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Literature Review

Methodological Considerations

Before discussing recent findings on changes within evangelical families, some of the methodological difficulties surrounding the study of American evangelicals should be addressed. Identification of a group is the necessary starting point from which all evaluations must follow, and identifying evangelicals as a population has proven problematic. Changes in the definitional parameters of the term "evangelical" yield widely divergent data, and thus also widely divergent conclusions concerning evangelicals' beliefs and attitudes, as well as their social location within U.S. society (Hackett and Lindsay 2008; Steensland et al. 2000). Given these difficulties, one must be extremely cautious when making claims about the status of and changes in evangelical belief, social location, and attitudes on specific cultural and political issues.

Various methods for defining "evangelical" are used by historians and sociologists of religion for determining who is defined as evangelical. One method used to identify evangelicals is based on whether they belong to a denomination historically connected to the theology of the evangelical movement that emerged out of Protestant fundamentalism in the early twentieth century. Others, such as George Barna, use a particular set of theological ideas historically central to evangelicalism (e.g. that one is "born again," believes in the virgin birth, and the inerrancy of scripture) to which one must assent in order to be considered evangelical (Hackett and Lindsay 2008). Self-identification requires survey respondents to place themselves in a religious category, although these categories are created by the researcher so that individuals must identify with whichever category best fits them out of the available options. Christian Smith et al. (1998) and the Evangelical Identity and Influence Project utilizes self-identification as a primary means of identifying evangelicals. In a study seeking to identify possible changes occurring in the evangelical subculture, this method was preferred by the researchers who claimed that self-identification yields a wide variety of opinions among those who consider themselves to be a part of evangelicalism, but who do not fit into a historically evangelical denomination or affirm all of the theological points a researcher might establish. Religious traditions change over time, and studies that limit samples only to those respondents who fit into what has counted historically as evangelicalism may not account for such changes (Smith et al. 1998). One limitation of self-identification, however, is that it may yield too broad a sample by including individuals who only loosely identify with a tradition, or who identify incorrectly with traditions that are vastly different in character from their personal ideology.

Much of the data that follows in the discussion of evangelical family life resulted from the Evangelical Identity and Influence Project (Gallagher 2003; Gallagher and Smith 1999; Smith 1998), which used self-identification and local knowledge sampling methods, in which churches known to religious locals as strongly evangelical in theological orientation were identified and respondents were drawn from those congregations. This procedure allowed for the inclusion of individuals who are members of historically evangelical denominations as well as those who self-identify with evangelicalism. The respondents in the self-identifying sample included only those who also stated that their faith was "extremely important" in their lives, and/or who claimed to attend church at least one to two times per month (Smith 1998). The information that follows was collected from those evangelicals who count themselves as participants within Protestant evangelical tradition and who claim high levels of religious commitment.

The use of self-identification in the Evangelical Identity and Influence Project does not appear to have resulted in an oversized sample by including individuals distinct from members of the evangelical tradition. Using Smith et al.'s method, about seven percent of the American population would fall under the classification "evangelical." This is similar to George Barna's findings, which resulted from the use of a strict set of belief criteria containing theological positions historically central in evangelical Protestant thought (Hackett and Lindsay 2008).

Telephone surveys performed as part of the Evangelical Identity and Influence Project were nationally representative, and in-depth follow-up interviews with respondents were performed in regions around the United States. These interviewees were selected to create representative samples based on the composition of American evangelicalism in terms of race, denominational tradition, gender, and, where appropriate, theological orientation ("liberal/conservative"), with representative numbers established based on the results of national surveys including the General Social Survey. Follow-up interviewees were chosen based on their geographical availability (in order to ease travel difficulties) and were therefore not randomly selected, and more interviews were performed in urban or highly populated areas than in rural areas. Smith et al. do not believe the data are biased due to this imbalance, claiming that the in-depth interviewees are representative of randomly-selected evangelicals from the national phone surveys because "no significant differences were found between the groups in sex, race, age, education, income, marital status, regional location, or employment status. The only significant difference...[is] the population of their county of residence" (Smith et al. 1998, 227).

Problematic here is that other research has shown that context—in terms of the theological orientation of individuals living in a given area—affects the beliefs that individuals hold on certain issues; people may be influenced by the beliefs of their neighbors even if their neighbors' perspectives differ. Laura M. Moore and Reeve Vanneman (2003) found that those who do not share in the religious affiliation, beliefs, and practices of Christian fundamentalists but who live in states with a large fundamentalist population tend to hold more conservative attitudes on issues of gender than their counterparts who do not live in more religiously conservative states. In Smith et al.'s methodology, the worldview of an evangelical living in Minneapolis and of one living in rural Minnesota are assumed to be equivalent if the individuals resemble each other demographically. The demographic factors pointed out by Smith et al. are important for gauging whether a sample of individuals is representative of evangelicals from that region as a whole, but geographic location matters as well. While urban and rural respondents may respond similarly to questions in random phone surveys, further questioning in face-to-face interviews may provide insight that alters these apparent similarities. The contextual effects of living in a rural versus an urban area should be accounted for by including a representative number of evangelicals from non-urban and less highlypopulated areas. The central South region also fell short of a representative number of interviews, leading to a reduction in input from southern evangelicals (Smith et al. 1998).

Black Protestants were represented in the study, with high response rates for the telephone surveys. However, the method of randomly selecting follow-up interviewees (used for white Protestants) proved problematic for obtaining a representative level of interviews with black Protestants, and the researchers resorted to using the social networks of black Protestants already known to them to find more participants. In the sample of black respondents, seventeen were selected this way while only seven were chosen at random, which results in a less diverse sample of black Protestant perspectives. All the respondents, from regions around the country, were from large metropolitan areas or major population centers within their states of residence (Smith et al. 1998, 224).

Despite these limitations, John P. Bartkowski's survey and ethnographic studies of evangelical couples in a large, multiple-church, evangelical congregation in Texas (2001) and his research on men within the evangelical men's movement the Promise Keepers (2004, 2007) support the findings of the EEIP for evangelical attitudes on gender.

Studies such as the large-scale Evangelical Identity and Influence Project and the work of Bartkowski, Sally Gallagher, and others to be discussed below, provide us with important insights into evangelical understandings of gender and how it is constructed and performed. Evangelicals and their gender perspectives are incredibly diverse, and so the findings and interpretations contained in these studies are assumed to be ultimately insufficient in providing a complete picture of gender in evangelicalism.

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