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New Pew Survey Finds Americans Have Polarized Views of Evangelical Christians

By Josh Shepherd
pew evangelicals
A new Pew poll finds that views of evangelical Christians are increasingly negative among those who aren’t themselves “born again” believers. (Photo by Rachel Coyne/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

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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pew research center evangelicals
Chart: Americans’ Views Toward Evangelical Christians (Image via Pew Research Center)

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. 

pew research
Chart: Balance of public opinion toward evangelicals (Source: Pew Research Center)

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.” 

ryan burge pew polarized
Ryan Burge

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.

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21 Responses

  1. “He added that this trend has “long-term ramifications for our gospel witness.”

    Actually, it has no ramifications whatsoever. God will build His church regardless of any surveys or feelings or trends or popularity. Even the gates of Hell cannot prevail against His church.

    Too funny. The message of the gospel is incredibly powerful and can cut through anything. It pierces the heart and transcends time and space. It changed lives even today. In fact, as I write, there are people somewhere in the world who are beginning their walk toward heaven because of what Jesus did.

    American Christians are being attacked, but Jesus has overcome the world. If we stand firm in the faith, we will not fall because “greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.”

    Satan is heating up the airwaves and the news cycle. He is not called “The Prince of the Power of the Air” for nothing. The Bible predicted this, so Christians should not be surprised or discouraged.

    1. Cynthia –

      I respectfully disagree. Many of the outlines for living in the New Testament are to protect our witness, not tarnish our reputation as Christ-followers, and to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world (we are to be in the world, but not of it). We are actually told the world will know and recognize us by our love for one another.
      Like it or not, people look at how we live our lives as testimonies of our faith. Living like a hypocrite or “just like the rest of world” is a turnoff to unbelievers.
      Yes, the gospel is powerful and will stand forever, but we can’t hide under that as a reason to justify our sins and bad behavior.
      Believing “there’s nothing I can do to turn off someone from the gospel” simply isn’t true.
      I’m sure we all have stories of people who have walked away from churches, pastors, or the gospel itself because of unkind, hypocritical or outright abusive behaviors of Christians.
      I personally just visited with a friend who walked out of church 25 years ago and never looked back after a believer walked up to him after his mother was murdered and told him “it’s all part of Jesus’s plan.”
      The world is watching, like it or not, and we are to represent the gospel well. Collectively, the church hasn’t done a great job in recent years.

      1. Marin,

        I just want to say that while there are likely many comments you’ve made on this site that I have not seen, I have always appreciated the comments of yours that I have. Thank you for your thought, care, and for trying to further thoughtful consideration and discussion rather than end them.

        I think there is an important line that may not always be clear to gospel-believing Christians that divides “not being ashamed of the gospel” from the understanding that the gospel message will be offensive to some. It can be easy to be proud of an offense we’ve produced out of unneighbourly, unloving behaviour and just chalk it up to someone simply being upset by the gospel message. It’s an easy coat to wear. If we don’t really look in the mirror, we’ll never have a sense of how it looks on us.

        If a group or movement develops a reputation–if not cultural testimony or witness in this case–that is elicits this kind of response, they should be wary of being too dismissive of why that is. What of the “planks” in our own eyes?

        I imagine that those that know Evangelicals and do not like them are not all simply looking at a light upon a hill that upsets them.

        Cynthia, just to be clear, I am not directing any of these thoughts at you. I am thinking on the reputation of, and many of my own experiences within Evangelical culture in general.

        I hope both of you have a wonderful afternoon.

        1. David, thank you for your gracious thoughts here.

          I just wanted to say that if Marin has commented on a post I also deeply appreciate the time it takes to read her comments. It would be annoying I left a message saying so each time – but as your comment has already reached out I wanted to take this opportunity to acknowledge Marin. I have learned so much from her when she speaks out – her life experiences have been different from mine.

          Marin, sometimes you comment alone. The intended point of my comment is to agree with David – you aren’t speaking into a void.

          Thank you.

      2. Marin:

        Nothing you have said contradicts one word of what I said. Did you misinterpret my words on purpose? God can work with all people. When one group disappoints, he moves on. There are no excuses for bad-behaving Christians, but my point stands: God is building his church regardless.

    2. I disagree as well. Why? Sadly, too many so-called evangelicals are focused more on prosperity gospel teaching, partisan politics, and covering up sexual abuse and assault within their own ranks. When we allow such bad behaviors to shape us, the perception that many have of us is one of hypocrisy. And in the cases I just mentioned they are probably right. How we live matters. You have to choose between Christ and prosperity, between Christ and your favorite politician, and between Christ and covering up sexual abuse in our ranks. Yes, God calls people to salvation but in the mystery of his purposes, he does call us to live well and to follow him above all else.

      1. Bob,

        What do we do about people who call themselves evangelicals and focus on things such as the “prosperity gospel teaching, partisan politics, and covering up sexual abuse and assault within their own ranks”?

