Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The word evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion , used in the New Testament to describe the "good news" of salvation through Jesus Christ, and often translated as the "evangel" (see Hill 1989). From the Greek root, we get the verb to evangelize , the nouns evangelist and evangelicalism , and the adjective evangelical . Prior to the Reformation, the word evangelical described all of Christianity and meant believing and proclaiming the evangel, but following Luther the word took on more specific meanings as well as emphases on the authority of Scripture (the source of the evangel) and on salvation by grace through faith (the message of the evangel). This pattern would repeat itself many times throughout the centuries: the rise of a sectarian movement charging established churches with diluting the evangel and accommodating the culture. As a result, the very meaning of the word evangelical has changed over the years. These changes have caused enough confusion to lead one scholar to suggest that the term be abandoned (Dayton 1991).

R. Stephen Warner (1975) and James Davison Hunter (1982, 1983) began the social scientific effort to clarify the meaning and measurement of contemporary American evangelicalism. Using survey data collected by the Gallup organization, Hunter (1983:141) devised criteria for identifying "evangelicals": Protestant affiliation, belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and the divinity of Christ, and either belief that Christ is the only way to salvation or the "experience" of conversion, or both. Building upon this, we can explore the meaning and measurement of evangelicalism, focusing on (1) doctrinal essentials or "distinctives," (2) religious movements closely associated with these doctrines, and (3) religious tradition, churches, and denominations associated with these doctrines and movements.

Doctrinal Distinctives

Every religion has a belief component or a series of doctrinal essentials. Evangelicalism is no different. We developed a small number of criteria that would cover the "minimal" essentials for

Table E.1 Various Operational Measures of Evangelicalism




Doctrinal Distinctives

Movement Criteria

Religious Traditions

Bible "True," 44%

Fundamentalist, 5%

Evangelical Protestant, 26%

Jesus Only, 46%

Charismatic or
Pentecostal, 8%

Roman Catholic, 23%

Witness, 37%

Mainline Protestant, 17%

Born Again, 31%

Evangelical, 4%

Secular, 20%

All Four, 14%

Black Protestant, 8%

All Others, 7%

NOTE: Percentages of the U.S. population identified as "evangelical" by doctrinal distinctives, movements, and religious tradition.

adequate conceptualization but few enough so that space would not be a problem in most surveys. Four criteria were used: (a) salvation only through faith in Jesus Christ (the mechanism of the evangel); (b) an experience of personal conversion, commonly called being "born again" (the mechanics of the evangel); (c) the importance of missions and evangelism (sharing the message of the evangel); and (d) the truth or inerrancy of Scripture (the source of the evangel). These distinctives capture the minimal essence of the term evangelical in its contemporary American manifestation (see also Babbington 1989, Kellstedt and Green 1996).

The results of a large national survey (N = 4,001) show that from 31% to 46% of the U.S. population affirm these evangelical distinctives (see Table E.1, section A). Does that mean that the size of the evangelical population in the United States is somewhere between 31% to 46%? The answer is yes if a single measure of evangelical doctrine is used. If all four of the distinctives are employed, however, only 14% of the population meet these criteria.

Religious Movement

Evangelicalism is more than a set of doctrinal distinctives. These distinctives get embodied in social institutions or in movements dedicated to reforming and revitalizing existing institutions. Americans are famous for sectlike movements, some operating today such as fundamentalism, pentecostalism, the charismatic movement, and "evangelicalism" (not to be confused with "evangelical" doctrines or tradition). In contrast to the affirmation of the doctrinal distinctives, movement affiliation is much smaller, with just under one-twentieth of the population affiliating with evangelicalism and fundamentalism and about twice as many with the "spirit-filled" movements, pentecostalism and the charismatic (see Table E.1, section B). By this approach, 17% of the population can be classified as "evangelical." They are the "card-carrying" members of the evangelical community.

Religious Tradition

Evangelicalism is more than doctrinal distinctives and religious movements, it is also an aggregate of local churches and denominations, or what we call a religious "tradition." The "evangelical" tradition affirms the doctrinal essentials and/or is part of the religious movements. It includes large "subtraditions" such as the Baptist, Pentecostal, Holiness churches and the growing number of nondenominational churches. "Evangelical" as religious tradition presumes careful measurement of denominational affiliation, a care rarely taken in surveys. To illustrate, the answer "Presbyterian" to a survey question does not permit differentiation between the moderate to liberal Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) and the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). To surmount these difficulties, specific affiliation was obtained through detailed probes. Then doctrinal stands and institutional histories were examined to assign denominations to distinct religious traditions using the work of scholars such as Melton (1991) to assist in the process. We can identify four relatively large religious traditions in addition to the evangelical Protestant: mainline Protestant, black Protestant, Roman Catholic, and an unaffiliated group that may be called "seculars." (Assigning denominations to the three Protestant traditions is, of course, subject to error. This is particularly the case for smaller, lesser known denominations. Still, defensible assignments can be made; see Kellstedt and Green 1993:70 f)

