The word "evangelical" floats around in churches, the media and particularly this year's election but Americans often have no idea what an evangelical is, a new study shows.
As Christians themselves still have a hard time agreeing on what exactly defines an evangelical, Ellison Research asked the average adult American what they believe is an "evangelical Christian." Thirty-six percent of them said they had no idea.
"I'm not sure; all I can think of is Billy Graham," said one 40 year-old woman from Florida who does not attend worship services, in the survey.
"I am not sure, and I am a Christian," said a 55-year-old man from Indiana.
Although Americans who would call themselves evangelical were much more likely to have an actual definition for the word than others, the survey, released Wednesday, found that 14 percent of those self-described evangelicals couldn't guess what an evangelical is.
Evangelical leaders were also asked to provide a definition.
Richard Cizik, vice president for Governmental Affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, gave a three-fold definition: "(1) the Bible is authoritative (i.e., infallible and inerrant in original autographs) in faith and practice; (2) born-again experience (i.e., a conversion to believe in and follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord through rebirth by the Holy Spirit); (3) shares this message of faith with others through evangelism and social witness."
He admitted, however, that even his three-fold test is not perfect.
Dr. Leon Morris from the World Evangelical Alliance described an evangelical as "a gospel man" or woman – someone who makes the Gospel of Christ central to his or her preaching, thinking and living.
Those most unlikely to know the definition of an evangelical were people who attend Roman Catholic worship services, people who do not attend any sort of worship, political moderates, Democrats and independents, according to Ellison Research, which surveyed 1,007 Americans adults. Younger Americans were also less likely to have even a guess.
The most common perception Americans have of an evangelical is that they evangelize. According to the study, 18 percent said an evangelical is a Christian who tries to spread his or her faith. Of those who associated evangelicals with evangelism, some described it as proselytizing and others saw it in a more positive light – telling others about Jesus.
Some Americans defined evangelicals as just a specific type of Christian – whether it's Protestant, born-again, charismatic or spirit-filled, liberal, modern, white, etc. Nine percent held this perception.
"A born again, conservative, fundamentalist Christian," a 22-year-old self-described evangelical man from California responded. "I believe it's a Baptist," said a woman from Nevada.
Another 9 percent said evangelicals are just Christians who are particularly devoted or zealous about their faith (although not to the point of fanaticism), and are totally sold out to their beliefs.
"I think an evangelical Christian is someone who does not waver on their beliefs in the truth of the Word of God (the Bible) and the presence of God in our country," a 35-year-old woman, who attends a non-denominational church and calls herself an evangelical, said. "I believe they are more concerned about what God thinks of them than what the world thinks of them and are willing to say what needs to be said to fight to keep God in our country."
One 22-year-old woman who does not attend worship services and does not know any evangelicals said she believes an evangelical is "one who is very strong with their ideas about their faith and in turn might push those ideas onto others."
In other responses, 8 percent of Americans defined an evangelical as focusing strongly on the Bible, believing in the Bible as God's word and as inerrant, allowing the Bible to guide their lives, and believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Older Americans, Protestant churchgoers and political conservatives were more likely to give this response.
Another 8 percent of those surveyed gave a specific theological definition of evangelicalism. They said evangelicals are saved by Christ, saved by grace, believe in a born again experience, and believe in eternal life through Christ, among other theological definitions. At the same time, 2 percent of Americans gave a theological definition that was dramatically off-base.
Six percent of Americans said evangelicals are defined according to their political worldview. These people said evangelicals are conservative, ultra-conservative or radical right, anti-homosexual, Republican, highly involved in politics, etc., according to the survey.
"Especially during election time, we often hear about evangelicals in connection with candidates, or with political or social issues. Yet Americans usually don't define 'evangelicals' by their voting habits or politics," said Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research. "There's at least some basic understanding among the American population that evangelicals are defined by religion rather than by politics, even if many people don't really know just what that religious definition is."
In a more negative light, 5 percent said evangelicals are simply fanatical about their beliefs; and 4 percent didn't provide a definition but more of a criticism such as evangelicals being hypocritical, bigots, stupid, manipulative, etc.
Criticism came mostly from men, unmarried Americans, political liberals and people who did not attend worship services.
A 41-year-old man from Pennsylvania who said he knows an evangelical very well labeled an evangelical as "a psycho who thinks that their way is the only way."
Another man said evangelicals are "extremists with very small brains, so other ideas and perspectives can't fit in there."
Four percent believed evangelicals are simply close-minded about religion. They don't like people who believe differently, they believe they're the only ones who are right, or they are rigid and intolerant, surveyed Americans said.
Also, 3 percent believed evangelicalism focuses on money rather than God. These Americans said evangelicals worship money, use religion for profit, preach about money a lot, or are always asking for money.
Another 3 percent said evangelicals want to impose their beliefs or standards on others, they forcibly convert people (although exactly how they supposedly do this was not clarified), they want to run things, or they're always in your face.
"Evangelicals are defined every which way, and that is among the people who even attempted to define them," Sellers commented. "When the media reports something about 'evangelical leaders' like Rick Warren or James Dobson, or describes a political candidate as meeting with an evangelical group, or polls likely voters and reports that evangelicals are backing a particular candidate, many Americans honestly don't have the faintest notion of just who belongs to that group that is being described, while others are completely off-base in their assumptions of who the report is describing."
Researchers said the most important thing to take away from the study findings "is that almost half of Americans could not give a definition of 'evangelical' that had any substance to it – and that doesn't even include the ones who gave a definition that few experts would say has any accuracy." They also pointed out that many Americans do not know evangelical Christians very well. A previous study showed only 35 percent of all Americans said they actually know an evangelical Christian very well and one-third said they have never known an evangelical at any point in their lives.