31% of white evangelicals say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon; that compares with 15% of other Republicans, according to a May 2011 survey. This gap is as large as it was four years ago.
  • White evangelical Protestants were more likely than non-evangelical white Protestants to view the Mormon religion as very different from their own. And just 40% of all white evangelicals viewed Mormons as Christians; far more non-evangelical white Protestants and Catholics said that Mormons were Christians.

From the 2011 Survey of Evangelical Leaders Worldwide:

  • Seven-in-ten evangelical leaders who live in the Global South (71%) expect that five years from now the state of evangelicalism in their countries will be better than it is today. But a majority of evangelical leaders in the Global North expect that the state of evangelicalism in their countries will either stay about the same (21%) or worsen (33%) over the next five years.
  • In addition, most leaders in the Global South (58%) say that evangelical Christians are gaining influence on life in their countries. By contrast, most leaders in the Global North (66%) say that, in the societies in which they live, evangelicals are losing influence. U.S. evangelical leaders are especially downbeat about the prospects for evangelical Christianity in their society; 82% say evangelicals are losing influence in the United States today, while only 17% think evangelicals are gaining influence.
  • Overall, evangelical leaders around the world view secularism, consumerism and popular culture as the greatest threats they face today. More of the leaders express concern about these aspects of modern life than express concern about other religions, internal disagree-ments among evangelicals or government restrictions on religion.
  • More than nine-in-ten say abortion is usually wrong (45%) or always wrong (51%). About eight-in-ten say that society should discourage homosexuality (84%) and that men should serve as the religious leaders in the marriage and family (79%).
  • Virtually all the leaders surveyed (98%) also agree that the Bible is the word of God. But they are almost evenly divided between those who say the Bible should be read literally, word for word (50%), and those who do not think that everything in the Bible should be taken literally (48%). They are similarly split on whether it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person (49% yes, 49% no), and whether drinking alcohol is compatible with being a good evangelical (42% yes, 52% no).
  • Evangelical leaders in both the Global North and the Global South agree that their colleagues in Africa, Asia and Latin America have “too little influence” on global Christianity; in fact, leaders from the Global North are even more inclined than those from the Global South to say this.
  • The leaders are divided on evolution. Slightly more reject the idea of evolution (47%) than believe in theistic evolution, the notion that God has used evolution for the purpose of creating humans and other life (41%). Few (3%) believe that human life has evolved solely by natural processes with no involvement from a supreme being.
  • A slight majority of the leaders surveyed believe that the Second Coming of Jesus probably (44%) or definitely (8%) will occur in their lifetimes.
  • Nine-in-ten of the leaders (90%) reject the so-called prosperity gospel, the notion that God will grant wealth and good health to those who have enough faith.
  • The global evangelical leaders are strongly inclined to participate in politics; 84% say religious leaders should express their views on political matters, and 56% say that to be a good evangelical, it is essential to take a public stand on social and political issues when they conflict with moral and biblical principles.

On the Tea Party Movement:

  • Support for the Tea Party varies dramatically across religious groups. Surveys from November 2010 through February 2011 show that white evangelical Protestants are roughly five times as likely to agree with the movement as to disagree with it (44% vs. 8%), though substantial numbers of white evangelicals either have no opinion or have not heard of the movement (48%). Three-in-ten or more of white Catholics (33%) and white mainline Protestants (30%) also agree with the Tea Party, but among these two groups at least one-in-five people disagrees with the movement.
  • In the Pew Research Center’s August 2010 poll, 69% of registered voters who agreed with the religious right also said they agreed with the Tea Party. Moreover, both the religious right and the Tea Party count a higher percentage of white evangelical Protestants in their ranks (45% among the religious right, 34% among the Tea Party and 22% among all registered voters in the August 2010 survey). Religiously unaffiliated people are less common among Tea Party or religious right supporters than among the public at-large (3% among the religious right, 10% among the Tea Party and 15% among all registered voters in the August poll).

