BOSTON - For decades, Boston University sociologist Peter Berger says, American intellectuals have looked down on evangelicals.

Educated people have the notion that evangelicals are "barefoot people of Tobacco Road who, I don't know, sleep with their sisters or something," Berger says.

It's time that attitude changed, he says.

"That was probably never correct, but it's totally false now and I think the image should be corrected," Berger said in a recent interview.

Now, his university's Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs is leading a two-year project that explores an "evangelical intelligentsia," which Berger says is growing and needs to be better understood, given the large numbers of evangelicals and their influence.

"It's not good if a prejudiced view of this community prevails in the elite circles of society," said Berger, a self-described liberal Lutheran. "It's bad for democracy and it's wrong."

The study is being directed by Berger and Timothy Shah, an evangelical political scientist at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Shah is documenting the history of the evangelical movement, including its historical hostility to higher learning, a revival of scholarship, and the minds and ideas it has since produced.

An estimated 75 million Americans are evangelicals, people who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and commit to spreading the message of salvation though his redemptive death. *