Somehow, people still believe. They’ve got their master’s degrees, their six figure salaries, and their MTV. But they’re not letting go of their faith.

Christian Smith knows this because 300 American churchgoers looked him in the eye and told him so. Smith, three collaborators, and six graduate students sat down to talk with each of them, face-to-face, two hours a pop. Smith, assistant professor of sociology, says that his findings contradict what many sociologists have long been predicting. Even in today’s world, religion is not going away, Smith says.

The traditional theory predicts that as more people become better educated, earn more money, and are exposed to modern culture, religion will be left behind—a relic of the dark ages. “Religion is something that social scientists often ignore, because this theory of secularization says that it will eventually disappear,” Smith says. “But I think it’s really an important dimension of social life that needs to be accounted for.”

Smith’s study focused on evangelical Christianity, a movement that includes many different denominations. Smith went into the study with a unique point of view—He grew up in the evangelical tradition. As an adult, Smith has become Episcopal. “Evangelicalism is a world I’ve gotten out of decisively,” he says, “but I understand it pretty well from the inside.”

Smith did 70 of the personal interviews himself. After meeting his subjects face to face, he was surprised by the vigor he saw in the evangelical movement. “I went into the study thinking we’d find that their movement is deteriorating,” Smith says. But according to several criteria, he says, evangelicalism is one of the strongest religious movements around.

The evangelical movement was started in the 1940s by Christians unhappy with the stance they saw Protestant fundamentalists taking—looking down on a sinful world from a pious distance. These men envisioned returning to their roots and exerting more of a Christian influence on society. Gradually they became a separate group, and by the 1950s they were called evangelicals.

To check the pulse of evangelicalism today, Smith’s team interviewed 178 evangelicals from 23 states in every region of the U.S. Ninety-three of those subjects had identified themselves as evangelicals in a national random telephone survey that Smith’s group conducted. The other 85 were from churches that were known among ministers as the most evangelical. For comparison, they also interviewed 132 churchgoers from other movements.

Smith’s recent book about the work, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, (University of Chicago Press, 1998) quotes liberally from these interviews. When it comes to religion, people can’t be reduced to answer A, B, or C, he says. “The survey was valuable for getting a macro picture, but its usefulness was limited. You can’t rely on surveys alone if you really want to understand what’s going on.”

Doctoral student David Sikkink says that conducting the personal interviews gave him ideas for themes to pursue in his dissertation about Christians’ choice of schools. “I try to put myself in the other person’s world,” he says. “It steers me in the right direction and gives me much better hunches.” So far Sikkink has found that evangelicals want to support public schools while pushing them to be less secular. Groups considered more counter-cultural, such as Pentecostals, who practice speaking in tongues, seem to be more likely to home-school their children or put them into Christian schools, he says.

One obvious sign of evangelicals’ strength is their ability to retain members over the long haul. Of survey respondents raised in evangelical families, 78 percent grew up to be evangelicals themselves, and not one respondent raised in an evangelical family became nonreligious as an adult. Of subjects raised in other groups, such as liberals, fundamentalists, and mainliners, about 50 percent retained the religious traditions of their families.

For many evangelicals, a child leaving their faith is a tragedy, Smith says. So evangelical parents and churches put effort and money into Christian summer camps, Bible videos, Christian music, and Christian versions of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. And nondenominational ministries such as Young Life, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and Campus Crusade for Christ work to keep high school and college kids interested.

Another marker of the movement’s strength is the large role that religion plays in ordinary members’ lives. In Smith’s survey, 78 percent of evangelicals said their faith was extremely important to them. None said their faith was only somewhat important. One evangelical man said, “I’m a completely different person today than I would have been if I was not a Christian. And there are sacrifices I make now that I’m on this road. Like where my money goes; I contribute to my church and other charitable contributions. Also, I spend my time in ways that mean I probably forgo promotions at work and things like that. Those are costs, because of my faith.”

Not only has the movement stayed strong, Smith says, but it’s done so without shutting itself off from the modern world. “According to our data, evangelicals have the greatest educational mobility of any major religious tradition in America, measured by how much education they have compared to how much their fathers had. According to the old theory, that should have secularized these people.” So should have working in the paid labor force and earning higher incomes—which evangelicals are more likely to do than nonreligious Americans, according to Smith’s study.

Demographically, they’re not any different than other people,” Smith says. “But modern life hasn’t eroded their religious traditions.”

This group finds a way to draw strength from interacting with the secular world while still holding themselves out as religiously and morally different. “Modern pluralism is not a threat they have to hide from,” Smith says. “Their thinking is, `The world out there is not Christian. I know I need to interact with it and be a good example.’ All of that heightens the sense of their identity as distinct.”

