Mike the Mad Biologist

I’ve noted before that the background to the ‘culture wars’ is that white, male, Christian (often Protestant) is no longer the cultural default setting. Regarding religion:

The greatest con theopolitical conservatives ever pulled was getting their religious views defined as the cultural ‘default setting’ when, in fact, most people aren’t fundamentalist Christians. And the way they did that was by lying.

By way of skippy and Pacific Views, I came across this interesting observation by Christine Wicker (italics mine):

The 25 percent of Americans who say they are evangelicals don’t go to church as evangelicals are expected to, don’t act as evangelicals are expected to, and don’t believe as evangelicals are expected to.

So are they evangelicals? No. Not in any way that would justify their dominance in national discussions of ethical and moral values.

Other Christians (67 percent of the population) outnumber traditionalist evangelicals (12.7) by more than five to one, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Study )

HOW MANY EVANGELICALS ARE THERE?

The most commonly heard statistic about evangelicals is that they are 25 percent of the country, one out of four Americans. That stat comes from what Americans say about their religious practice, which is notoriously unreliable.

In fact, traditionalist evangelicals are 7 percent of the population or 1 out of 14 Americans. Only 7 percent of self-identified evangelicals believe the most central tenets of so-called Bible-based belief and fewer than 7 percent are in church on a given Sunday.

A look at the National Association of Evangelicals and Southern Baptists, the two biggest evangelical groups, shows how inflated the commonly quoted figures are.

The NAE claims to have 30 million members. I counted. It actually has 7.6 million, at most, and perhaps half that actually attend church…

DO THEY ACT AS EVANGELICALS ARE THOUGHT TO ACT?

*From sexual behavior to abortion, from divorce to drug taking, the behavior of self-identified evangelicals is almost identical to the rest of the country.

DO THEY BELIEVE AS TRADITIONAL EVANGELICALS ARE THOUGHT TO BELIEVE?

When evangelical pollster George Barna asked nine questions of faith that characterize evangelical belief, he found that only 7 percent of the country qualified. When he went to cities, he couldn’t find one city where one out of four people were evangelicals.

The other 18 percent of Americans who are so often characterized as evangelicals are “self-identified” evangelicals. When pollsters ask them more than their religious affiliation, that number starts to drop. Because this is a very mixed group.

What does this mean politically?

It tells us why only 20 percent of self-identified evangelicals say they are members of the Religious Right. (Because it’s the truth.)

It tells us why James Dobson said he would sit out the election if McCain was the Republican nominee, and then when his bluff was called, decided that he would reconsider. (Because he isn’t the kingmaker he styles himself to be.)

It tells us why abortion is still legal and gay rights are being extended more each year. After more than 20 years of fighting these issues, Religious Right evangelicals haven’t been able to legislate their core issues. They can swing an election but they don’t have enough people to make unpopular laws.

It tells us that McCain must keep his 7 percent base awake and afraid enough to vote but he won’t court them too much for fear of alienating the rest of America, including the 18 percent evangelical swing vote that has been lumped with the Religious Right. Obama has a good chance at that swing vote, which is made up of nominal evangelicals, cultural conservatives and increasingly progressive “emergent church” evangelicals.

I think that the point about swinging an election is key (in some parts of the country). The other reason they have had far more clout than is warranted is because they have been successful in primaries and local races. This allows them to nominate extremist theopolitical conservative candidates. However, since the traditional media, for the most part, has bought the idea that these are not fringe ideas, but mainstream ones, the radicalism of these candidates often is not highlighted (or is ameliorated by Compulsive Centrist Disorder).

The other place to lay blame is at the feet of Democratic operatives who also believe this propaganda and spend their time worrying far too much about a demographic that is shrinking, and that does not vote Democratic (I’m talking about the ‘real’ evangelicals–the 7 percenters).

Comments

  1. #1 sdg
    July 21, 2008

    very interesting post. i’ve been thinking a lot lately about how strange it is that this country, as a whole, seems so much more religious than most of its citizens. i really hope that the information in this post reaches a very wide audience but as you said, the traditional media is convinced, or at least trying to convince us, that the evangelicals are the most powerful voting bloc in the country. the whole situation is very weird.

  2. #2 Matt Hussein Platte
    July 21, 2008

    trying to convince us, that the evangelicals are the most powerful

    Word. Traditional media doesn’t *buy* that notion; it sells.

  3. #3 khefera
    July 21, 2008

    the take away point from all of that is nobody understands what the hell evangelical even means. that phantom 18 percent of people who ID as evangelical clearly don’t know. and of course the theocrats won’t be going out of their way to enforce any kind of theological purity in the polling process for fear of bleeding numbers.

  4. #4 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 21, 2008

    I’ve read many posts and articles making this argument, but I’m not buying it. We can have grand philosophical discussions about what the terms “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” really mean, but it is undeniable that large sections of the country are completely in thrall to an especially distressing (from the point of view of any secularist or rationalist) form of Protestant Christianity. That political candidates perceived as insufficiently religious will find themselves unelectable in most Congressional districts is not a media fiction. And I would note that recent surveys have also shown that over fifty percent of the population accept a young-Earth view of the world. For these and many other reasons I am not comforted by Wicker’s comments.

  5. #5 Christine Wicker
    July 21, 2008

    Jason, It’s true that this is a religiously conservative country. And I agree that being religious and being electable go together.

    But many Americans believe fundamentalist evangelicals are the majority of American Christians. They aren’t.

    It seems to me that would give you some comfort.

    A little? Maybe.

    As for the Young/Earth view, they probably don’t think about it beyond the two seconds it takes to answer the poll question.

    That might be cause for distress of a different kind.

  6. #6 zy
    July 21, 2008

    I can’t count the times I’ve been ripped a new one for commenting on blogs to the effect that most Christians are *not* right-wing theocrat fundies. It’s nice to finally see some acknowledgment of the reality.

  7. #7 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    July 22, 2008

    So, it looks like the right wing theocrats are the effective screechy monkeys, right?

  8. #8 Paul Murray
    July 22, 2008

    “i’ve been thinking a lot lately about how strange it is that this country, as a whole, seems so much more religious than most of its citizens”

    It’s because voting is not compulsory, and the consequence of that is that it’s mainly single-iisue nutbars that vote.

  9. #9 MM
    July 22, 2008

    I’m reminded of the comment I’ve heard regarding Jews: “The shul that I don’t go to is Orthodox.” That is, there are a lot of Jews who don’t go to services, sorta-kinda keep kosher, and otherwise aren’t particularly concerned about the orthopraxis of their day-to-day religious observance. Nevertleless, when asked, they identify as Orthodox, and if they affiliate with a synagogue, it will be an Orthodox synagogue.

    Sounds like a similar thing is going on with self-identified American Evangelicals.

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