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Landmark evangelical survey finds both unity and division

Published: Friday, July 8 2011 7:00 p.m. MDT

shutterstock, photo illustration by Mary archbold, deseret news, Jerry Johnston, deseret news

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In the spring of 1962, the Reverend Billy Graham stood before a Harvard Law School audience to deliver a lecture titled, "Evangelism and the Intellectual."

"I'm not a professor," said Graham, "I'm not an intellectual . . . I'm not a theologian.

"I am an evangelist."

Contrary to the expectations Graham's introduction sets out, his remarks were academically rigorous and theologically rich enough to elicit effusive applause from Harvard's intellectual elites.

"American evangelical Protestants, both in popular American media and even in their own minds, are often reputed for anything and everything but intellectualism," notes the website for the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. "However, this perception fails to account for the development of an increasingly sophisticated, self-assured, and productive class of intellectuals – an emerging 'evangelical intelligentsia.'"

Timothy Samuel Shah, a visiting professor of political science at Georgetown University and a lead researcher for CURA's ongoing study of evangelical intellectualism, said this emerging "evangelical intelligentsia" was showcased in Cape Town, South Africa, during The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, often referred to as the Cape Town 2010 Congress.

Shah, who attended Cape Town 2010 to perform research for The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, helped survey some 2,196 evangelical leaders from 166 different countries. The Congress was primarily focused on discussing international evangelism; Shah was impressed by the intellectual mettle of those gathered.

"It almost had a feeling of an academic conference," Shah said. "It was very intellectual."

The recently released results of the Pew study Shah was working on at Cape Town 2010 reveal a great deal about this new breed of evangelical leaders — both in terms of similarities and differences. For example, the study shows that evangelical leaders are almost unequivocally united in believing that Christianity is the one true faith (96 percent) and the Bible is the word of God (98 percent). Most leaders also agreed on social issues like abortion (96 percent disapproved) and homosexuality (84 percent believed it should be discouraged).

However, the survey found that evangelical leaders in the global north were more pessimistic regarding the prospects for evangelicalism in their respective countries than their peers in the global south. For example, 82 percent of the global north leaders said evangelical influence is slipping in the United States while 58 percent of global south leaders believed evangelicals were gaining influence in their countries.

While nearly all surveyed said the Bible is the word of God, they were "divided between those who say the Bible should be read literally, word-for-word (50 percent), and those who do not think that everything in the Bible should be taken literally (48 percent)," according the Pew study.

Also, approximately 42 percent felt alcohol consumption was compatible with a good Christian lifestyle, while 52 percent disagreed. They also split evenly regarding whether a belief in God is necessary to be a moral person: 49 percent said yes, and 49 percent said no.

While the survey exposed differences among these leaders, it was surprising that the vast majority of those surveyed (85 percent) were similar in one important aspect: they had graduated with a university degree. Despite impressive levels of education among evangelical leaders, contemporary stereotypes of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical movement continue to fester.

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