Evangelicals try to influence the world in many ways, such as voting in elections, giving money to the poor, and lobbying political officials. But their largest effort is what Smith calls the “personal-influence strategy.” Since evangelicals believe that everyone needs to have a one-on-one relationship with God, they approach conversion the same way—through personal ties.

In fundamentalist churches, the men might get together to go soul-winning—going door to door with their Bibles,” Smith says. “Evangelicals are much more into what they call friendship evangelism—in ordinary life, you get to know people, impress them with how good a life you live, and then at some opportune moment, you raise the issue.”

While this personal approach cements evangelicals’ distinct identity, it’s also part of the reason they aren’t that good at changing society, Smith says. Since this strategy pervades their thinking on all issues, their answer to most of the world’s problems is for everyone to become a Christian voluntarily and develop a personal relationship with God.

Their philosophy lacks an understanding of the social, institutional structures of the world that really shape the way life works. So in the end, they don’t really accomplish too much,” Smith says. Catholicism, for example, offers more explicit teaching about the economy that is critical of capitalism, and in the eighties bishops issued an official document about the economy. “When we asked evangelicals how Christianity could help change business and the economy, the most they usually thought of was, `Well, you should be honest, and not cheat your employer.’”

Some evangelicals Smith interviewed did mention ways the church could improve society, such as offering meals to the hungry or tutoring inner-city children. These are worthy projects, Smith says, but they simply repair some of the harm done by the present social system, rather than transform that system.

Another barrier for evangelicals is their “serious public-relations problem,” Smith says. Almost half of all nonevangelicals in the survey simply didn’t know what the evangelical movement was. And a majority of the respondents didn’t know the difference between fundamentalists and evangelicals, or even if there was a difference.

Outsiders who did know about evangelicals often perceived them as too expressive or pushy. One Methodist woman said, “Evangelicals are a lot more active than I am, going around testifying and all, you know, to your face. I don’t care for that.”

The very traits that evangelicals value turn other people off, Smith says. “But many evangelicals realize that people perceive them as too pious and self-righteous. It’s something they struggle with. They believe that everyone needs to have a personal relationship with Christ, but they’re also unwilling to shove religion down other people’s throats.

A lot of people, including the media, see the image that certain evangelical leaders and political activists convey, and they project that onto all evangelicals. But those people do not represent the average,” Smith says. He mentions TV minister Pat Robertson’s remark that Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, would regret flying the gay-pride flag if God expressed his wrath in the form of a hurricane. “Even for most evangelicals, that’s just ridiculous,” Smith says. “But outsiders hear extremists like Robertson and assume that he speaks for all evangelicals. And because evangelicalism is so decentralized, there’s no one regulating the speech of guys like Robertson.”

Robertson as well as groups such as the Christian Coalition have done their best to adopt the “evangelical” label in place of “fundamentalist,” which is perceived as narrow-minded and radical, Smith says. But in Smith’s survey, only a minority of evangelicals said their votes were influenced by such groups.

Smith says, “The majority of evangelicals are not into Christian right activism and all of this culture war stuff. It’s just not their world.

Outsiders sometimes view this big conservative Protestant mass as a unified army that’s about to take over America,” Smith said. “But there are many divisions—denominationally, theologically, and racially. If people are afraid that fundamentalists or evangelicals are going to mobilize politically and rechristianize America, it’s just not going to happen.”

Smith says he came away from the personal interviews with a certain degree of respect for most evangelicals. “There’s a lot of talk these days about culture wars and evangelicals being Christian right-wing radicals. But I found them to be relatively thoughtful, normal, happy people. Evangelicals do have a distinct set of beliefs, and they hold firmly to their faith in God. But for the most part, they’re ordinary people, just like you and me.”

Asking the right questions

When Christian Smith, assistant professor of sociology, wanted to get to the heart of the American evangelical movement, he started with telephone surveys. To get ideas for questions, he used the public-opinion question database at Carolina’s Institute for Research in Social Science (IRSS). This database contains the exact wording of more than 220,000 survey questions and responses. It also gives the frequency distribution of responses to each poll question—the number of people who gave each response.

The database helped Smith get ideas for wording questions that hadn’t been asked too often. For example, Smith says, a lot of religion research asks people what denomination they are. But he wanted to find the few surveys that had asked people to put themselves into broader categories that cross denominations, such as evangelical, fundamentalist, mainliner, or liberal.

Graduate students working with Smith searched the question database. “By the time we were done,” he said, “we had a stack of paper a foot and a half thick with different questions related to our topic. It gave us a really good background.”

Besides the survey-question database, IRSS also houses the social science data archive. The third largest in the country, it includes data from about 4,000 studies and governmental databases. IRSS has data from more state-level surveys than any other archive and is also the exclusive national repository for Louis Harris and Associates public opinion data. Both can be searched from the IRSS web site, found at