The Bizarre emergence of the non-religious “Evangelical”

Billy Sunday preaching on March 15, 1915, in a temporary tabernacle erected on what was to become the site of the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Illustration by George BellowsMetropolitan Magazine, May 1915

You might perhaps think that you grasp what somebody is telling you if they say that they are Evangelical. This however might no longer be the case.

Something dramatic is happening to the Evangelical demographic.

Let’s first cover the basics, then we will get into what is going on.

What does “Evangelical” mean?

Terms such as “Born again” might spring to mind when thinking of this identity. The claim is that you can be “saved” by embracing Jesus in your heart as your saviour. Such a conversion step is commonly referred to as being “Born Again”. It is not exclusive to one specific domination but instead is an umbrella term that straddles major dominations such as Baptist and Pentecostal. It also includes many other assorted independent churches that adhere to some variation of this belief.

There is a diversity of thinking in play here. For example, Pentecostals might use terms such as being “Baptised in the Spirit”, and some might even assert that you are not truly Born Again unless you speak in tongues. Side Note; I’m not religious and yet I can speak in tongues. So can you with a bit of practice, no belief in anything required.

Others might instead take a different stance, all they say you need is to pray and ask Jesus into your heart. No tongues, because that is something that is not for today. In other words “Evangelical” is a very broad umbrella that encompasses multiple variations of a common theme.

Historically the origins of it go back to about the 1700s where it emerged out of mainstream Protestant dominations such as Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, the Lutheran church, and others. The preceding emergence in earlier centuries of Quakerism and Puritanism also fed into it.

Well yes, but what does “Evangelical” really mean?

As a non-religious person looking in, who was once inside but walked out, the words that now quite naturally spring to mind are these – ignorant, foolish, bigoted, racist, intolerant, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-vaccine, etc…

I’m not unique, many feel this way because of what we observe and experience.

OK, it’s complicated. Just as there is a diversity of beliefs, there is also a diversity of politics, sincerity, and behaviour within evangelical circles. There exists both a Christian Left and also a Christian Right under this banner. What appears to be truly toxic is the combination of right-wing authoritarian thinking being combined with fanatical fundamentalism. These are the subset of folks who feel obliged to impose their whacky beliefs upon everybody by force – that is a behaviour that crosses a line and is what earns them my little list of words above.

This however is all history. What is now happening is something that I had not fully appreciated until recently.

Pew Update (Sept 15, 2021)

Let me ask you a question.

Are the numbers of those that self-associate with the identity “Evangelical” increasing or decreasing?

If asked to guess, I’d have said decreasing, and other surveys have validated that. Yet Pew has a recent survey that revealed an increase in numbers – a very big increase.

Here via that Pew poll is a one-line summary of this …

Among all White adults who participated in both the 2016 and 2020 surveys, 25% described themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants in 2016; 29% described themselves this way in 2020.

That’s a 4% increase. In the big picture context that’s a large number, a very large number. Are we in the middle of a new great awakening, a religious revival?

Er …


Something else is going on.

There has been a lot of churn.

Pew goes on to explain that 2% who previously identified as “Evangelical” in their 2016 survey no longer do so. While as many as 6% of white adults who did not previously identify as “Evangelical” within their 2016 survey now do.

Below is the graph that they used to illustrate the churn that has been taking place in the last four years.

Clarification Point: Don’t let those percentages confuse you. The numbers are not total US population percentages. The data they are looking at is specifically related to one data slice of raw survey data – white non-Hispanic people who took part in their survey in 2016 and again in 2020. In other words, from all those they surveyed, they filtered out all non-whites and Hispanic people. Then, to illustrate what the numbers mean, within the group that was left, 45% of those surveyed white Americans identified as Protestant in 2016 and again in 2020 … but evangelical/born-again increased.

As a clue to what is going on here, Pew also noted that those that indicated that they liked Trump and felt warm about him were the most probable to adopt the “Evangelical” identity between 2016 and 2020.

This is perhaps to be expected. The evangelicals are mostly Trump supporters, and so it has become rather natural for white adults who are Trump supporters but not evangelical to also embrace the evangelical identity. This enables them to have a closer personal relationship with the Lord and Saviour, Trump, by inviting him into their heart.

Are lots of people really becoming “Evangelical”?

The key to this rather mysterious religious revival comes via a rather interesting set of statistics. The secret to truly grasp what is going on is to ask yourself this – how many evangelicals go to church?

The answer comes via Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University. This is the part that truly blew my mind, an (LED) lightbulb moment …

In the above Tweet by Ryan, you can see a chart that has some truly fascinating numbers …

  • The deeply committed, those that attend church more than once a week, for example a Sunday service and perhaps a midweek prayer meeting or bible study, has been shrinking – 27.8% in 2008 down to 18.1% in 2020 – (Purple)
  • The just once a week, once per month, or even once a year, numbers have stayed roughly the same – (Yellow, Green and Blue)
  • However, the number who never attend, or seldom attend (for hatching, matching, and dispatching perhaps) has been increasing – (Red and Amber)

That third category reveals all. Close to 27% of evangelicals are now not religious at all and don’t attend a church.

So the point is this. The term evangelical is rapidly becoming meaningless as a religious identity because it is fast evolving into a political identity, a polite way of saying “MAGA cultist”.

Should we truly be surprised by this?

Mr Two Corinthians is not by any meaningful measure a Christian. His torrid and deeply dubious past has been put aside and ignored by those that have invited him into their heart, now that he is supposedly “born again”. He fits right in with these new pseudo-religious evangelicals, because he also never actually attends any church, except perhaps for a photo op. It is also a matter of public record that behind closed doors he expresses nothing but contempt and scorn for his evangelical supporters.

We all know that Trump has more or less consumed and utterly corrupted an entire political party. What is becoming increasingly clear is that he has also done the same to an entire religious demographic as well.

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