One of the hardest words to define in American religion is “evangelical.” Does the word have doctrinal content? Is it defined only by emotion and experience? In the mid-1980s, Billy Graham told me that he had no idea what that word meant to most of the people who were using it.
Clearly, the press stuggles with this, too. For some, an “evangelical” is a fundamentalist with a good PR agent. Along that line of thinking, a friend sent me a fascinating reference from U.S. News and World Report.
“Bush’s natural flaws are coming to the surface,” says presidential historian Robert Dallek. “He believes the public wants a president who is steadfast, who’s unbending about his principles. But the public really wants someone who’s realistic, and Bush seems to have unrealistic goals — on the economy, on Iraq. The public actually prefers someone who shifts course if it’s warranted.”
Adds Dallek: “It’s not that Bush is a liar. It’s that his judgment is not good. What you’re dealing with here is a guy who rushes to judgment, who is driven by evangelical principles.”
It seems clear that the word “evangelical” in this context refers to anyone who believes in absolute principles of right of wrong, someone who is bizarre enough to believe in moral absolutes.
And many in the mainstream press may have other issues in mind when they use the word “evangelical.”
Back in the fall, the Weekly Standard printed a letter to the New York Times (since the Times declined to run it) that featured another interesting use of this term. The letter was in response to a Times feature story about the amazing religious coalition that has had such an impact in Africa on AIDS, sex trafficking, human rights, slavery and other issues.
Backing this coalition, said the Times, offered President Bush “a politically safe way … to appeal to his base of white evangelicals, who leading scholars and pollsters define by their membership in historically white evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God.”
Letter writer Joe Hootman of Austin, Texas, was struck by the phrase “historically white” denominations. He went on to note that the Times was very selective in how it used this loaded label.
I’ve searched in vain for any reference to the “historically white Episcopal Church” in the Times’s coverage of the controversy surrounding the canonization of V. Gene Robinson. I’ve found no use of the “historically white” adjective in Times coverage of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Presbyterian Church (United States of America), the United Methodist Church, or the United Church of Christ.
If the Times has developed a newfound desire to highlight the monoracialism of other groups, I would expect to find references to the “historically white Sundance Film Festival” or the “historically white Renaissance Weekend.” Yet, I have plumbed the Times archives for such references in vain.
Another question: What happened to “black evangelicals”? Are they as politically dangerous as “white evangelicals”?
Perhaps it is too soon to file “evangelical” next to the word “fundamentalist” in the danger zone of the Associated Press Stylebook. Perhaps.
Meanwhile, the GetReligion.org team would be interested in seeing unpublished letters to mainstream media, as well. So long as they are about religion news coverage.