Nearly one-third of ‘evangelicals’ don’t follow generally held beliefs

Almost half of adults in Alabama who identify as Christian call themselves evangelicals, but a recent LifeWay study suggests that their beliefs may not match up with those generally held as important to the evangelical movement.

“There’s a gap between who evangelicals say they are and what they believe,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, based in Nashville.

Alabama consistently ranks as one of the “most religious states” in national surveys. A 2014 study by Pew Research found that 90 percent of adults in Alabama say religion is “very important” (77 percent) or “somewhat important” (13 percent) in their lives. Ninety-four percent of respondents said they were “absolutely certain” (82 percent) or “fairly certain” (12 percent) of their belief in God. Among the 86 percent of Alabamians who claim Christianity, 49 percent call themselves evangelical.

Nationwide, about 1 in 4 Americans say they are evangelical Christians. Most of them are white, live in the South and identify as Republican. On the whole they are less educated than the general population. Many go to church every week.

But they are not always sure what they believe.

Core beliefs

A survey of U.S. adults conducted in November 2017 by LifeWay Research found that fewer than half of those who identify as evangelicals (45 percent) strongly agree with core evangelical beliefs. Though some research studies define “evangelical” by self-identification or by what church they identify with, LifeWay categorizes an individual as having evangelical beliefs only if they strongly agree with four statements:

• The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

• It is very important for me personally to encourage 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 that criteria, LifeWay Research found that only 15 percent of Americans are evangelicals by belief. By contrast, 24 percent of Americans self-identify as evangelicals.

The study reports that evangelicals by belief go to church more often, once a week or more, than self-identified evangelicals. Both groups tend to be older, with 31 percent of Americans 65 and older identifying as evangelicals but only 19 percent of that age group holds evangelical beliefs.

Among people 18 to 34, only 22 percent identify as evangelicals and 10 percent hold evangelical beliefs.

Other findings

Another takeaway from the study is that evangelicals by belief are more ethnically diverse than self-identified evangelicals.

From the standpoint of belief, 58 percent of evangelicals are white, 23 percent are African-American and 14 percent are Hispanic. Five percent claim another ethnicity.

By contrast, 70 percent of self-identified evangelicals are white; 14 percent are African-Americans; 12 percent are Hispanic; and 4 percent claim another ethnicity.

The term “born again,” which has often been used as a synonym for self-identified evangelicals, appears to be more appealing than the evangelical label to African-American Christians. African-Americans also are the most likely to have evangelical beliefs (30 percent).

Whites (13 percent), Hispanics (13 percent) and those from other ethnicities are less likely (9 percent). African-Americans (30 percent) and whites (26 percent) are more likely to say they are evangelical than Hispanics (18 percent) or those from other ethnicities (11 percent).

“For many African-Americans, the term ‘evangelical’ is a turn-off, even though they hold evangelical beliefs,” McConnell said. “The term ‘evangelical’ is often viewed as applying to white Christians only. And that’s unfortunate. It’s lost some of its religious meaning that actually unites these groups.”

The survey also found an increasing number of Christians are rejecting the evangelical label. Only two-thirds of those labeled evangelical by belief self-identify as evangelicals, according to LifeWay. (TAB)