Define evangelical: give three examples before Nov. 2

Pk_dc1That sound you hear right now on the Religious Right is stunned silence about the president’s change of heart on same-sex unions.

The rank and file are trying to figure out why President Bush did one of the only things he could possibly do to drown the enthusiasm of his base a few days before the election. Not only did he go Sister Souljah on them, he didn’t seem aware — surprise — of the reality-based details of the issue at hand. Frankly, I have also been amazed at the low-key media response. Everyone knows that Bush needs a massive pew-gap turn out from religious conservatives to win, or his strategists sure seem to think so.

Thus, we have seen some coverage of the complexity — which is real, by the way — that is found among voters on the evangelical, “born again” and culturally conservative side of the aisle. It’s time to start reminding people that it is immature, or even bad theology, to go into the voting booth and pull that lever based on one or two religious issues, such as abortion. It’s time for religious conservatives to be more mature and nuanced. Here is a sample from a Christianity Today editorial along these lines.

The dark side of single-issue politics is that it has forced evangelicals to become ever more shrill and ever less imaginative. Dominant-issue politics shows greater promise in addressing our society amid all the pressing issues our society faces, including terrorism, economic justice, church-state relations, gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, and so on.

Abortion is a monstrous tragedy for the nation, but our Christian commitment to a culture of life does not permit us the luxury of abandoning other important issues. While single-mindedness in following Christ is always wise, single-issue voting may not be.

This is the kind of language that makes Republicans have nightmares and lash out. Take my word for it. I’ve got people writing me angry emails right now saying that I tried to take Bush down a notch or two in my Scripps Howard column this week.

There is no way to know the motives of journalists involved in writing these stories, so don’t even try to go there. But this is a real story. The bottom line is that the world of evangelicalism is more complex than people in some newsrooms (and many pulpits) want to admit. Thus, there is no one “evangelical” view on Bush.

For starters, it is hard to know what any of the old religious labels mean, anymore. It might help some reporters to glance through materials posted at the home page of George Barna, one of America’s most influential pollsters on all things “evangelical.”

It is important to note that Barna separates “evangelicals” from the “born again” and he says that a mere 8 percent of the nation qualifies as “evangelical.” Here is how he defines this flock:

We categorize an evangelical based upon their answers to nine questions about faith matters. Those included in this segment meet the criteria for being born again; say their faith is very important in their life today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that the eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing , all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Thus, evangelicals are a subset of the born again population.

In other words, Barna uses doctrinal standards to define this term — a kind of free-church Protestant creed. This is a frightening concept to many low-church Protestants, especially Baptists. Barna’s definition of “born again” is different. It is experiential. “Born again” believers are people who say that they have been “born again” and have some kind of ongoing relationship with the Christian faith, however they choose to define this. According to Barna, 33 percent of the nation is “born again,” but not truly “evangelical.”

Meanwhile, another 44 percent of the population gets any even foggier label — “notional Christians.” Notional Christians are people who say they are Christians — period. And what does the term “Christian” mean in this context? Who knows. For a look at the rest of Barna’s labels and definitions, click here.

Please remember that this is one merely set of definitions. I once asked Billy Graham if he could define “evangelical” and he said he had no idea what the word meant. One person’s evangelical is another’s fundamentalist. Ask the New York Times. Another person’s “moderate” evangelical is another’s heretic. Ask Bill Clinton, or Tony Campolo, or the theology departments at many Baptist schools.

So there are evangelicals who are pro-life, but oppose Bush on all kinds of justice and peace issues. There are evangelicals whose “sola scriptura” approach to the Bible has led them to swing left on issues of sexual morality. There are lots of evangelicals who love “Will & Grace” and “Oprah” and think it’s just time for everybody to get along. Maybe their voices are hard to hear in the barrage of media coverage of the Christian right, but these progressive evangelicals are out there and they plan to vote for Kerry. Take that, Jerry Falwell.

For a glimpse into this world, click here and listen in as Chicago Sun-Times religion writer Cathleen Falsani visits with five of her Wheaton College roommates. Here is her survey of this evangelical landscape:

Moderate evangelicals, who hold more-or-less traditional Christian beliefs but are slightly less active in church than those who better fit the “religious right” stereotype, make up about 10 percent of the electorate, according to John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

Then there are the liberal evangelicals, more theologically liberal than their moderate brethren but still firmly encamped inside evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. This most curious minority, which makes up about 2.5 percent of voters, could end up swinging the election in Sen. John Kerry’s favor, Green and other pol watchers say.

