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The Mismeasure of Evangelicals

In a famous slip of the pen in the Washington Post from February 1993, a writer asserted that evangelical Protestants were "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command." When the dust had finally settled in the letters columns, it was clear that at least a few evangelicals were educated enough to offer such an ascription the comeuppance it deserved. More recently, in a much-discussed article in Dissent on "The Death of Intellectual Conservatism" (Winter 1995), Michael Lind opined that "the hitherto silent majority of white evangelical Protestant conservatives" had hijacked the mind of America's right wing. But are evangelicals, in fact, really a majority in America--and are they all right wing?

Loose talk about "evangelicals" or "evangelicalism" reveals a failure to make critical distinctions. Differences between "evangelicals" and "fundamentalists" are a good case in point. More subtle distinctions recognized by insiders--such as the differences between the "Pentecostal" and "holiness" families under the evangelical umbrella--are even more frequently blurred by commentators. Some evangelical scholars go so far as to suggest that the term evangelical be abandoned altogether. Indeed, attempts to clarify the meaning of evangelicalism recall the king of Siam's words to his schoolmistress, Anna: " 'tis a puzzlement!"

Such a puzzlement cannot be ignored by social scientists who study contemporary American religion. With two colleagues (James Guth and Corwin Smidt) we carried out a large-scale survey in 1992 of 4,001 Americans (with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts) for the express purpose of clarifying the size and the impact of American evangelicalism. What follows is a brief report on our results.

We began with the assumption that evangelicalism is a multifaceted phenomenon, and that there is no one single way to define the term. Instead, we employed three approaches: doctrinal essentials; religious movements closely associated with these doctrines; and affiliation ...

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