On the “Religious” Right and Left (Politically):

  • Support for the conservative Christian movement is highest among conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants. More than four-in-ten conservative Republicans (41%) and 29% of white evangelicals say they agree with the conservative Christian movement. Just 4% and 6%, respectively, say they disagree with the movement.
  • By contrast, 45% of liberal Democrats disagree with the conservative Christian movement while just 2% agree. The religiously unaffiliated disagree with the Christian conservative movement by 30% to 3%.
  • Yet across all religious and political groups – regardless of their view of the movement – large percentages either have not heard of the conservative Christian movement or express no opinion of it. Majorities of conservative Republicans (55%) and white evangelicals (64%) have no opinion of the movement or have not heard of it; this also is the case among liberal Democrats (54%) and the religiously unaffiliated (66%).
  • Even fewer people have formed an opinion of the liberal or progressive religious movement; just 4% agree with this movement while 11% disagree. A quarter of the public (25%) expresses no opinion, while 59% have not heard about the progressive religious movement.
  • Of those who have an opinion on the movement, conservative Republicans (28% disagree) and white evangelicals (20%) express the highest rate of disagreement with the religious left. Liberal Democrats express the highest levels of support for the religious left, with 14% saying they agree with the movement.


On Christian Preferences for the 2012 Republican Nomination

  • Among evangelical Christians – the 7% of the population who are most concerned about moral issues (among other considerations) and are most involved in religious activity – the favorites are clearly Mr. Huckabee (88% favorable, 11% unfavorable) and Mrs. Palin (79% favorable, 21% unfavorable). There is less warmth directed towards Mr. Gingrich (57% – 37%), Mr. Romney (56% – 29%) and Mr. Paul (51% – 26%). However, all five of those individuals are clearly favored by evangelicals more so than Mr. Obama (6% favorable, 94% unfavorable).
  • A larger religious segment – and a pivotal group in the last three elections and a group that is considerably less conservative than its evangelical subset – are born again Christians. Currently, the best favorability numbers from this group have been earned by Mr. Huckabee (58% favorable, 27% unfavorable) and Mr. Romney (49% – 33%). Mrs. Palin is somewhat less popular among born again adults (53% – 45%), while Mr. Gingrich struggles with this group (43% – 47%). Dr. Paul is generally viewed favorably by born agains, but is less well-known among them (39% – 31%).
  • Although about four out of every five Americans consider themselves to be Christian, the one out of five who do not represents more than 40 million adults. The two primary segments tracked by the Barna Group in that regard are those who are religious Skeptics (e.g., atheists and agnostics) and people who align with a faith group that is not Christian. Each of those groups constitutes about 10% of the national adult population.
  • Those who are from non-Christian faith communities generally like President Obama. His favorability rating among them is 61% positive, 38% negative. In contrast, not a single Republican potential candidate has a favorability rating that is more positive than negative among this faith audience: Gingrich (20% – 67%), Huckabee (30% – 59%), Palin (17% – 80%), Paul (31% – 53%), Romney (35% – 54%).

On Changes in Attitudes about Moral Issues vs Comfort Issues in an Election:

  • Looking at the role of faith on people’s perspectives, the accompanying table provides some interesting views on the changes that have occurred. Among evangelicals, the impact of health care and abortion on their candidate selection is the same today as it was 19 years ago. However, major shifts have occurred related to employment policy (down 21 points), education policy (down 42 points), and environmental policy (down 28 points).
  • The issues that mattered to evangelicals in 1992 are the same issues that matter to them today. Some analysts have suggested this means evangelicals are out of touch with the times and are stuck in the past. A more realistic interpretation is that evangelicals’ perspectives have remained stable because they are based on a worldview that does not shift with the ebb and flow of cultural preferences and fads.”

** The Barna Group defines “Evangelical” Christians as:

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described below*) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an
evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”(*”Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”)