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New study looks to define evangelicals and how they affect polling

The way the evangelical movement is defined has profound implications for where evangelicals fit into the political spectrum, according to a study by sociologists at Rice University and the University of Texas-Austin.

"In this election year, there is much debate over whether Sen. Obama can shave off enough evangelical votes to carry certain swing states, said Rice's D. Michael Lindsay, one of the researchers. "That depends a great deal on which poll you are looking at and, more importantly, how the survey defines the evangelical population."

For instance, the study found, "If one uses beliefs on religious issues (such as whether Satan exists) to define evangelicals, they will be noticeably more conservative in political outlook than if one uses self-classifications by the individual to define the group."

The study, "Measuring Evangelicalism: Consequences of Different Operationalization Strategies," was co-authored by Lindsay and Conrad Hackett, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas-Austin, and appears in this month's Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

There are three distinct ways national poll organizations define evangelicals:

  1. Denominational affiliation, as is done in the General Social Survey
  2. Self-classification ("Would you call yourself an evangelical, or born-again, Christian?), as is done in surveys from the Gallup Organization and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
  3. Beliefs on specific religious issues, as is done by the Barna Research Group

To prove their point, Lindsay and Hackett used a single set of survey data, the 1998 General Social Survey, which included questions using all three ways of defining evangelicals.

They found that depending on how one defines an evangelical using this data, the percentage varies 10 percentage points.

Method of defining an evangelical Percentage that are Republican
Denominational affiliation 59
Self-classification 53
Beliefs on specific religious issues 63

Since this is an election year, the most interesting finding relates to the percentage of evangelicals who lean toward being or are strong Republicans.

"Evangelicals continue to be the most organized constituency of the Republican Party," Lindsay said. "However, Democrats have made unprecedented efforts to woo religious voters. They won't win the votes of all evangelicals, but in a tight election year, they don't have to -- only a few are needed. The perception over whether evangelicals are remaining loyal Republicans or are leaning Democratic depends, in great measure, on which survey is being cited. Evangelicals are the most discussed but least defined population among the American electorate."


Contact: David Ruth
Rice University

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