When it comes to public perceptions of religious groups, a new poll finds that U.S. views of evangelical Christians are increasingly negative among those who aren’t themselves “born again” believers.
That’s according to a national survey by Pew Research Center released on Wednesday, which found that 32% of nonevangelicals have an unfavorable view of evangelicals. It compares to 18% of nonevangelicals who have a favorable view of the evangelical faithful.
Among all Americans including evangelicals, public views about “born again” believers are essentially neutral — with 28% expressing favorable views and 27% unfavorable views. Meanwhile, 44% of people surveyed declined to answer. Pew researchers commented that some respondents “find it strange or difficult to be asked to rate an entire group of people.”
The nationally representative Pew survey of 10,588 U.S. adults has a margin of error of 1.5%. It was conducted September 13 to 18 of last year. About one quarter of the U.S. population describe themselves as evangelical or “born again,” according to the most recent Pew study.
Some religious groups tend to be viewed more favorably by all Americans. Pew found 35% report favorable views of Jews, 34% report favorable views of Catholics, and mainline Protestants are viewed favorably by 30% of respondents.
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Conversely, Pew reports public views of other religious groups trend negative. Negative perceptions dominated positive responses about Mormons (viewed unfavorably by 25% of respondents), atheists (24%), and Muslims (22%).
A separate survey released in December from research firm YouGov seems to indicate similar findings. Their opinion research study found Christianity overall has a 34% net favorability and Protestantism has a 15% net favorability.
Perceptions of evangelicals as a group were not polled. However, two subgroups most associated with evangelicalism had a net negative favorability, including the Southern Baptist Convention (5% net negative favorability) and Pentecostalism (leaning 1% negative.)
YouGov’s poll of 1,000 U.S. adults was conducted November 22 to 26 of last year, with a 3% margin of error.
Partisanship, narrow social activism viewed as factors
Surprisingly, one finding of the Pew survey contradicts a major hypothesis of sociology dating back to the 1950s.
Respondents who reported personally knowing an evangelical “are slightly more likely than those who do not personally know an evangelical Christian to express a negative view of evangelicals (35% vs. 29%),” to quote the Pew study.
Sociologist Ryan Burge told The Roys Report (TRR) that this “runs counter to social contact theory.” He explained: “That’s the idea that if you know someone from a group—like Muslims, Asians, or immigrants—you will feel more warmly and be more tolerant of that group. This may not work with evangelicals.”
He speculated this has to do with the proportional size of evangelicals in the U.S. “Social contact (theory) only has explanatory power when the group in question is relatively small and often marginalized,” he added. “Neither is the case with evangelicals.”
As to the factors at play in the survey’s polarized findings, Burge points primarily to how closely evangelicalism has become linked to the Republican Party. Recent data indicates that, for many, the meaning of “evangelical” has become a synonym for conservative Republican.
The sociologist, who has also served as a pastor in a mainline-denomination church, analyzed data about this claim in an op-ed published in fall 2021. “Many Americans are coming to the understanding that to be very religiously engaged and very politically conservative means that they are evangelical, even if they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ,” wrote Burge.
Recent headlines reflect this conflation of an evangelical identity with Republican politics. Last fall, Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler said that those who “vote wrongly”—which he suggested was for candidates who are not Republican—were “unfaithful.”
Church events from Texas and North Carolina to Idaho and Pennsylvania have sought to mobilize Christians with partisan messages. And, during recent midterm elections, more than a dozen evangelical-based nonprofit groups spent millions in election-related activism or earned media efforts for conservative Republican messaging.
National Association of Evangelicals president Walter Kim also alluded to how evangelicals’ cultural engagement has become inextricably linked to conservative politics.
“We are in a season in which the evangelical faith is being narrowly defined and misunderstood by many,” said Kim in an interview with Christianity Today. “Too many, especially young people and people of color, have been alienated by the evangelical Christianity they have seen presented in public in recent years.”
He added that this trend has “long-term ramifications for our gospel witness.”
Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.