Thursday, February 03, 2005

What is an Evangelical?

I've gone through the list of Time Magazine's 25 Most Influential Evangelicals. For me, they fall naturally into four groups:

Never heard of 'em: Rick Warren, Howard and Robert Ahmanson, Diane Knippers, Michael Gerson, Joyce Meyer, Luis Cortes, Douglas Coe, David Barton, Richard Land, Stephen Strang, Ted Haggard, Stuart Epperson, Jay Sekulow.

Sounds vaguely familiar: Brian McLaren, Bill Hybels, Ralph Winter, Rick Santorum, T.D. Jakes.

I know definitely who they are: James Dobson, Billy and Franklin Graham, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, Charles Colson, J. I Packer, Mark Noll.

I have met: Richard John Neuhaus.

I think what this means is that I am no longer in touch with the evangelical mainstream, if this list is accurate. I'm not really bothered by that, because, by today's standards, I don't think I am an evangelical. I believe the following four standards are criterial for evangelicals in today's culture in the US:

1. literalist exegesis of the Bible;
2. Republican/rightist political philosophy;
3. militantly conversionist approach to the culture at large, religiously and politically; and
4. traditionalist or orthodox in theology.

The only one of these criteria that I meet is No. 4.

One could argue with these criteria. Most Mormon leaders would probably meet criteria 1, 2, and 3. Are they evangelicals? I'm not sure. Most African-American church leaders match up well in 1, 3, and 4. Someone like Neuhaus would be characterized by 2, 3, and 4, and this would apply to conservative Catholics generally. Are they evangelicals? Well, Time thinks Neuhaus is, but I would place him in the camp of "fellow travelers." What about someone like Jim Wallis, who is trotted out whenever the media need a "liberal evangelical"? I'll give him 3 and 4, at best. I'm not sure how Mark Noll meets these criteria, either, but anyone who teaches at Wheaton can't be just a fellow traveler.

So there are borderline cases. Nevertheless, I think these criteria work in a rough-and-ready fashion. Like I say, I don't feel like I'm a part of this anymore. Nevertheless, I think critics on the left often tend to collapse all these factors. They often assume, for instance, that anyone who holds to traditional theology must also be rightist and literalist, and attack orthodoxy on those grounds (e.g, if you believe in the bodily Resurrection, you must be a fundamentalist Bush supporter). Therefore, I sometimes feel like a target, even though I'm not an evangelical as defined above. To be fair, evangelicals also blur these necessary distinctions.

I don't think this definition works historically; 30 years ago the definition of evangelical was up for grabs mainly on the basis of No. 1 and No. 4, and the engagement with the larger culture was more hesitant. But politics has co-opted a lot of the discussion since that time, and I deplore this.

Obviously there is more to say about it all, and I plan to add to these thoughts. But that's enough for now.

(By the way, when I met Richard John Neuhaus in the '70's, he had hair and was a Lutheran. Now he's a balding Catholic. But I was impressed with him then and I still am.)


Targuman said...


Wow, with all do respect, I do not think those top 3 criteria are in any way necessary for a modern American (let alone global!) definition of "evangelical." Now, I am not Mark Noll, I haven't even played him on TV, but I do know many self-defined (and "pigeon-holed") evangelicals who would not conform to these first three criteria.

I would say that they tend to have a conservative reading of the Bible and view it as absolute authority, but that does not necessarily mean "literalist" interpretation.

See, I don't think these people are "borderline" cases (well, Wallis probably is ;-). In think it is more a case of the media misusing the term "evangelical." This has been a small bee in my bonnet for some time. This was especially true during and after this last campaign. Anyone who voted for Bush who had radically conservative *political* values and happened to be a Christian was an "evangelical". There simply was/is no clear use of the term in the media and thus it has been devalued.

Of course, much of this then moves into the question of who gets to define these terms. If you and I want to call ourselves evangelicals and offer a definition which we fit and is based in the historical usage and identity of evangelicalism, who is to say we are wrong? This is precisely what Jim Wallis did not "Fresh Air" a week or so ago. So this brings us back to language: who defines the term?


Michael Pahl said...

Ed, thanks for this link and these thoughts. I've just posted some comments on this and some other online descriptions of "evangelicalism" on my blog.

EMC said...

Chris and Michael -- thanks for your good comments. Obviously there is more to be said, and I hope to say more (if not everything) in the days to come!

Jim said...

The term is so ambiguous these days that the definition entirely depends on who you ask. Such ambiguous terms are, in the end, meaningless- because they mean something different to just about everyone.

Anonymous said...

Those four criteria are indicative of the confusion in the U.S. between Evangelical and Fundamentalist. The Fundamentalists have essentially coopted the term Evangelical and now the criteria of Fundamentalism has become the criteria of Evangelicalism. This is historically wrong.

