Religious Traditionalism Explains Evangelical Politics, Scholar Finds

In a new book on American evangelicals, political scientist Corwin Smidt finds that how evangelicals view the importance of tradition was the best predictor, among several alternatives, of a range of political views and actions.

Smidt, professor emeritus at Calvin College and the former director of the Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics, offers a wealth of data about evangelicals in American Evangelicals Today. It is only the third book to examine evangelicals from a social, theological and political perspective, after James Davidson Hunter's American Evangelicalism (1983), and Christian Smith's American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (1998), Smidt noted in a Wednesday interview with The Christian Post.

Smidt said that it is more helpful to compare evangelicals to other religious groups than evangelicals to non-evangelicals. Compared to all non-evangelicals, evangelicals appear to be a strange group. But, comparing evangelicals to other religious groups - mainline Protestants, black Protestants, Catholics, other religious groups and the unaffiliated - the differences are not as great. The unaffiliated tend to be the most different when comparing the main religious groups.

Smidt found that, using 2007 survey data, evangelicals are the largest religious group in the United States (26.3 percent), followed by Catholics (23.9 percent), mainline Protestants (18.1 percent), those unaffiliated with a religion (16.1 percent), other religious groups (8.7 percent), and black Protestants (6.9 percent).

The book contains several multivariate analyses (measuring the explanatory strength of a variable when other variables are taken into account). Smidt found that a measure of religious traditionalism was a strong predictor, compared to race or ethnicity, education and age, of several theological, social and political attitudes.

To measure traditionalism, Smidt used a survey question that asked respondents whether their "church or denomination should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices," "adjust [them] in light of new circumstances," or "adopt modern beliefs and practices." Those who answered the first one, who wanted to preserve their church or denomination's beliefs and practices, were labeled "traditionalists" and the other two groups were labeled "non-traditionalists."

The traditionalists were more likely to believe that abortion should be illegal and homosexuality should be discouraged, and to identify themselves as a conservative. Religious traditionalism was also a strong predictor, second only to race and ethnicity, of vote choice and political party identification.

In his last chapter, Smidt offers some thoughts about what American evangelicalism might look like 40 years from now based upon current trends. He believes that evangelicals will be about the same size, as a percentage of the population, but they will be much more racially diverse. Due to greater awareness of world events and the rise of fellow evangelicals in other parts of the globe, he expects evangelicals to continue their process of broadening their agenda to include global concerns. Smidt also believes this will lead to less political cohesion among evangelicals, which would mean a smaller proportion identifying with the Republican Party than what has been seen in recent elections.