Evangelicals believe they are a part of the mainstream in the United States, yet feel they are looked down on by other Americans, according to a survey conducted for the PBS show “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” and U.S. News & World Report.
Three fourths of evangelicals view themselves as part of the American mainstream, according to the wide-ranging survey released Tuesday by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research of Washington, D.C. Nearly as many said they believe born-again or evangelical Christians have at least some influence on American society.
At the same time, 47 percent of white evangelicals said most Americans look down on people holding their views. Three fourths said the mass media are hostile toward moral and spiritual values, and 76 percent said evangelicals have to fight for their voices to be heard by the American mainstream.
This tension between evangelicals viewing themselves as being part of the mainstream while feeling hostility from the media and others contributes to some sense among evangelicals that they are “under siege” or an “embattled minority,” according to the study.
“Evangelicals motivate each other by thinking of themselves, much as the first Christians did, as an embattled minority, marginalized at best or persecuted at worst for their religious beliefs,” researchers Anna Greenberg and Jennifer Berktold wrote in their summary.
While other Americans don’t view evangelicals that way, they said, it is important to understand that is how many evangelicals see themselves. “And it is their shared profound dissatisfaction with aspects of the American mainstream that gives them cause to fight to be heard by the American mainstream.”
Rather than remaining passive about their relationship with mainstream society, evangelicals fight back socially by producing and patronizing popular culture vehicles that expound their beliefs, such as Christian-themed television, radio, movies, books and music, the study found.
White evangelicals are quite conservative when it comes to politics, which researchers described as no surprise. About 69 percent are Republican or lean Republican. That translates into strong support for George W. Bush’s re-election bid for president. White evangelicals who are likely voters favor Bush over Democratic challenger John Kerry 74 percent to 23 percent, compared to a 51 percent to 44 percent Bush lead over Kerry in the general population.
White evangelicals oppose gay marriage more strongly than the general population—85 percent compared to 61 percent—but are as nearly as divided as the rest of the country over whether the Constitution should be amended to ban homosexuals from marrying. Forty-two percent support changing the Constitution, while 52 percent say it is enough to prohibit same-sex marriage by state laws.
White evangelicals appear to rely more on their conservative political leanings than religious beliefs in outlining priorities for U.S. foreign policy. Forty-two percent said it is “extremely important” to keep America’s military strong, and 30 percent rated fighting global terrorism as a high priority.
Smaller percentages of white evangelicals consider it very important to fight global diseases like AIDS (21 percent), combat global warming and other environmental threats (9 percent), protect human rights abroad, like religious freedom (18 percent) or contribute to international relief efforts for famines and natural disasters (14 percent). Just 8 percent of white evangelicals regard helping to improve the standard of living in less-developed nations extremely important, compared to 11 percent in the general population.
“Secular ideologies influence white evangelicals more than the Sermon on the Mount,” commented Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “Because they evade Jesus’ largest block of teaching material, they lack the antibodies to protect them against the infections of militarism and materialism.”
“When white evangelicals stop thinning down Jesus’ teaching, then opinion surveys will show their high support for the advancement of justice, human rights, religious freedom and health care for the poor,” Parham said.
White evangelicals were more likely than the general population to emphasize support for Israel (18 percent compared to 13 percent), and slightly less supportive than others of Palestinian rights (3 percent compared to 4 percent).
While the media often portray Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as representing evangelicals, those well-known preachers are viewed skeptically by evangelicals, the study found. Evangelicals rated Falwell marginally unfavorably and Robertson marginally favorably. Religious leaders like Franklin Graham and James Dobson, meanwhile, who have less name-recognition among the general public, are viewed very favorably by evangelicals.
The survey found that white evangelicals live disproportionately in small towns or rural areas but are not, as many assume, overly concentrated in the South. While they come from many different Protestant denominations, about 29 percent of white evangelicals are Baptists, and about half of those Southern Baptists. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) say they either don’t know their denomination, call themselves “just Christian” or “just-Protestant” or are non-denominational or interdenominational.
A strong majority (88 percent) say they are “born again,” compared to less than half of all Americans who claim that designation. Two thirds of white evangelicals (and 79 percent of Baptists) view the Bible as the literal word of God, which is to be taken literally, word-for-word. Just 38 percent of the general population shares that view of Scripture.
Forty-three percent of Americans agree the Bible is the word of God, but not everything is to be taken literally (compared to 29 percent of white evangelicals and 18 percent of Baptists.)
Just 1 percent of evangelicals say the Bible is the word of men, a view held by 14 percent of the general population.
The survey results will be included in a four-part series on “American Evangelicals,” scheduled to air on “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” from April 16 through May 7. A story is also scheduled in the May 3 issue of U.S. News & World Report magazine.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.