We often use terms to describe religious people that mean nothing to the people themselves. The terms may be historically or sociologically accurate, but they’re not words that normal people use.  Here are three of the most commonly used labels that normal religious people don’t use.

1. Protestant 

“Protestant” is a historic term, but it doesn’t mean much to many Protestants.

The 2012 American National Election Study asked people if they attended worship services.  If they did, then they were asked,

Do you mostly attend a place of worship that is Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or something else?

Only 37 percent said Protestant, while 34 percent said “something else.” That’s right: one out of three churchgoers said that their place of worship was neither Protestant nor Catholic. Of course, the vast majority of these were Protestants who didn’t simply see themselves as “Protestant.” They were “Baptist,” “Christian,” or “Non-denominational.” Some didn’t know how to respond. They weren’t Catholic or Jewish, and they didn’t know what “Protestant” meant. A follow-up question, however, quickly showed that they were, in fact, Protestant.

2. Evangelical

“Evangelical” is describes a tradition within Protestantism that emphasizes the authority of the Bible, individual conversion, and proselytizing. But most evangelicals do not identify as “evangelical.” Evangelicals are much more likely to say that they are “born-again” or “Bible-believing” Christians. In a Baylor religion survey, 30 percent of Americans attended an evangelical church. In the same survey, only 14 percent of Americans said that “evangelical” was an identity that fit them very well, compared to 30 percent who said they were “born-again.”

3. Mainline

The establishment churches in the U.S. are often referred to as “mainline Protestants.” These are the large denominations that belong to the National Council of Churches including the largest Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Anglican denominations in America. As historian Elesha Coffman explains, “mainline” does not mean, “mainstream.” It is a reference to the moneyed suburbs near Philadelphia, and came to mean as a reference to elites (You can listen to more on “mainline” etymology at 7:15 here). But like evangelicals, many so-called mainline Protestants do not know that they are “mainline.” They see themselves as part of their denomination. They’re “Methodist” or “Presbyterian,” not “mainline.”

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Tobin Grant

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

8 Comments

  1. Yes most people simply think of themselves as Baptist, Lutherans Methodist,
    and so on. Unfortunately few of them ever take the time to actually learn how,
    when, and under what circumstances constituted their creation.
    I have a friend who finds it interesting when I speak about the different
    Theologies of churches. Her question to me is always, “Do you really think
    that the usual active church member chooses a church by it’s theology?
    Most are there because they, like the pastor, like the other church members,
    or are simply accepted.” I think that after all she is most likely right.

  2. I am 70 years old. As. A former American Baptist and United Methodist-now UCC-I was brought up to know I am part of the great Evangelical Christian tradition. Sharing the “Good News of Jesus the Christ” was important and we were not expected to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible.or to be conservative/fundamentalists. The Conservatives and Fundamentalists have taken away first the “Christian” and now the “Evangelical” and now we are suspect when we use those words! I find this to be both WRONG and DIMINISHING of who I am.

  3. No surprise there – those are terms indicating some experience with the history and theory of Christianity, and most people who call themselves Christians these days are interested in neither, but in a modern interpretation. They’re also usually unaware of the meaning of Fundamentalism, which is where many of their ideas come from.

  4. R.K. Brumbelow

    It seems the author of this article does not know what ‘Protestant’ means either.

    Protestants descend from the Protestant Reformation, thus Presbyterians, Lutherans and similar are Protestants.

    However, it also means Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopals are not since their heritage is from the separation of England from the Roman Catholic Church which practically started in 1249 and was completed in 1688. Interestingly, this would also include the ‘Bible Church’ movement.

    Similarly, the ‘Restoration’ Churches are not Protestants as they are also from a different movement. So the The Churches of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), The Christian churches and churches of Christ, as well as The churches of Christ (non-institutional) cannot be included in the Protestant church.

    I would ask that people remember that the Orthodox Church exists as well. The Roman church and The Orthodox church separated formally in 1054.

  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    May I suggest that many folks who attend Protestant, Evangelical and Mainline churches also are fuzzy on the definition of “Christian”? While some people assert that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not “Christian”, many of the same people who are most avid in that rejection of “Mormons” as followers of Christ are also hesitant to accept members of the Catholic, Orthodox, and many other Protestant churches as “Christian”. It turns out they think that anyone who disagrees with their own dogmas (e.g. salvation by grace regardless of any personal righteous works) is not a “Christian”. In light of how much the distinctive beliefs of such groups actually differ from the beliefs of most Christians for most of the last 2000 years, it seems to be a preemptive strategy of virtually excommunicating other churches to distract attention from the facts of their own divergence from traditional Christianity.

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