        Seriously, what do we do?

        1. Mr. Wunder,

          “What do we do about people who call themselves evangelicals and focus on things such as the “prosperity gospel teaching, partisan politics, and covering up sexual abuse and assault within their own ranks”?”

          Start with Matthew 23/24, Jesus teaches on how we are to spot/deal with false teachers, hypocrites, and those who seek fame/money in the name of God. It is not surprising that nobody seems to know the answers that were provided to us by Jesus, since most evangelical pastors do not teach out of MMLJ, for the very reason it would show their true face. It is about our personnel accountability to God and not following those who corrupt the scriptures for personnel gain. It is how we conduct ourselves as God’s servant and led by example under His Laws, that matter. We cannot remove, or stop evil in the current church system, anytime ungodly/easily corrupted people seek positions of power and have people willing to follow them, it will continue. Seek out those who are earnest in their faith (with a foundation in the Commandments and Jesus’s teachings) and start your own home church/study groups, not allowing anyone who is knowingly/actively trying to undermine/corrupt the group, have a voice or foothold in the community. Jesus came to divide, not unite, we are to love one another, but that does not mean we tolerate/follow satanic subversion.

  2. I would suggest that to equate Jesus Christ with a sinful political system, to reduce Him to that low ungodly level, is to be unfaithful to Christ. It is the Whore who rides the Beast, not the Bride.

    Unbelieving religious operatives believe, not in Christ and His salvation, but in the Noble Lie that rulers supposedly need to control the populace.Thry herd people to think that they please God by joining the party, but are damned if they refuse to participate in these false solutions. But of those who have a “form of godliness”, but deny the power thereof, we are to “from such, turn away.” At very least, the political parties do have moral planks in their platforms, but both leading parties have other scriptural issues that they completely stonewall, something that God can completely see. It is not okay to ignore those issues on a partisan basis, or to pretend a party’s half hearted endorsement of their pet Biblical issues, are spiritually meaningfully to God, when they are just trying to get votes for the issues they do care about, usually about money. To take the salvation of our souls, and to attempt to sell it to a political party, is so dishonest. It is not okay to do this, and we should flee it, not give in to it. It is actually shocking that, even after the last two national elections, when Christians were played by some of the worst false prophets, ever, yet even discernment ministries refused to make the connection, which they could certainly see, and we can now see so much of the tragic consequences that Satan would have had to intended, that these people still beat the drum for their political side.

  3. “Evangelical” meant gospel and grace related faith, not what this unfaithful political movement has sold it out to become. It is not just an insult to remember that it is the Whore who rides the Beast, not the Bride. If we are serious about the gospel, we will not pander the salvation of God to liars, as if it is ours to do what we will to. We will keep God’s truth as clear and faithful to the gospel of salvation as we can, because the gospel is the power of salvation into all who believe.

    1. My Pentecostal father in law called Catholicism ‘that whore church” to my face right after I had married his son at a nuptial mass. Left a bad feeling I had to work hard to overcome. (We’ve been married for 44 years. Interestingly, Evangelicals divorce at a higher rate than those who claim no religion. Per researchers at Baylor, the largest Baptist university in the country.)

    2. Linda
      You might be aware of the differences between the words “evangelical” and “evangelicalism”. The movement started by liberals back in the 1940’s and found a foothold in the early 1960’s. They weren’t happy being called a fundamentalist, that was too narrow, they wanted the message to be all encompassing, to include the disobedient into the assembly of the obedient; a fundamental desire that found it’s full-blown endorsement by a church in the Western suburbs of Chicago in the 1980’s and after.
      Ask the unbeliever what changes do we need to make to get you to come to church?
      It’s been on an accelerated slide ever since.

  4. Cynthia:

    You said:”American Christians are being attacked, but Jesus has overcome the world. If we stand firm in the faith, we will not fall because “greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.”

    Please offer some examples of how American Christians are being attacked. Most non christians could care less about Christians. They just do not want a minority of people to dictate their daily lives. I think it is quite the opposite that non christians and sometimes Christians feel under attack by “christians.”

    Since many christians have entered the culture wars they have shown a very evil side of their christianity.

    The support for one of the candiates in 2016 and 2020 and I am sure in 2024 has done little for the Christian witness IMO.

    1. Transgenderism, child mutilation, same-sex marriage…to name just a few current movements directly opposed to Christianity. I will add more later tonight. If you do not see it, I am deeply surprised.

      1. A movement rooted in beliefs or behaviors that do not align with Christian beliefs or behaviors is NOT an attack on American Christians. You made it sound like we are under physical attack or persecution, when we live in a nation that not only gives us religious freedom but recognizes our holy days and customs as part of the culture. (We have churches on every corner, get Christmas off, the markets close early on Good Friday….go ask Muslims or Jews what it’s like to have community opposition to a mosque being built, or having to take personal holidays to celebrate their own faith).

