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Essay Evangelical Nation Public

While the pentecostal movement was traditionally associated with the impoverished margins of American culture-particularly among Southern whites and blacks--its influence began to spread during the 1950s through the visibility of healing evangelists like Oral Roberts, groups like the Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship, and the migration of large numbers of Southern Protestants to the Midwest and Pacific Coast. By the 1960s, pentecostal ideas and style began to surface in the "mainline" Protestant churches, "officially" beginning in 1960 when Dennis Bennett, an Episcopal priest in Van Nuys, California, announced to his congregation that he had spoken in tongues. The movement quickly spread to other mainline denominations and, by the mid-'60s, to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The movement's visibility and networks were further strengthened by the success of the pentecostal-leaning "Jesus People" movement among American youth in the late '60s and '70s. In the 1980s, a vigorous, independent network of charismatic churches and organizations (at times described as the "Third Wave") emerged, including churches such as the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. In recent years, a wave of new revivals characterized by such manifestations as "holy laugher" and associated with the Toronto Airport Fellowship and Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola, Florida have been highly influential within pentecostal and charismatic circles.

Most significant about the contemporary impact of these movements is the effect they have had overseas, leading many to tag pentecostalism "world evangelicalism." In many parts of the Third World Pentecostalism has made significant numbers of new converts. In fact, many analysts speculate that within the next decade Pentecostalism may even overtake the Roman Catholic Church as the largest Christian presence in Latin America.

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How Many Evangelicals Are There?
One of the most difficult things to establish about evangelicals is a precise estimate of just how many of them there are in the United States. With so many different evangelical denominations, evangelical constituencies of varying sizes within historically evangelical "mainline" and even non-evangelical denominations (thousands upon thousands of independent churches) there is no single entity that can possibly serve as a representative gatekeeper for the nation's evangelicals. For that reason, the best approach to an evangelical head count is a judicious triangulation of various scientific surveys. But, even this is fraught with problems. As the discussion about the intricacies of definition above would indicate, the framing of the definition or wording of survey questions are important variables that can produce varying results. Estimates of the number of evangelicals in the United States, therefore, are just that: estimates.

Since 1976 the Gallup organization has been asking roughly 1,000 adults the question "Would you describe yourself as a 'born-again' or evangelical Christian?" In that first survey 34% of the people being surveyed responded "yes." Over the years, the number has fluctuated dramatically, reaching a low of 33% in 1987 and 1988 during the televangelist scandals, and a high of 47% in 1998.

Click here for a Bar Graph documenting years and percentage of people describing themselves as Born-Again or Evangelical (Princeton Religion Research Center, 2002)

In its most recent sampling in 2001 approximately 40% of survey participants described themselves as evangelicals, compared to 45% the previous year. Over the years the Gallup numbers have averaged just under 39% of the population as accepting identification as born-again/evangelical.

However, describing one's self as "born again" as the definitive label for evangelical believers--or even the term "evangelical" for that matter--is a questionable benchmark for tabulating the evangelical population (in one study, only 75% of Southern Baptists accepted either term). For a variety of reasons, some groups and individuals which one would describe as "in the team picture" simply do not use those words to describe themselves. For instance, several recent studies and surveys by sociologists and political scientists that utilize more complex definitional parameters have estimated the number of evangelicals in the U. S. at about 25-30% of the population, or roughly between 70 and 80 million people. It should be noted, however, that even these estimates tend to separate out nearly all of the nation's African American Protestant population (roughly 8-9% of the U. S. population) which is overwhelmingly evangelical in theology and orientation (for example, 61% of blacks--the highest of any racial group, by far--described themselves as "born-again" in the 2001 Gallup poll). When all is said and done, a general estimate of the nation's evangelical population could safely be said to average somewhere between 30-35% of the population, or about 100 million Americans.

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The National Association of Evangelicals
One of the defining organizations within American evangelicalism is the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Founded in 1942, the NAE serves as an umbrella organization that attempts to represent evangelical interests and views on a wide ranging assortment of spiritual, social, cultural, and political issues. Including local congregations from 50 member denominations as well as individual churches from 24 other Protestant denominations, the NAE estimates that it represents a constituency of about 30 million people. For information on the NAE, visit their website at http://www.nae.net/

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Evangelicals and Politics
During most of the 20th-century, American evangelicalism as a movement was generally reticent about politics because its sights were focused on what seemed more important tasks: evangelism, missions, and nurturing the faithful. All that seemed to change, however, in the 1970s when evangelicals "re-entered" the national spotlight with the rise of Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, a devout Southern Baptist layman who unabashedly claimed to be "born again." But the most visible aspect of this new political sensibility was the appearance of right-wing organizations like the Moral Majority and Concerned Women for America. This new "Religious Right" was credited with playing a major role in the "Reagan Revolution" of 1980 (and the ironic ouster of the evangelical President Carter, for the much-less obviously pious Reagan). In retrospect, it now seems clear that the part these organizations played in this outcome was not as great as either the news media or conservative evangelicals once believed. Unarguably, however, there was a new evangelical interest in political participation, which subsequently gave birth to a new generation of "Religious Right" organizations, such as the Christian Coalition.

The reasons for this resurgance are many, including: a natural desire to have a positive impact on culture and society (a subtle indication, perhaps, of the decline of some types of evangelical prophetic interpretations that emphasized an imminent Second Coming); concern over abortion and changing sexual mores in society; and dissatisfaction with the content, direction and power of the mass media and popular culture. However, what seems to have been the single overarching factor has been the post-WWII expansion of the Federal Government into areas and responsibilities that were previously the domain of the state and local government, the individual, the family, and the church.Yet, it must be made clear that there is no monolithic consensus among evangelicals on politics, any more than there is on theological matters. While the movement is conservative in many regards, there are many evangelicals who would identify their political orientation as liberal and some, like the Sojourners community in Washington D.C., which are leftist in nature. In terms of party affiliation, the movement has been traditionally perceived as Republican. This impression, however, reflects a bias that centers on the Northern, midwestern evangelicals of the NAE "card-carrying" variety. When the huge numbers of Southern white and black evangelicals are factored in, it is probably more accurate to say that in the years before 1970 the "average" evangelical was more likely to be a Democrat. With the defection of large numbers of white Southerners to the Republicans in recent decades, the political make-up of evangelicalism has changed. Today the overall political tenor of the movement could be described as moderately conservative and predominantly Republican.

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February 2, 2017

Krista Tippett, host: In the wake of the November election, a conversation I had in 2008 with three generations of Evangelical leaders — including the late Chuck Colson — began to circulate around the internet. It was about the proper role of Christians in politics, and it seemed to some as relevant and helpfully illuminating now as it was then, maybe even more so.

White Evangelical Christians helped secure the election of President Trump. Many said that his views on abortion were decisive in that choice, overriding concerns they had on other matters. But to be Evangelical is not one thing, even on abortion. Greg Boyd and Shane Claiborne, are the other two participants in the conversation we offer this hour to a changed political landscape. They continue to be formative leaders in a debate that is as alive as ever within the Evangelical world.

Mr. Chuck Colson: I don’t think you can leave your moral convictions behind when you go in the voting booth.

Mr. Shane Claiborne: For younger folks, we don’t want to repeat the mistakes that the generation before us has made in just this bitter, antagonistic meanness. And if there’s anything that I’ve learned from conservatives and liberals, it’s that you can have all the right political answers and still be mean.

Mr. Greg Boyd: Political issues are, more often than not, very ambiguous and good and honest and decent. And Bible-believing people can have the same values, but they translate into the complexity of politics in different ways, even on things like gay rights and abortion.

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

Ms. Tippett:

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