America’s Mainstream Minority

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A leading Democrat research organization, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research Inc., just released a poll analyzing American evangelicals. The report’s major finding is that three-fourths of all evangelicals think that they are “mainstream” Americans, but that they are a “minority under siege and must fight for their voices to be heard.” Secondly, only white evangelicals put moral values as their first concern (37 percent); blacks and Hispanics (41 percent and 34 percent respectively) worry most about the economy and jobs. On the other domestic issues, white evangelical views are similar to other Americans. Ironically, buried in the report is the fact that 71 percent of all Americans believe that there is a serious decline in moral values in America.

Disappointingly, reports about the poll results illustrate the truth of evangelical concerns about their voices being heard –and accurately reported.

The reports all emphasize the gay marriage findings. In fact, several reports on the poll lead with the claim that evangelicals oppose gay marriage, but only have lukewarm support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. It makes one wonder about the poll’s purpose and design.

Other interesting findings are the low-favorable view that the report claims evangelicals have of some evangelical leaders and the reported low rank that evangelicals give to issues like relief efforts or helping less- developed countries (in fact those issues are ranked in comparison to military strength, fighting terrorism, etc.). The study also emphasizes the differences among various evangelical subgroups on political and moral questions. The principal researcher, Anna Greenberg, noted the differences between “evangelical elites” (television preachers and Washington activists how’s that for stereotyping?) and “rank-and-file” evangelicals.

The context of the questions and the other options are very important factors in determining the ranking of an issue. Based on a nationwide survey of 1610 adults, the poll is being lauded as a “landmark study.” It was conducted from March 16 through April 4, 2004, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percent. Certainly, it is refreshing to see evangelicals presented in all their diversity rather than as a monochromatic entity. The authors stated flatly that evangelicals are difficult to “pigeonhole.”

There is much to learn from a study of evangelical theological beliefs as well as ideological values. However few reports note the original report’s “main findings,” which said white evangelicals hold Biblical beliefs, incorporate their faith into their daily lives, are committed to making a difference in their communities through volunteer work and charitable donations and, while they are deeply concerned about the decline of moral values, they are also concerned about economic and other domestic and foreign issues.

Some salient findings “revealed” in the Greenberg poll include:

Political affiliation: Sixty-nine percent of white evangelicals identify themselves as Republican while 84 percent of evangelical blacks identify themselves as Democrats. Only one-in-five likely white evangelical voters (23 percent) say that they are Democrat or lean Democrat. Education: Like most Americans, most white evangelicals have at least some college education and nearly a quarter have college degrees and slightly more than a quarter have graduate degrees. Right-Direction/Wrong-Direction: White evangelicals are about equally divided on this issue with 44 percent saying that the country is going in the right direction and 45 percent indicating that it is on the wrong track. For blacks, however, there is more unanimity; 81 percent say the nation is on the wrong track. It is important to note that evangelicals lament the decline in moral values, but they do not necessarily blame the decline on secularism. Politics: White evangelicals are only slightly more likely to be politically engaged than the average American. There is evidence that religion motivates white evangelicals toward political activism. Among likely voters, President Bush holds a commanding lead (74 percent as compared to only 23 percent for Kerry). Abortion: Two-thirds (67 percent) believe that abortion should be illegal. Marriage: Two-thirds (65 percent) believe that marriage is under attack; 85 percent are opposed to gay marriage and 74 percent are opposed to civil unions. (Over half believe that current state laws are sufficient to prevent gay marriage and civil unions.) Fifty-four percent of devout evangelicals would use gay marriage as a litmus test for selecting a candidate for public office. Age: It is important to note that the ranks of evangelicals are older than average with nearly a quarter over age 65 and more than a quarter retired. Older evangelicals’ friends are more likely to be fellow church members, whereas Generation X evangelicals are not likely to find their friends in the church, though they hold to their faith just as deeply and seriously. Denominations: Nearly a quarter of white evangelicals are members of mainline denominations (mainly Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian) and nearly a third are from “other denominations” (than Baptist) and “just Protestant.” Half come from a “born-again” family and one-third say that they are “converts.” About 71 percent go to church at least once a week far more often than other faiths and twice as likely as Americans in general. Theology: Eighty-eight percent of white evangelicals identify themselves as “born-again Christian,” 67 percent believe that the Bible is the Word of God and is to be taken literally, 84 percent believe that personal faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation (instead of through behavior and actions,13 percent). Evangelism: Nine out of ten white evangelicals think that it is important to “spread the faith” and 81 percent agree that it is important to “convert others.” Over half (56 percent) have had a discussion with nonbelievers in the past year to try to “defend a Biblical worldview.” Community Service: White evangelicals actively participate in improving community well-being; 64 percent (compared to only 55 percent of others) are involved as community volunteers because of their religious faith. They also enthusiastically sponsor charity organizations (85 percent give to their church, 84 percent help needy people and 74 percent give to organizations that spread the Gospel. Daily Lifestyle: The report declares that white evangelicals “set themselves apart from other Americans” by incorporating “religion into their daily lives;” 74 percent read the Bible at least once a week and 78 percent pray before meals every day. More than half (56 percent) read religious literature and listen to religious broadcasting at least once a week one in five do this daily. White evangelicals support Christian and family-friendly entertainment and avoid offensive secular programming. Gender: The study found that women evangelicals are more likely to hold strong views and to regularly incorporate their beliefs into their lifestyle. Acceptance by society: Most evangelicals (72 percent) think that the media are hostile to their views and values while nearly half (48 percent) think that they are “looked down upon” by other Americans.

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News and World Report commissioned the research, and The Lilly Endowment Inc. and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided funding. The survey will form the basis for a four-part PBS television series beginning the week of April 16 on the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly series.

Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse is senior fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute.

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