Evangelicalism is historically a pan-denominational movement that unites all Christians who believe in crucicentrism, biblicism, activism, and conversionism. None of these entails militancy in the Evangelical tradition as it can in Fundamentalism. Also, biblicism is all about the authority and importance of the Bible not dogmatic claims about inerrancy and such. Activism is not always a central component of Fundamentalism, which is one big reason why Fundamentalists often aren't Evangelicals. Read Bebbington... he's got a great book on Evangelicalism!

Targuman said...

I agree with Ken, but my impression (and nothing more than that, but it is a strong impression) is that it is the media that has conflated the two rather than "fundamentalists" themselves coopting the term.

(Does *anyone* willingly call themselves a "fundamentalist"?)

tm said...

Very good rough-and-ready definition. It closely tracks what people mean when they use the term 'evangelical'.

nblaw said...

I'm glad somebody wrote on this phenomenon. The word, "evangelical", is bandied about so loosely that it seems improperly that it needs definition. For example, "evangelical" used to be distinguished from "mainline" and now many mainliners are considered evangelicals.
Thanks again,

anon said...

Interesting post. It is quite clear that the fuzzy definitional boundaries leave room for confusion, intentional or otherwise. My comment is too long to reproduce here, but I respond at
Scroll about 1/2way down the post.

Evan said...

I'm a bit late to post here, but have a few comments. I describe myself as an evangelical Protestant, and was raised as one, but I certainly don't affiliate myself with many of TIME's 'evangelicals'. I think the big picture on evangelicals (which the MSM misses) is that they identify themselves most closely theologically with the Protestant Reformation. Evangelicals here in England are particularly well-known for that, as they stand in contrast to the mainline C of E, which is virtually Anglo-Catholic. (This is why I am so amused to see Neuhaus and Santorum on the list - Catholics can never be evangelicals according to the understanding in which I live and was raised.

Evangelicals are not necessarily literalists. Evangelicals differ on eschatology, creation theories, and prophecy. They all agree on inerrancy, however.

Politically, I think most evangelicals are fairly apathetic. They generally see spiritual issues as more important than political, and are energised to vote by fundamental moral issues, particularly abortion.

With this in mind, I propose slightly different criteria for evangelicals:
1. Inerrancy of Scripture, and the sufficiency of Scripture for faith and practice.
2. Pro-life/anti-abortion political beliefs, which in the present day generally make them Republicans.
3. Belief in the necessity and urgency of missions, evangelism, and individual conversion.
4. Reformation theology.

These criteria eliminate many on TIME's list. TD Jakes, for example, is a standard health-and-wealth prosperity preacher, which most heirs of the Reformation reject. As said above, Neuhaus and Santorum are Catholics. Hybels and Warren are megachurch pastors with tendencies toward therapeutic, not biblical, approaches to sin.

Hope this helps to clarify the issue. Evangelicalism is not a knee-jerk right-wing movement, nor is it literalist, nor does TIME have a clue what they're all about.

Warmest regards.

Evan said...

I should add that in England, evangelicals run the political spectrum with most I've encountered falling in the centre-left. It is indeed the 'life issues' of American politics which have drawn evangelicals into the GOP camp. When those issues are neutralised (late pro-life PA Gov Bob Casey (D)), evangelicals split down the middle politically.

Evan said...

Finally, I think the best resources on the defining-down of evangelicalism is David Wells' 'Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?'

Targuman said...

To Evan on Evangelicals in Englad:
It has been some years since I lived in England but I would disagree that they "stand in contrast to the mainline C of E, which is virtually Anglo-Catholic." In fact, many, many of the best evangelical scholars are from the CofE and I know of many CofE churches and seminaries that are readily identified (and identifiable, with all its vagueness) as "evangelical."

I mean, what else do you with Holy Trinity Brompton? :-) (NB: I am not sure that I would describe it as evangelical...)

Evan said...

My apologies for not being clear. I did not mean to suggest that the C of E is not evangelical. I was referring to evangelicals within and outside of the C of E. I attend St Helen's Bishopsgate, one of the more prominent London evangelical C of E churches, and of course there are many others like All Souls Langham Place, St Ebbes' Oxford, and -wink- HTB. And I recognise the evangelical seminaries like Wycliffe Hall and Oak Hill, and the evangelical scholars like N T Wright (would he call himself evangelical?).

My point was more to distinguish between the C of E evangelicals (a minority, in both laity and clergy) and the more mainline-to-liberal tradition represented by individuals like the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Please forgive my previous confusing remark. I recognise that like most American denominations, the C of E comprises evangelicals, mainliners (for lack of a better word) and liberals.