Reporter Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times recently ventured into the same corner of the electorate in a story entitled: “Conflicted Evangelicals Could Cost Bush Votes.” You can almost hear the copy desk cheering as that headline went to the press.

Once again, the emphasis is on the “freestyle evangelicals” who, more than anything else, abhor the Religious Right. Many are pro-life Democrats who have been locked out of their own party’s halls of power. Some are Catholic Republicans who wish they could get Republicans to read Vatican documents on war and peace, social justice, health care, labor and other non-conservative concerns. Every now and then, these concerns bubble into public view. Wallsten notes one major example:

Within the evangelical community, the complicated fabric of politics was underscored this month when the board of the National Assn. of Evangelicals unanimously approved a document laying out a new “Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” The document embraces traditional opposition to abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But it also mirrors aspects of the Democratic Party platform, quoting scripture to endorse policies that encourage racial and economic equity and promote a cleaner environment.

“You can’t shoehorn the Bible into one political party’s ideology,” said Richard Cizik, a vice president of the association and an author of the report.

This affects ordinary people as well as policy documents.

Here is one sample, from a Wallsten interview with a frustrated evangelical named Wendy Skroch in the battleground state of Wisconsin. She is not alone and, in a race this tight, her voice matters. Is she a Democrat from the age before Roe v. Wade? Is she a Republican who has been mugged by economic realities? Listen.

A speech pathologist who works part time at a senior care center and has three children, Skroch said she sees firsthand the problems of the healthcare system. Her family’s insurance plan doesn’t cover their needs. Bush did nothing to fix the system, she said.

One day Kerry showed up at her office for a campaign visit. A woman asked the Democrat why he voted against the ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion. To Skroch’s dismay, she said, he didn’t have an answer.

“I feel disenfranchised,” she said. “Sometimes I think the best thing for me to do if I can’t make up my mind is to just not vote.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • ken53

    Terry, you wrote an excellent article for Scripps Howard. Thank you for sharing it here. I cannot say I am surprised you are are getting hate mail as a result.

    As to your question. I cannot define an evengelical for you but I do know what a Christian looks like and can give you some examples: Mother Teresa, Albert Schwitzer, and my local parish priest who sees to it that no family in need is ever left in need and has done so for over twenty years.

    These people have set standards that I will never attain yet I know in my heart that they are the shining examples of what being a Christian, ie follower of Christ really means.

  • Jill

    At the risk of sounding terribly simplistic, an evangelical is one who takes seriously Christ’s command to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. I can be a Catholic, or a Baptist, or a Methodist, etc. and be an evangelical simply by living my faith, walking my talk, sharing the message of Christ with a neighbor or a child I sponsor halfway around the globe, doing whatever I can (no matter how small) to lead someone else (by word and/or deed) to a saving knowledge of Christ.

  • Carlos

    It is nice to see journalists pay closer attention to the diversity in the evangelical world. Just in the Baptist world the diversity is dizzying. One way to observe this diversity is to read the Baptist Press and then read the Associated Baptist Press and then go read Ethics Daily. It seems likely that more evangelicals and Baptists will vote for Kerry than expected. Since I favor Kerry I have been pleased to see this late coming yet just in time movement of journalists and voters having some doubts about their faith in president Bush.

  • Chris Blackstone

    As I ponder my options this election season, Mark Noll’s choice to exercise his right not to vote seems better and better. I’m tired of both parties pandering to “religious” voters. I’m sick of all the talk of “evangelicals”, like it’s some easily defineable, easily reachable group. I’m a Christian, not an evangelical, not a fundamentalist, not a liberal. You want to know what I believe? Just ask, but be prepared for what I will say. You may not agree, but that’s part of being people. Many in this current age don’t subscribe to that kind of “tolerance”, though. We let other people believe and say what they want as long as it’s okay with us. We blast politicians on their opinions on issues about which there is sincere disagreement in the Church, yet we don’t hold them accountable for such fundamental issues as the every-growing American debt and the continuing disparity in education across this country.

    I also have to take a little issue with the single-issue voter idea. I do think there is a single issue which is more important than others — life. Out of all creatures in the Bible, humans are the only one referred to as being made “in God’s image”. As such, we are special. Any attempts to take the life of another human is our rejection of God’s special creation of us. This means abortion is wrong, along with the death penalty, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research. Is the debate ever couched in those terms? No. I have yet to hear of any notable political figures have a wholistic approach to life issues. Were someone to actually advocate the protection of all life at all levels, I see a chance of moving from the current hatred of all alternate opinions to at least recognization of validity and consistency to one’s deeply held beliefs

  • Nathan Rinne

    First, re: a post above, Albert Schwitzer unfortunately did not believe in the resurrection of Christ. Even so, a great example of “civil righteousness” indeed.