By this method, roughly one-fourth of the American population is "evangelical" (see Table E.1, section C), slightly fewer are Roman Catholic, somewhat less than one-fifth are mainline Protestant, with about one-fifth "secular" and 8% black Protestant. Smaller traditions

Table E.2 Pro-Life Attitudes* on Abortion for Groups Based on Combinations of Doctrinal Distinctives, Religious Movements, and Traditions


Percentage of Population

Percentage Pro-Life

4 Doctrines, Evangelical Tradition, + Movement



3 Doctrines, Evangelical Tradition, + Movement



4 Doctrines, Evangelical Tradition, No Movement



3 or 4 Doctrines, Catholic



3 or 4 Doctrines, Black, + Movement



3 or 4 Doctrines, Mainline, + Movement



3 Doctrines, Evangelical Tradition, No Movement



3 or 4 Doctrines, Mainline, No Movement



1 or 2 Doctrines, Evangelical Tradition, + Movement



0 to 2 Doctrines, Evangelical Tradition, No Movement



National Average



*Pro-life attitudes on abortion include respondents who oppose abortion in all circumstances or would permit abortion only in extreme circumstances, for example, when the life of the mother was at stake.

such as Jews, Eastern Orthodoxy, Muslims, and others account for the remaining 7% of the population.

Table E.1 shows that a simple question, "What is an Evangelical?" produces varied answers. It becomes even more complicated if we combine these various measures of evangelicalism (see Table E.2). The first entry identifies "true-blue" evangelicals who hold all four doctrinal distinctives, affiliate with an evangelical movement, and belong to a church or denomination in the evangelical tradition. This group numbers about 5% of the adult population—small but still significant, outnumbering Jews and Episcopalians two to one. If the second entry is added (those holding three doctrinal essentials plus movement and tradition affiliation), the 5% figure jumps to almost 9%. These findings suggest that the core of evangelicalism is small but intense. If mainline and black Protestants with three or four doctrinal distinctives and movement identification, as well as Roman Catholics who meet the doctrinal criteria (few Catholics identify with evangelical movements), are added to the 9% figure, about one-sixth of the population is "distinctively evangelical." This figure jumps to almost three of ten if the movement criterion is ignored. Mobilizing such a disparate group is not easy, but its size makes it an important force in the society.

Do the combinations in Table E.2 make a difference? The answer is a resounding "yes" if just one issue, abortion, is examined. Research has shown that evangelicals are strongly pro-life on abortion (Kellstedt et al. 1994), but the data in the second column of Table E.2 show that the degree of pro-life support depends on how one defines and measures evangelicalism. The combination of all four doctrinal essentials and affiliation with an evangelical tradition and movement has the strongest effect. There is dramatic falloff for pro-life positions on abortion as one moves down the column. Indeed, those who do not hold at least three of the four distinctive evangelical doctrines actually fall below the national average pro-life position.

To conclude, the size of the evangelical population depends on how evangelicalism is conceptualized and measured. It ranges from a high of 46%, if only one doctrinal essential is considered, to a low of 5% if a "fine-tuned" definition that includes doctrine, tradition, and movement is used. Understanding religion in America—and its links to politics, for example—calls for this more complex conceptualization and measurement. This is likely to hold true in other societies as well, although not necessarily in reference to the same issues.

Lyman Kellstedt, John Green, James Guth, and Corwin Smidt


D. Babbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

D. W. Dayton, "Some Doubts About the Usefulness of the Category 'Evangelical," in The Variety of American Evangelicalism , ed. D. W. Dayton and R. K. Johnson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991): 245-251

S. S. Hill, "What's in a Name?" in Handbook of Denominations in the United States , 9th ed., ed. F. S. Mead and S. S. Hill (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989): 251-262

J. D. Hunter, "Operationalizing Evangelicalism," Sociological Analysis 42(1982):363-372

J. D. Hunter, American Evangelicalism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983)

L. Kellstedt and J. Green, "The Mismeasure of Evangelicals," Books and Culture (Jan.-Feb. 1996): 14-15

L. Kellstedt and J. Green, "Knowing God's Many People," in Rediscovering the Religious Factor in American Politics , ed. D. Leege and L. Kellstedt (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1993): 53-71

L. Kellstedt, J. Green, J. Guth, and C. Smidt, "Religious Voting Blocs in the 1992 Election," Sociology of Religion 55(1994):307-326

J. G. Melton, The Encyclopedia of American Religions (Tarrytown, N.Y.: Triumph Books, 1991)

R. S. Warner, "Theoretical Barriers to the Understanding of Evangelical Christianity," Sociological Analysis 49(1975):1-9.

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