When asked about their views of the country’s biggest religious groups, most Americans don’t have strong feelings either way—except when it comes to evangelical Christians.
In a Pew Research Center report released Wednesday, 27 percent of Americans expressed an unfavorable view of evangelicals, compared to 10 percent who have a negative view of mainline Protestants or 18 percent who have a negative view of Catholics.
About as many have a favorable approach to evangelicals—28 percent—but that’s mostly due to positive sentiment from American evangelicals themselves, about a quarter of the population.
The findings follow a trend from Pew. Six years ago, researchers reported that Americans were warming up to each major religious group in the US, from Mormons to Muslims, except for evangelicals.
Other surveys over the past year have pointed to Americans’ negative perceptions of certain evangelical denominations and traditions.
When asked about 35 specific “religious groups, organizations, and belief systems” in a 2022 YouGov poll, Americans gave the best ratings to Christianity and Protestantism, the biggest religious affiliations in the US.
YouGov respondents weren’t asked about evangelicalism as a category, but traditions with mainline denominations—Presbyterianism, Methodism, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and the Episcopal Church—were ranked favorable, while those that fall more squarely in evangelicalism—Pentecostalism and the Southern Baptist Convention—skewed negative. (The worst ratings, though, went to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and Satanism.)
Additionally, just over half of Americans are turned off by Pentecostal churches, more than any other denomination, in a Lifeway Research survey from last year. Other denominational names also carry some baggage, but the researchers found people were most open to nondenominational and Baptist churches.
In the recently released Pew report, evangelicals’ critical reception wasn’t the result of a lack of familiarity. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they personally know someone who is an evangelical Christian, a number that has held pretty steady since 2019.
“While those who know an evangelical Christian are more likely than those who do not to express a positive view of the group (24% vs. 9%), they are also slightly more likely than those who do not personally know an evangelical Christian to express a negative view of evangelicals (35% vs. 29%),” the report wrote.
Many evangelicals can speculate the reasons behind the negative reputation. Evangelical identity in the United States became associated with additional political baggage in recent years, as more supporters of President Donald Trump took on the label.
Back in 2020, National Association of Evangelicals president Walter Kim raised concerns about politicized perceptions of the faith, stating, “We are in a season in which the evangelical faith is being narrowly defined and misunderstood by many, with long-term ramifications for our gospel witness.”
“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 said.
Evangelical institutions have continued to reckon with racism, sexism, and abuse, past and present. Some leaders have spoken of “ministry from the margins” as some traditional, conservative Christian stances on issues around marriage, gender, and family are falling out of favor in mainstream society. Plus, Christianity is aging and declining in the US as more leave the church or don’t follow their parents’ faith to begin with.
Among nonevangelicals in the US, just 18 percent view evangelicals positively and 32 percent view them negatively, Pew found.
“As someone who cares a lot about apologetics, it can be easy to shrug this off as merely the price of doing evangelism in a secularizing context. But if we take Paul’s words seriously, we should care about our reputation with those outside the church,” said Dan DeWitt, executive director of the Center for Worldview Analysis and Cultural Engagement at Southwest Baptist University. “These statistics should grieve us. While we cannot water down our beliefs to make people like us, we need to listen to how the world perceives us.”
DeWitt referenced Scripture’s call to be friendly to those outside the faith. Colossians 4:5–6 instructs Christians to “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” In 1 Timothy 3:7, elders are required to “have a good reputation” with those outside the church.
Questions and concerns around evangelicals’ reputation in America are nothing new. More than a decade ago, CT dedicated a cover story to the topic, with sociologist Bradley Wright writing that “The feeling of being disliked and alienated has worked its way deep into the evangelical consciousness. We feel it in our bones.”
Indeed, America evangelicals continue to report experiences of discrimination based on their Christian convictions and debate to what extent the pressures of “post-Christian culture” amount to persecution or marginalization in their country.
In the Pew survey out this week, it’s atheists and agnostics who have the worst views of evangelicals, followed by Jews and those who identify as “nothing in particular.” (For their part, evangelicals hold their strongest negative views against atheists but feel warmly toward Jews as well as mainline Protestants and Catholics.)
“Christian leaders should take findings like these to heart and seek to season our worlds with salt in order to know how to better answer each person,” DeWitt said.
“Polls like this should give us pause. Since having a good reputation with outsiders is a requirement for leadership in the church, the church in America could well be facing a leadership crisis in the area of our public witness. But that’s old news. The Pew study is yet another reminder: We can’t ignore the problem any longer if we care about our commitment to the Bible, the Great Commission, or our neighbor.”