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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”