by Diane Winston
NEW LIGHT FOR EVANGELICALISM
While many evangelicals fear that secular humanism will destroy their movement,
many outsiders forecast the
group's growing power. The
reality, says sociologist Christ-
ian Smith, lies somewhere in
"Even though evangelicals
would like to have a signifi-
cant influence in the culture,
they have difficulty figuring
out how to do it successfully,"
explained Smith, author of the
newly published American
Evangelicalism: Embattled and
Thriving. "They want to be
distinctive-and that makes
them thrive religiously-but it
also makes them so alien to
other folks that it undermines
the hearing they get. Also they
are so individualistic that they
don't understand the possibili-
ties ofsystemic change."
Smith, an assistant professor
ofsociology at UNC, con-
tends that the nation's largest
Protestant subculture is widely
misunderstood- even by other
that's right for everybody-which makes
them want to Christianize the world. But
they also believe in individualism and
pluralism-you can't force
someone to be a Christian,"
Smith said. "So evangelicals
bounce back and forth between
the two and don't get very far."
American Evangelicalism also
includes data on Catholics,
mainline Protestants and funda-
mentalists. In evaluating the dif-
ferent traditions, researchers
found that evangelicals had the
most vital churches, the most
robust believers and the most
successful outreach strategies.
But they also discovered that
most non-evangelicals do not
understand what evangelicals
believe. Nevertheless, many of
these fellow Christians opine
that evangelicals lack "good
answers" for either personal
problems or social ills.
Defining just who is an evan-
gelical has been a sticking point
for researchers. While some
scholars say that 25 percent of
Americans belong to the group,
Smith puts the figure at 7 percent.
1 He says that the larger number
o represents all conservative
Protestants while his includes
"Evangelicals are not poor,
uneducated, rural people who
are sheltered from modernity,"
he said. "They're educated,
middle-class, urban and
employed- not so different
Chris Smith says evangelicals cross the socioeconomic spectrum- and that only those who choose the
they hurt their efforts by wanting to "Christianize the world." evangelical label over all others.
from anyone else."
Smith's book is the result of a survey,
one of the largest to date, that included
telephone surveys and in-depth interviews.
It seeks to explain who evangelicals are,
Yet those who self-identifY
what they believe and where they stand
in relationship to fullerican society. He
argues that evangelicals have developed a
subculture that permits them to flourish
in a religiously diverse society but pre-
vents them from shaping that society
according to their beliefs.
November/ Dece IIIber 1998