Abby Ohlheiser: As some in the media try to speculate on the role of religion in the GOP primaries and the 2012 elections, Pew and Gallup are polling for a clue. But a separate Pew poll last week caught my eye: a survey of 2,196 leaders (representing 166 countries) of evangelical leaders from the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. The leaders, mostly male, middle-aged (only 5% were under the age of 30), and college educated, were asked questions that seemed intent on creating a clearer picture of what global “evangelical” Christianity is by qualifying the cluster of practices and beliefs in their most amorphous form.

The lead figure for Pew:  Evangelical Protestant leaders who live in the Global South (sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America and most of Asia) are generally optimistic about the prospects for evangelicalism in their countries. But those who live in the Global North (Europe, North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) tend to be more pessimistic.

The key here being “in their countries.” And the result isn’t surprising. Western evangelicals have long acknowledged (and, in many cases, embraced) a shift towards the global in the evangelical community. Globally-minded churches–take the Times Square Church, for an example–see the global evangelical community a, if not the, driving force in serving (and feeding) the Spirit.

Some other interesting results:

● 67% of leaders from the Global South say that a wife must always obey her husband, vs. 39% from the Global North
● Alcohol is widely considered incompatible with evangelical Christianity in the Global South (75%) vs. in the Global North (23%)
● With regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict, most leaders say they either sympathize with both sides equally (39%) or with neither side (13%). Of those who pick a side, more went for Israel (34% vs. 11%)
● While 80% of respondents thought that the government has a responsibility to take care of the poor who can not take care of themselves, only 56% of US evangelical leaders agreed

Surprise, surprise!  There are also a number of theological and experiential comparisons. For example, seven-in-ten (70%) of the leaders in the Global South have witnessed an exorcism, compared with four-in-ten (41%) in the Global North.

And speak of the devil, the poll, in addition to creating a portrait of the global evangelical community, also points to its perceived enemies. There’s Satan. And then there’s the rest of us.  Sixty-four percent of the leaders say there’s “a natural conflict between being an evangelical and living in a modern society.” Presumably, these leaders equate a modern society with a secular society? Which is, perhaps, why 71% of respondents cited “secularism” as a major threat to Evangelical Christianity, beating out Islam, at 47%.

Like good crunchers of numbers, let’s pause for a minute to take a look at the Lausanne movement, since these numbers come from their congress. Started by Billy Graham and others in 1974, the movement’s Covenant makes an explicit commitment to “social responsibility” (perhaps to avoid the shunned “social justice” label, which is, for some, seen as a liberal weasel phrase for communism) and to being in, but not of, the world. The existence of the Covenant, and the purposes of the Congress, is to define and strengthen the global Christian evangelical community as it rests in tension with “the world.”

But more importantly, the Congress had a set of topics on the agenda for their meeting in Cape Town. Pew even included them in the poll:

Q5. In your view, which of these six purposes described in the Congress Mission statement is the most urgent reason for holding Cape Town 2010?

35% The Brokenness of Our World
21% Seismic Shifts in Global Christianity
20% The Globalized World
11% The Reality of Islam
5% The Impact of Hedonism
5% The Challenge of the New Atheism
3% No answer

In other words the optimism for the potential for Christianity in the South, and the pessimism found in the North could just as easily be products of the Congress’ perception of what evangelicalism is as it is a statement on the actual effectiveness of evangelical mission work.

Maybe this is why, unlike Susan Brooks Thislethwaite  at WaPo’s On Faith, I wasn’t surprised at the leaders’ tolerance (though not representation) of female evangelical leaders or the lack of support for the prosperity gospel among respondents. Because the survey doesn’t address what “Christian” means to self-identifed “evangelical.” The survey respondents adhere to something more narrow: a specific approach to engagement with a perceived “world,” separate from the global Christian community, that it sees as often poor materially as well as spiritually.

While the results of the Pew survey might help members of the world evangelical community, Global North and Global South, to understand each other better, I hesitate to draw out the results’ implications for what we commonly refer to as evangelicals in the US.