    I am sympathetic with Terry’s take on all the complexities regarding the issues. However, sometimes we can get mired in complexities and paralyzed.

    I am indeed a one issue voter. I will vote for a pro-life democrat any day. This does not mean that I care to be uninformed on the other issues. It just means that I think abortion is absolutely fundamental, in that issues like health care, jobs, and the environment do not matter all that much to a dead baby / person.

    And that’s not hate or inflammatory language! :) Simply put, as C.S. Lewis said, you don’t get second things by putting them first, you get them by putting first things first. What could me more fundamental than the beginning of human life?

    The following quote is from a superb article about being a “One-Issue voter” was written by Baptist preacher John Piper, and can be found at:

    “[at the] Humane Society, I picked up a brochure on the laws of Minnesota concerning animals. Statute 343.2, subdivision 1 says, “No person shall . . . unjustifiably injure, maim, mutilate or kill any animal.” Subdivision 7 says, “No person shall willfully instigate or in any way further any act of cruelty to any animal.” The penalty: “A person who fails to comply with any provision of this section is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

    But not for the unborn?

    And so I ask, where confusion abounds how can we not insist on putting first things first? Is this really relative or negotiable?

    Terry, I kindly and lovingly say to you: I think you’re falling down on this one.

    You may have gotten a lot of angry and emotional letters. Intereting–I actually feel guilty for being so unemotional right now!

    And lets not forget–some of the worst characters in history have been those who were able to discuss very unemotionally and rationally those things that they were going to do / did. There are worse sins than getting angry and emotional.

    This said, I did not see your “hate letters”–maybe they are far worse than I can imagine

  • tmatt


    I didn’t say my letters were hateful. I said “angry.” Actually, they have been letters that were angry and constructive. Not hateful at all (so far).

    But they also assumed that the column I write for Scripps is some kind of personal political column. No, it’s a religion news column. It does contain analysis and some of my viewpoints. But its first duty is to report on the views of others, hopefully interesting viewpoints that are newsworthy. After all of the coverage (justified, I believe) dissecting Kerry’s faith, I became intrigued with this boomlet of coverage of Bush critics. So I wrote about it. That’s what news guys do.

  • Will Linden

    The stunned silence from here is a response to seeing you write the solecism “one of the only”. Write 100 times “‘only’ does not mean ‘few’”. Otherwise, we shall have to send the grammar police to eat, shoot and leave.

    I have gotten the “You aren’t a REAL Christian!” line enough times to sensitize me to the issue (and this also makes me sensitive to things like the earlier story about definitions of “real” Jews…. or Wiccans… or Satanists.)

    For a real bind, try looking at the hyperventilation over “dispensationalism”. One finds that an “ultradispensationalist” is someone whose dispensational theology is more extreme than whoever is writing, and keeps receding according to whom you read.

  • Bec

    Here’s another interesting article at Slate regarding the religious vote.

    The whole thing is just so overwhelming. Maybe if I click my heels together, muttering “there’s no day like Nov. 3″, it will all be over.


  • Bec

    Point of correction–the link above is an ESSAY, not an article. I should have made that clear.

    Anyway…it’s still interesting.

  • dlw

    I give a def’n of evangelical at my blog(You need to go back to June to find it.). It is taken from Gary Dorrien’s book, “The Remaking of Evangelical Theology”, which has the distinction of being the only history of evangelical theology ever written by a non-evangelical. Dorrien is an Anglican Social-Gospellist.

    I am a political-economist who is trying to break into the religion and politics writing gig. I am currently a seminary student at Bethel Seminary, even though I have a PhD in Economics.

    I would encourage you all to visit my blog, where I did refute Noll’s “Why I’m voting for none of the above” last month and received an email expressing thanks for my rebuttal post. I often comment on the articles that come out in Prism E-pistle every week.


  • Stolzi

    Did anyone see the CNN special Saturday night, purporting to be about “Evangelicals”? I wish I knew what it said. I noted the early visuals which were all of arm-raising, swaying believers whom I would think were “Pentecostals” or “Charismatics,” not “Evangelicals.” I also passed through later to find them focusing in on one of those milky-faced, alarmingly naive and closed-minded (it always appears) homeschooled children as CNN tried to find out what an “Evangelical family” looked like.

    I apologize for not having the determination to sit through this thing, which began to look like another Halloween “scary story” to me.

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