Evangelicals don't fit easily into a single religious category. Unlike Roman Catholics, who are tied to one church, evangelical Christians belong to many different denominations — and worship in radically different ways. Some are fundamentalists who speak in tongues, while others worship less demonstratively.
“The word evangelical is really a rubric that encompasses many different denominations and movements,” says Corwin Smidt, director of the Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Still, evangelical Christians have much in common with each other. Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University, says evangelicals generally share at least three bedrock beliefs: the centrality of a conversion experience, literal belief in the Bible and the importance of proselytizing.
The conversion experience — accepting Jesus Christ as one's personal lord and savior — is the foundation of evangelical Christianity.
“The singular, saving work of Christ, that He is the only way to salvation, is irreducible for us,” says R. Albert Mohler Jr., dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
The need to accept Christ into one's life, to be “born again,” is spelled out in the third chapter of the Gospel of St. John, when Jesus proclaims, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Evangelicals also tend to view the Bible as the direct word of God, and hence entirely and literally true. “Biblical literalness is very important to them, and they tend to believe things as they are stated, including that the world was created in seven days,” Balmer says.
Finally, evangelicals see their mission as saving others by bringing them the gospel — or, literally, the “good news” of Christ's life on Earth and his death and resurrection.
“The word 'evangelical,' of course, comes from 'evangelize,' and evangelicals think it is important to bring new people into the church,” says John Green, director of the Ray Bliss Institute of Applied Politics, at the University of Akron.
The largest evangelical denomination in the United States is the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16 million members. While they are quite different from other more mainstream Protestant denominations, Baptists and others — like evangelical branches of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches — are closest in belief and feel to mainline Protestant churches.
At the other end of the evangelical spectrum are Pentecostals, whose largest church is the Assemblies of God. Members of the Pentecostal movement, founded in Los Angeles in 1906, practice a more unfettered form of Christianity that includes an emphasis on faith healing and speaking in tongues when visited by the Holy Spirit. All told, there are about 65 million evangelicals in the United States; some estimates are even higher.
Religion plays more of a role in the lives of evangelicals than in the lives of other Christians or people of most other faiths. Indeed, 53 percent of evangelicals say that their religion is “the most important influence” in their lives, compared with 20 percent of other Christians, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“Our faith in God guides us in everything we do, large or small,” says James M. Hutchens, pastor of Christ Church, in Arlington, Va.