Not to be left out, more conservative evangelicals who diverged from Carter politically began mobilizing under new organizational banners like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority—collectively labeled the religious right. These politically active conservative Christians were well-funded and media savvy, but they were only able to become synonymous with evangelicalism with the help of American pollsters.
When the NAE was founded, Wuthnow says, new reports estimated the organization represented about two million people. Ten years later, in 1953, the NAE claimed it represented 10 million. Lack of data made the number impossible to verify at the time. In 1967, one New York Times reporter estimated the number to be around 20 million. With Carter’s emergence, George Gallup decided to conduct a poll in which he defined evangelical as anyone who claimed to be “born again.” This simplistic definition led Gallup to report that as many as 50 million Americans—a third of the eligible electorate—were evangelical.
The “unvoiced multitudes” now had their microphone. Conservative Christian leaders embraced the spotlight and their newfound legitimacy, and pastors began showing up on the nightly news and in major magazines to endorse candidates and push forward policy proposals. Over time and in the minds of many, evangelical became a catch-all term for politically conservative Christians.
In recent years, however, a range of definitions for evangelical have been proposed. Many polling firms, like Pew Research, count everyone who identifies themselves as “evangelical” or “born again.” A prominent Christian polling firm, Barna Group, has traditionally used a very specific nine-question definition that requires, for example, the person to claim they believe Satan exists. And Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina professor and author of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, defines evangelicals as Christians who are wrestling with a set of specific questions.
This may all sound obscure, but it matters.
“Evangelicals’ influence may be waning, but it is still important for us to understand who evangelicals are, who speaks for them, and what the future looks like,” says David Kinnaman, the president of Barna Group and author of the forthcoming Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme. “The way one defines ‘evangelical’ influences the story they tell about the most influential group within the most influential religion in the world’s most influential country.”
Depending on how you define the term, evangelicals comprise between 7 percent and 47 percent of the American population. Divergent definitions have led to inconsistent, even contradictory survey results about evangelicals’ beliefs and characteristics. Reports based on these surveys can shape elections, public policies, and broader public opinion.