The Evangelical Voter Turnout that (Maybe) Wasn’t

There was an interesting graph in a recent New York Times article  that got Twitter all abuzz:

Visually, this graph is pretty fascinating, showing an increasingly motivated white Evangelical group, whose voter participation rates must put every other group to shame. I was so taken aback by this I actually did share it with a few people as part of a point about voter turnout.

After sharing though, I started to wonder how this turnout rate compared to other religious groups, so I went looking for the source data. A quick Google took me to this Pew Research page, which contained this table:

Two things surprised me about this:

  1. Given the way the data is presented, it appears the Evangelical question was asked by itself as a binary yes/no, as opposed to being part of a list of other options.
  2. The question was not simply “are you Evangelical” but “are you Evangelical/born again”.

Now from researching all sorts of various things for this blog, I happen to know that one of the most common ways of calculating how many white Evangelicals there are in the population is to ask people their denominational affiliation from a menu of choices, then classify those denominations in to Evangelical/Catholic/etc. That’s what PPRI (the group that got the 15% number) does.

For the voting block question however, they were only asked if they were a “White born-again or evangelical Christian?

Now to get too far in to the theological nuances, but there are plenty of folks I know who would claim the “born again” label who don’t go to traditionally “Evangelical” churches.  In fact, according to Mark Silk over at Religion News (who noted this discrepancy at the time), he’s been involved with research that “found that 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants and 18.4 percent of Catholics identified as “born again or evangelical.” So yes, the numbers may be skewed. It’s also worth noting that Pew Research puts the number of Evangelical Protestants at 25%, in a grouping that categorizes historically black groups separately (and thus is presumably mostly white).

So is the Evangelical turnout better than other groups? Well, it might still be. However, it’s good to know that this graph isn’t strictly comparing apples to apples, but rather slightly different questions given to different groups for different purposes. As we know slight changes in questions can yield very different results, so it’s worth noting. Caveat emptor, caveats galore on this one.

7 thoughts on “The Evangelical Voter Turnout that (Maybe) Wasn’t

  1. I have long felt these numbers were soft. Newer churches, independent churches, and megachurches tend to be more integrated than their surrounding territory. (Those categories overlap as well.) So categorising “evangelical” by church/denomination/theology is going to give you inaccurate racial numbers. Dividing the pie up by asking if they are evangelical gives the suspect result you note above. Nor are “evangelical” and “born again” synonymous.

    I didn’t get either of your points, bluecat. Went right over my head.


    • Both Evangelical and “born again” are pretty hard to pin down. The Bible says that: ‘Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”, so technically anybody who professes to be a Christian should consider himself to be born again. However, I have also heard a pastor tell the congregation that we should stop using the term ‘born again,’ so as to not be confused with those disreputable… uh, I’m not sure what they are.

      Evangelical is difficult, too. An on-line dictionary defines it as: “of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels.” So, aren’t all Christians supposed to be Evangelical? But it has taken on another meaning, that is not really the same. Some churches use the term as part of their name (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA), but are not really evangelical, as commonly understood. In Europe, the term Lutheran is generally not used, but Evangelical means the same thing. A Eurpopean who knows this will tell you that they are a Lutheran, even though the word never appears in their church. So, when you ask a question like this, who knows what the answers really mean?


      • @Uncle Bill – Agreed. I was thinking similarly when I made the comment…the use of these labels can be really uneven. There are clearly trends to what both terms mean, but I’ve seen it vary wildly. I know folks who say that “born again” comes with a requirement that you visibly reject some part of culture, and some go strictly with the Biblical definition you mentioned. And good point about the Lutherans…I grew up in a Lutheran offshoot (Evangelical Covenant Church) that also had “Evangelical” in its name but was far less Evangelical than churches many of my friends went to.


  2. The numbers on that chart look pretty consistent to me for all religious groups except what I’d call mainline Protestant and nones. This fits with an analysis I read sometime ago that the increase in people claiming on religious affiliation is primarily the loss of ‘cultural Christians’ who used to claim affiliation with a mainline Protestant denomination but no longer feel a need to do that.


    • There are some really interesting numbers around that, and now I’m going to look back and see if I’ve ever posted them. If not, expect a post sometime soon :).


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