        Disagreement or opposition to one’s beliefs is not persecution or attack.

        There are real cases of persecution and attack in the world; let’s not exaggerate to try to make a point.

        1. Marin:

          I am quoting you directly:

          “A movement rooted in beliefs or behaviors that do not align with Christian beliefs or behaviors is NOT an attack on American Christians….Disagreement or opposition to one’s beliefs is not persecution or attack.”

          Let me respectfully disagree with your comments and also your condescending tone, Marin. When young American children are being mutilated in the name of transgenderism, that is most definitely an attack on Christianity. Jesus himself condemns the abuse of children, and, as a Christian in this nation, I feel great sadness every time I think about it. That is a form of psychological persecution whether you feel the same way or not. Every single time a same-sex marriage occurs, it is a direct affront to Christ’s church and it makes me both sad and angry to see Christianity being challenged in such an obscene way.

          Not all persecution involves getting murdered because of one’s faith. There is a more subtle form that works away at the foundations of our faith and, if left unopposed, begins to infiltrate the Body of Christ. We can see it in our churches, we can see it in our schools.

          And, unfortunately, I can see it enmeshed in your comments. We may have freedom to worship here, but that does not mean the Church is not in serious trouble. It is. It is under attack.

          1. Cynthia –

            IMO what you describe is an attack on American Christianity….not on American Christians. The former is an attack on the ideologies, beliefs and practices of the faith as practiced by Americans. I do believe that has been under attack for quite some time. The latter is a personal attack on Americans professing to be Christians. You used the latter phrase, so that is what I reacted to. I stand my ground that it doesn’t happen very frequently. I mean, even those who are in same sex marriages or living binary/LGBTQ lifestyles are fighting TO BE LEFT ALONE (which is an attack on ideology) not physically fighting and attacking Christians.

            I don’t agree with (or fully even understand) transgenderism. I do believe we as a church are focusing our energy on fighting that to deflect from addressing the rampant sin that has tarnished our witness from within – the false prophets, misuse of money, greed, sexual abuse, racism, sexism, classism, and idolatry within the church are WAY more prominent and damaging IMO.

            Not sure where the condescending thing came from; tone is often misunderstood when reading messages, though.

          2. Cynthia, a lifestyle that does not fall in line with your Christian one still does not constitute an attack on Christianity. (Did Jesus accuse the woman at the well of attacking marriage or worship because of her lifestyle?) If anyone is a victim because of these lifestyles being on display, it is not the Christian watching, but the person who is in a self destructive situation. THOSE are the people we need to show concern for, not the people in the cushioned pews on Sunday.
            I think one thing that makes the greater culture displeased with their evangelical neighbors is those neighbors’ habit of getting all huffy and claiming they are being “attacked” when people around them don’t live and look like they do. Non-believers living non-believing lives is not an attack on us; it’s just … life.

        2. Hi MH,

          I am quoting one of your earlier posts:

          “Racism is a lot more than using slurs. I think a big problem we have is we think racism only looks one way (slurs, burning crosses, etc).”

          The same logic can be applied to attacking Christianity. Evil attacks/subversion’s come in many forms, some obvious, some camouflaged as wolves in sheep’s clothing, some as having to accept cultural “truth” (not God’s). Just because most of the Christian community refuses to/cannot see the evil, does not mean that it does not exist.

          Mt 15:

          Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying? But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

          2 Thess 2:

          The coming of the lawless one will be accompanied by the working of Satan, with every kind of power, sign, and false wonder, and with every wicked deception directed against those who are perishing, because they refused the love of the truth that would have saved them. For this reason God will send them a powerful delusion so that they believe the lie, in order that judgment may come upon all who have disbelieved the truth and delighted in wickedness.

      2. Interesting that you don’t mention 275 years of brutalization against African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, ongoing racism, and the racial division of our cities due to redlining and other tactics to keep black people poor. Guess those things are OK and don’t merit any concern.

  5. My counsel to my fellow believers in this incredibly divisive time is to withdraw membership from any political party. Both the D and R parties have their agendas, and the great temptation is to identify Christ with the agenda of either earthly party. The best thing that Christians can do right now is to withdraw en masse from both parties and become political independent. I’m hesitant to use the term “evangelical” as a descriptor, because evangelicals have lost the centrality of Christ in their lives and congregations. Instead, we worship prosperity and partisan politics instead of Christ. I’m not advocating for being uninvolved in the matters of our community and our nation. Instead we should do that not as members of political parties and we should focus on evangelism and on addressing the needs of our communities. Where I live, in Charlotte NC, we have four major needs: affordable housing, a poor public education system, poverty, and the need for whole-intact families. I’m far more concerned about addressing those things than I am wasting my time on Donald Trump or any other politician who offer us the illusion that voting for them is actually doing something.

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