Evangelicals and their voting preferences.

UPDATE: Important correction to this post. Please see here for additional information about the Barna Group.


Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist looks at the results of the latest political survey conducted by the Barna Group. The survey breaks down voters into religious groups and asks them who they are planning to vote for in November (and if they intend to vote). Mehta provides a useful chart breaking down the numbers in the survey. It shows that every religious group, including atheists and agnostics, tilt heavily in favor of Barack Obama, except for one group: evangelical Christians.

The Barna Groups breaks down the evangelical results into two categories, based on whether they self-identify as evangelicals, or whether the Barna Group classes them as such. Both groups lean toward McCain, but there is an interesting disparity between them.

Among self-identified evangelicals, 37% report that they will vote for Obama, while 39% say they will vote for McCain, with 23% undecided.

Among those classified by evangelicals by the Barna Group, only 17% report that they will vote for Obama, while 61% say they will vote for McCain, with only 14% undecided.

Also interesting, using self-identification, almost 40% of Americans adults consider themselves evangelical, whereas, using the Barna Group’s questions, only 8% fit that definition. Among the first group, 83% say they will vote in November, while 90% of the latter say they will vote.

These are staggering differences, and they raise a number of questions. The questions themselves are rather non-controversial, and I would imagine even a large number of mainstream Christians would answer them in the affirmative:

  1. Say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today

  2. Indicate they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior

  3. Say their faith is very important in their life today

  4. Believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians

  5. Believe that Satan exists

  6. Believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works

  7. Believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth

  8. Assert that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches

  9. Describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today

Being classed as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended.

A number of scenarios come to mind to account for the discrepancy. It is possible that there is bias in the Barna Group’s results. However, if that were the case, it would seem to be working against the Christian ministries they represent. Bias could only be found if one were claiming them to be intentionally underreporting the percentage of evangelicals in America, but, as you read above, the questions they ask are non-controversial, and would point away from this possibility.

I also considered that evangelicals may be falsely reporting their affiliation and voting preferences in order to skew the results; I have referred to fundamentalist Christianity as a reactionary cultural movement in the past, and this would not surprise me. However, if that were the case, then one would expect the results to be even more biased in favor of McCain. Even if McCain is not particularly popular among evangelicals, his positions would certainly be more in line with their own.

The only reasonable conclusion bears out something that I have asserted for some time, and the reason that I do not use the term “evangelical” to refer to right-wing, activist Christians myself: there is a difference between fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Evangelicals represent a much broader range of social views than fundamentalists, and are more tolerant, open-minded, and respectful of the views of others. The blogger Slacktivist is one such evangelical who has nothing in common with the hard-liners.

Fundamentalist Christians, long known as the Religious Right or Christian Right, are a different breed altogether. The inheritors of the reactionary social movement that arose from the union of white southern segregationists with the Republican Party in the 1960s, they constitute a vocal and dangerous cultural movement. Their preference for John McCain, whose opposition to abortion and gay rights fits into their social agenda, makes him their preferred candidate, and their overwhelming intention to vote indicates their activist bent.

Furthermore, fundamentalists have made a concerted effort to have themselves identified as representatives of “normal” Christianity, blurring the line between themselves and more numerous mainstream Christians. Given that their activities have caused the term “fundamentalist” to take on negative connotations, they have attempted in recent years to rebrand themselves as the more moderate-sounding “evangelical”. It is unfortunate that outside groups, from the Barna Group to the Pew Forum, have fallen for this in an attempt to avoid giving (manufactured) offense.

What this study reveals is that the core of the fundamentalist Christian movement is in tatters. Only 8% of Americans can be classified as belonging to it, using even the broadest and least damning criteria. They still possess a lot of power, but their social influence has diminished considerably. This should be heartening for people who hope for a better future for America.

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