New Study: Evangelicals Most Active Christian Group Politically, Socially

December 21, 1996

By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC-CH News Services

(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL -- Evangelical Christians are worried about the United States, feel threatened by current trends in U.S. culture and vote most often with the Christian Coalition, according to a new study.

Such citizens are strongly Republican, believe Christianity should be pervasive in daily life and want to change society, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows. By most measures, the estimated 20 million U.S. evangelicals are the most active Christian group in donating money to candidates and demonstrating for their beliefs.

"One of the things we see is that there remain distinct traditions in American Christianity and American Protestantism," said study director Dr. Christian Smith, assistant professor of sociology at UNC-CH. "For example, evangelicals and fundamentalists are not the same, and liberals and mainliners are not the same. Their differences have grown out of historical traditions that still mean something to these groups."

The three-year study, supported by the Pew Charitable Trust, involved separate groups of interviews with 128 church-going Protestants and 195 evangelicals. It also involved a nationwide telephone survey of 2,500 adults conducted by FGI Inc., a Chapel Hill-based survey research company.

"Sometimes the general impression is that conservative Protestants want to take over the classroom and force everyone to say prayers out loud," said Smith, an expert on religion and social movements. "That's not what we found, and in fact, only a minority is interested in that. Most fundamentalists, and evangelicals especially, would simply like for children to be allowed to pray together in groups not sponsored by schools if they wish."

Evangelicals feel very alienated from American society, the sociologist said. Of those polled, 92 percent said Christian values are under serious attack today, compared with 65 percent of liberals who felt the same.

"Evangelicals think the mass media, the public schools, feminists and others are hostile to their morals and values and that there is a double standard," Smith said. "They say Native Americans, New Age supporters and every group under the sun gets to have its place at the table, but if traditional Christians want to say something, that's not acceptable."

Such churchgoers are strongly against abortion and more concerned than other denominations about racism, the study showed. They also give the most money to the poor and the most money and time to Christian organizations, including political action groups.

"Evangelicalism has tons of religious vitality," Smith said. Adherents "are the most likely to go to church and go to church as families. They have the fewest doubts about their faith, and they are actually out there doing more than almost anyone else trying to have a social influence."

Although their histories are complex, fundamentalism grew strong in the first third of the 20th century, while evangelical Christianity was reborn after World War II, he said. They almost are opposite movements in that fundamentalists traditionally have kept to themselves. Evangelicals such as the Rev. Billy Graham, however, attempt to be part of and influence mainstream society with their faith.

"During the 19th century in America, people who called themselves evangelicals were extremely active in all sorts of reforms," Smith said. "They fought slavery, built hospitals, worked with the poor and did things almost anyone would agree were positive. Then, following the debate about evolution and believing that modern society was going to the devil, they retreated to their own little world. Now they are back and very much active again."

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Note: Smith can be reached at (919) 962-4524 (w) or 489-7361 (h).

Contact: David Williamson

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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