It's an election year, which means the folks in evangelical Protestant pews know exactly what will happen if they choose to talk to a political pollster. The dispassionate telephone voice is going to ask about abortion and then about same-sex marriage. Finally, the pollster will want to know how crucial these wedge issues will be on Election Day. And is there any chance they might change their presidential options?

"There is this internal debate going on ... Evangelicals are reluctant to say that they're focused on these two issues, even though all of the evidence shows that they still are," said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., which is known for its defining niches inside American Christianity.

"The key is that a rising number of evangelicals are adamant that they are not going to overlook social justice issues. They want to find a way to combine their concern about abortion and family issues with other moral and social issues that really matter to them. The question is whether that's possible in American politics, right now."

It's easy to see this dilemma in between the lines of recent surveys.

In a 2007 poll, the Barna researchers found that nine out of 10 evangelicals said abortion is a major problem, which meant that this issue was "still far and away" their most pressing concern, said Kinnaman. Meanwhile, nearly eight in 10 evangelicals said they were very concerned about issues linked to gay rights. However, evangelicals who participated in a new Barna survey split down the middle when asked if they thought their peers would focus primarily on the big two social issues when voting. On one side, 48 percent said it was true that evangelical votes would be driven by abortion and sexuality, while 45 percent disagreed. Meanwhile, 55 percent of non-evangelical Christians and 58 percent of non-Christians were convinced that these hot social issues would drive the votes of evangelical voters.

What about all of those news reports that some evangelicals — symbolized by the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Community Church and a host of other label-shunning younger leaders — are trying to pursue a broader social agenda?

Kinnaman noted that only 28 percent of evangelical participants in the new survey thought that members of their tribe would give other social issues, like poverty and the environment, short shrift. In a sign that this wider-agenda debate has legs, 69 percent of evangelicals polled disagreed with that statement.

Outside the evangelical camp, 46 percent on non-evangelical Christians and 54 percent of non-Christians thought that evangelical voters would "minimize social justice issues." These same two groups were convinced — by 57 percent and 59 percent — that evangelical voters will continue to push American life to the political right.

Meanwhile, some Americans are getting confused and even angry about all of this, even though they admit that they know little or nothing about evangelicalism.

According to surveys by Ellison Research of Phoenix, 36 percent of Americans polled indicate that they have no idea "what an evangelical Christian is" in the first place. Only 35 percent of all Americans believe they know "someone very well who is an evangelical," while a stunning 51 percent are convinced they don't know any evangelicals at all. On the left side of the aisle, some critics have grown hostile. One of the surprises of a new Ellison study is "how much abuse is aimed at evangelicals," noted company president Ron Sellers. "Evangelicals were called illiterate, greedy, psychos, racist, stupid, narrow-minded, bigots, idiots, fanatics, nut cases, screaming loons, delusional, simpletons, pompous, morons, cruel, nitwits and freaks, and that's just a partial list ...

"Some people don't have any idea what evangelicals actually are or what they believe — they just know they can't stand evangelicals."

For political activists, the reason all of this matters is easy to see. In the new Barna survey, 59 percent of American adults are convinced that the decisions made by evangelical voters will have a significant impact on the upcoming election.


Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.