A Tale of Two American Evangelicalisms

That there is not one, coherent evangelical church in the United States today is no surprise. Simply reading the responses to any tweet Ed Stetzer, a recognized evangelical leader in the United States, makes about Pres. Trump provides anecdotal evidence of this. Now, thanks the Pew Research Center, there are data and concepts available to help flesh out two very different versions of American evangelicalism today.

Pew released its political typology report this past week, which categorizes Americans into nine broad categories based on their political leanings. It then drills down into each of these categories, learning about the kinds of people who tend to belong to each one.

The report is detailed and beckons readers to begin cross-referencing the broad set of data it provides. It is a must read for any church leader who wants to get a clear picture of the different values that they will encounter if they want to reach out to Americans. Whether you are part of the Black Church, Catholic, white evangelical, white mainline, or part of another religious demographic, there is something here for you.

Core Conservatives and Country First Conservatives, respectively…together make up 77% of white evangelicals

The two groups that I want to focus on in this brief post are the two most conservative, Republican/Republican-leaning groups. These are named Core Conservatives and Country First Conservatives, respectively, in the report. These groups together make up 77% of white evangelicals in the study, with 34% of Core Christians identifying as white evangelicals and 43% of Country First Conservatives identifying as white evangelical.

In spite of this similarity, the two groups would otherwise be in very different demographic groups. Financially, Core Conservatives are much more economically secure, with 76% saying that they feel financially stable—the highest of any group measured. Only 51% of Country First Conservatives believe that they are financially stable, though. Relatedly, 56% of Core Conservatives hold full time jobs whereas only 36% of Country First Conservatives do. Core Conservatives are also about 20% more likely to own their homes, have access to credit through credit cards, be invested in the stock market, and to have a passport than Country First Conservatives.

Whereas 94% of Core Conservatives, who are largely already well-situated, believe that working hard will be rewarded with an improved quality of life, only 57% of Country First Conservatives agreed.

Perhaps most telling is the question as to whether each group believes they have the possibility of getting ahead. Whereas 94% of Core Conservatives, who are largely already well-situated, believe that working hard will be rewarded with an improved quality of life, only 57% of Country First Conservatives agreed. These were the lowest and highest amounts among the more conservative groups.

Partially explaining these substantial economic differences, Country First Conservatives are 9% more likely to live in rural settings than Core Conservatives. They also are far less educated. A full 50% has a high school education or less with only 16% graduating college or higher. This is a marked difference from Core Conservatives, who have only 39% with a high school education or less and 29% who have graduated from college or higher.

Again, this points to the fact that, while these groups may be closely aligned in their broad adherence to conservatism and in their shared participation in white evangelicalism, they are otherwise very much disparate.

Again, this points to the fact that, while these groups may be closely aligned in their broad adherence to conservatism and in their shared participation in white evangelicalism, they are otherwise very much disparate. This difference becomes even clearer when Pew considered how each group responded to certain social issues.

While a full 68% of Country First Conservatives believed that it was possible to be a moral person without believing in God, only 42% of Core Conservatives thought belief was necessary. This suggests that Core Conservatives have a broader view of humanity that is not quite so starkly divided into good-and-bad categories as the Country First Conservatives may have.

While the two groups are nearly equal in their opposition to abortion (68% for Core and 69% for Country First), they diverge widely on accepting same-sex marriage (only 49% of Core are against it, while 73% of the First Country are against it). Again, while this suggests that both groups honor life, they are not in agreement about how to view people who choose different ways to live, with the First Country Conservatives drawing much more rigid lines about who is right and who is wrong.

All this points to two very different versions of evangelicalism within the United States today…[The] first order of business needs to be working to bridge this divide in order to right evangelicalism’s own house. 

All this points to two very different versions of evangelicalism within the United States today. One is an educated, suburban, and affluent version that has come to hold traditional conservative values in a nuanced way. It recognizes the existence of right and wrong, but rejects dichotomizing people into distinct categories of being either good or bad. The other is a less educated, rural, and economically unstable version that is not so optimistic about the future and that is leaning toward making sense of world that has become ever harder for it to navigate by organizing that world into clearly contrasted groups of people who are either good or bad.

This conclusion should be a shot in the arm for American evangelical leaders, especially those who reside among the first version. It suggests that there is an enormous disconnect and distrust that exists between them and those who are part of the second version of evangelicalism. Their first order of business needs to be working to bridge this divide in order to right evangelicalism’s own house. The way to do that is to meet the people in the second version at the point of basic quality of life issues. They need greater access to opportunity and education, and it is clear that they do not feel anyone (the government or even the church) is helping them. If the evangelicals with better finances and the power of influence that can open the doors of opportunity will use these to care for their brothers and sisters in the other form of evangelicalism, they can go a long way to healing the divide between them.

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