Review: American Evangelicals Today
Corwin E. Smidt. American Evangelicals Today. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013. 288 pp. ISBN 978-1-44221-729-4.
A perennial issue in the historiography of American evangelicalism for the past three decades has been the question of definition. What does the term “evangelical” mean? Who are the people that could be identified as “evangelical”? What do “evangelicals” believe and do? Corwin Smidt’s American Evangelicals Today seeks to address this seminal problem. Additionally, Smidt, a professor emeritus in political science at Calvin College, aspires to counteract misunderstanding and misinformation in both scholarly and journalistic works. To do so, Smidt relies on the results of the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, along with findings from the Henry Institute National Survey on Religion and Public Life and the University of Akron Survey Research Center’s Fifth National Survey of Religion and Politics.
After providing a broad survey of the history of evangelicalism in the United States, Smidt examines various approaches to identifying evangelicals. Ultimately he concludes that the most accurate way to define evangelicals is by looking at “affiliation with particular denominations and nondenominational congregations” (53). While other scholars have defined evangelicalism in terms of certain religious beliefs, by the claiming of a “born-again” experience, or by self-identification, Smidt says the affiliation model provides “a relatively powerful predictor of a variety of social and political attitudes and behaviors” (54). It is unclear, however, what denominations are in view here. He does not specifically identify them but mentions in a footnote that they would be “denominations associated with the National Association of Evangelicals” (236, note12).
In subsequent chapters, Smidt lays out various social and political characteristics of evangelicals. He is interested in two general questions: how do evangelicals compare to other Christian traditions on social and political issues, and what kinds of differences exist among evangelicals on those issues? Based on the previously mentioned surveys, evangelicals make up about a quarter of the American population, tend to have a higher percentage of males compared to other Christian groups, are predominantly white, live in rural and suburban areas, and are more likely to be located in the South. Evangelicals also tend to favor limited government and often identify as politically conservative. But they also are tolerant of political dissent and believe in the legal equality of individuals. A majority of evangelicals (54%) have a favorable view of the Tea Party, but only a smaller group (28%) actually identifies as supporters of the Tea Party. Smidt also investigates differences and similarities among evangelicals on the basis of racial, educational, generational, and theological differences. While he finds variations between evangelicals on a host of social, civil, and political issues, the key characteristic that often marks the most division is whether the respondent identifies as a traditionalist or not.
American Evangelicals Today provides several important contributions. First, it is a rather sizable empirical study that provides an expansive look at evangelicals and complicates stereotypical views of who evangelicals are and what they believe. Second, it presents evidence that differences are emerging between older and younger evangelicals, especially over issues like homosexuality. Finally, it demonstrates that evangelicalism is still a vibrant tradition in the United States but one that is poised for great change in the coming decades.
While Smidt’s book comes across as a definitive observation of who evangelicals are, there are several problems with the methodology and sources that leave open many questions. Not all of these problems are Smidt’s fault; rather, they come from his source material. One of the first issues is the classification of the various respondents to the surveys. Because Smidt decided to draw on the affiliation model for determining who is an evangelical, he binds himself to certain classifications. So, he divides respondents into “evangelical Protestant,” “Mainline Protestant,” “Black Protestant,” “Roman Catholic,” and “unaffiliated.” This leads to the observation that “evangelical Protestants” are 81% white, 6% black, 7% Hispanic, 2% Asian, and 4% “other.” Yet, 35% of black Protestants affirmed that the word “evangelical” described their religious perspective fairly or very well. How does the affiliation model help us understand who “evangelicals” are if individuals who identify as evangelical are excluded from that determination?
The surveys that Smidt draws on are also more suggestive than definitive and raise interesting questions that the methodology is unable to answer. What, for example, does it tell us that 14% of evangelicals apparently don’t believe in heaven and 18% don’t believe in hell? What does it mean that only 80% of evangelicals view God as a person not as a force? Yes, evangelicals tend to report believing in heaven, hell, and God as a person more than other religious traditions or the unaffiliated, but that a rather sizable portion of evangelicals would not assert these things indicates something interesting to explore. Yet, it is not discussed. Other information is perhaps less valuable. When asked whether they believed only their own religion led to eternal life, 36% of evangelicals agreed with this statement. Even Smidt acknowledges, however, that the respondent’s frame of reference could skew this result. So, does this 36% tell us that most evangelicals believe that Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others are on the path toward eternal life? Or, does it tell us that evangelicals believe being a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, etc., is irrelevant for reaching heaven? Unfortunately, we cannot be sure.
The depth of demographics also fails in addressing all salient points. There are several tables that compare the views of evangelicals who have graduated college and those who have not. On most measures, evangelicals who have graduated college tend to have more conservative ideas about social and political issues. They also tend to be more connected to the Republican Party. The opposite tends to be true about other religious traditions. Among Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, for example, education tends to be a marker for more progressive positions on issues like abortion and homosexuality. But where are these evangelicals going to college? It seems understandable that if a majority of the evangelicals who have graduated college have attended evangelical schools, then they would be more likely to hold traditionalist positions. If, however, most evangelicals are graduating from secular schools, this is a rather interesting development. This information, however, is not available in the book.
Smidt’s work is an important contribution to the continuing historiography on evangelicalism. It should provide a foundation for further explorations that can move beyond the questions of what evangelicals believe and what their politics are in order to engage other issues within this movement. It also reminds scholars that this historiography must continue to be interdisciplinary so that we can do a better job understanding a diverse movement of a sizable population of individuals in the United States.