Study: Most 'Evangelicals' Do Not Meet Criteria

A relatively substantial number of people label themselves as evangelicals. But new research by The Barna Group found a much smaller number of people actually fit the criteria.

For two decades, The Barna Group has been measuring the characteristics of evangelicals based on a 9-question set of criteria. In its latest study, the research group names them "9-point evangelicals."

On a general note, 38 percent of the population accepts the label of evangelical. When The Barna Group measured them using its nine questions to categorize evangelicals, only eight percent of the adult population fit the criteria.

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Applied to the entire adult population, the difference is "staggering," the report stated. Self-proclaimed evangelicals would number 84 million versus 18 million 9-point evangelicals.

Moreover, the study found that 86 percent of the 9-point evangelicals also call themselves evangelicals while only 19 percent of self-proclaimed evangelicals meets the research group's criteria.

The two evangelical groups differ in demographic background.

Self-proclaimed evangelicals are less likely to have graduated from college, to be married, and to be white and have much lower average household incomes. They are also more likely to come from the Northeast or West and be 60 or older.

Additionally, 45 percent of self-proclaimed evangelicals say they are mostly conservative on social and political matters compared to 65 percent of 9-point evangelicals. The former group of evangelicals are also less likely to be registered as a Republican.

There is also only a seven percentage point difference in the number of Democrats and Republicans among the self-proclaimed evangelicals. Among the 9-point evangelicals, the difference is 25.

Differences are also apparent in their beliefs.

Those who claim to be evangelicals are 60 percent less likely to believe that Satan is real; 53 percent less likely to believe that salvation is based on grace, not works; 46 percent less likely to say they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others; 42 percent less likely to list their faith in God as the top priority in their life; 38 percent less likely to believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; 27 percent less likely to contend that the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings; and 23 percent less likely to say that their life has been greatly transformed by their faith.

On another note, the study found that 27 percent of those who say they are evangelicals are not born again, based upon their beliefs, The Barna Group reported, and they are also less likely to read their Bible and attend church during a typical week.

"The Bible does not refer to any person as an ‘evangelical,’” researcher George Barna noted. “This is a construct created within the religious community many years ago to differentiate a group that possesses a distinctive theological perspective. Over time, people have become sloppy in the measurement process, as evidenced by the fact that one out of every four self-proclaimed evangelicals has not even accepted Christ as their savior.

Rather than labeling them "evangelicals," Barna suggested that they more closely resemble the "born again Christian" population, by definition of the research group. Born again Christians display an above-average interest and involvement in religious activity, but whose religious fervor and commitment is nowhere near that of true evangelicals, the report stated.

The 9-point evangelical criteria is derived from the belief statement of the National Association of Evangelicals.

A couple years ago when the definition of an "evangelical" seemed broad, the former NAE head, Ted Haggard, had defined evangelical as simply a person who believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that the Bible is the Word of God, and that you must be born again, according to Christianity Today.

"We probably overestimate the number of evangelicals, since we do not take into account all of the beliefs that NAE says a true evangelicals holds," said Barna. "But our measurement approach incorporates the key elements from their statement of faith.”

"Keep in mind that only God knows a person’s heart," said the researcher added. "No scientific instrument is able to perfectly evaluate what a person believes, or how deeply they believe it. Research is just an approximation of what is happening in society. But America certainly deserves – and has access to – better measures than those that are often used in public discussions about the religious faith of people, and the implications of that alleged faith, especially in matters of politics and public policy.”

The survey is based on a random sample of 4,014 adults conducted in January, April, August and October of 2006.

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