Evangelicals Remain Complicated

Aaron Earls

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, much of the focus has been on evangelical voters who were among President-elect Donald Trump’s strongest supporters.

Exit polls show Trump won the votes of 4 out of 5 white evangelical voters (81 percent) in his quest for the White House. That number, however, does not include evangelicals of color. As a result, there’s been a spirited debate over this question: Who exactly is an evangelical?

In 2015, LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals developed a theological definition of the term evangelical—to identify this group of Christians by beliefs rather than self-identification or voting patterns.

To be classified as an evangelical, a person must strongly agree with four belief statements:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe
  • It is very important for me to personally engage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Using this definition, American evangelicals are a diverse group. Only 3 in 5 (62 percent) are white. African Americans (18 percent), Hispanics (17 percent), and other ethnicities (4 percent) make up about 4 in 10 American evangelicals by belief.

ethnic makeup evangelical AmericanThis definition creates a way to see evangelicals primarily as a religious group, says Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “The evangelical label has picked up political and social overtones that mask any patterns that are actually tied to evangelical religious beliefs,” he says.

Focusing on beliefs ensures the discussion centers around “those who share common religious anchors,” McConnell says. “This is a clearly defined group of people who agree on core teachings.”

Some research organizations use self-identification or church attendance to define the term evangelical. However, those with evangelical beliefs often don’t refer to themselves as evangelicals. Others belong to denominations that may not be considered evangelical.

That is particularly true among African Americans.

More than 2 in 5 African Americans (44 percent) strongly agree with the four theological statements in LifeWay’s model, the largest percentage of any ethnic group. However, only 25 percent of African Americans with evangelical beliefs actually self-identify as evangelical.

Hispanics with evangelical beliefs are most likely to self-identify as evangelicals. Almost 4 in 5 Hispanics with evangelical beliefs (79 percent) call themselves evangelicals. Thirty percent of all Hispanic Americans hold to evangelical beliefs.

Same beliefs, different politics

Despite their agreement about theology, LifeWay Research’s pre-election polling found significant political differences among those with evangelical beliefs.

Among white Americans with evangelical beliefs, 65 percent planned to vote for Trump, and only 10 percent said they planned to vote for Hillary Clinton. Sixteen percent were undecided.

The numbers were almost reversed when looking at Americans of other ethnicities with evangelical beliefs. Sixty-two percent said they preferred Clinton and 15 percent chose Trump. Thirteen percent were undecided.

Those with evangelical beliefs voted more in line with their political party and ethnicity than their faith. “These divides are powerful in America today,” says McConnell, “and they are deeply entrenched in the church.”

A previous study from LifeWay Research found that Protestant churches remained divided by race. More than 8 in 10 Protestant pastors (86 percent) say they have congregations with one predominant racial group.

But two-thirds of American churchgoers (67 percent) say their church is doing enough on congregational diversity. And most (53 percent) don’t believe their church needs to become more ethnically diverse.

“We must be constantly listening to people in our neighborhoods and intentionally reaching out,” McConnell says. “We should be talking to new people outside our current friends and acquaintances. That is the only way we can know the pain people are experiencing. Without those conversations, we cannot offer the hope found only in Jesus Christ.”

AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@LifeWay.com) is online editor of Facts & Trends. Senior writer BOB SMIETANA (Bob.Smietana@LifeWay.com) contributed to this story.


  1. Mark Davison says:

    How was this definition of “evangelical” selected? What was the definition that it replaced? What was the need to develop a new definition? Why is this definition so anemic? I do not agree that it provides a theological definition of an “Evangelial Christian.” There is nothing in the definition about a belief in the Trinity. There is nothing about the inerrancy of Scripture. Additionally, why is it so personalized? These are truths that are universal for all of humanity. The personalized tone of the statements seems to play into the relativistic “all truths are equal” way of thinking.

    • Aaron Earls says:

      If you’d like an explanation for how the definition was developed, you can read that here: http://lifewayresearch.com/2015/11/19/nae-lifeway-research-publish-evangelical-beliefs-research-definition/

      • Daniel Whitaker says:

        This looks promising for Christ followers who have become discouraged by all the tick lists that individual churches and organization have been adding to the meaning. It’s been difficult to be a Christian and then try to live up to the latest idea of what it means to be an evangelical. I feel bad for pastors who have to listen to those paying their paychecks who keep adding new rules to what it means to be a part of their church community instead of encouraging diversity. Ever since evangelicals have separated from mainline Christianity, the rules have kept changing making evangelicals look like what the mainline Christianity they originally separated from. Maybe marketing these four points will help the recovery from the damage of combining “evangelicalism” with being “politically conservative right”. I see a new hope.

Speak Your Mind