By now, it should be pretty clear that the word “evangelical” is so vague that it is almost meaningless — unless a careful reporter places it in context and gives the reader some clue as to its application in a particular story.
I believe it was the Rev. Jerry Falwell who once said that an “evangelical” is a “fundamentalist” who lacks the courage of his convictions, or words to that effect. Meanwhile, church historian George Marsden has long been fond of the Falwell quote that “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”
The reason I mention this trivia is an interesting blog item by veteran USA Today religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman, who, in the wake of recent “evangelical” cat fights, was asked to shed some light on the confusion. However, I have to admit that she has me a bit confused when she writes:
Sometimes a phrase from a news story takes on a life of its own.
In the current shooting match among Evangelicals left, right and moderate on how they should view environmental issues, there’s a quote used in story after story that once, “Evangelical was the label of choice of Christians with conservative views on politics, economics and Biblical morality.”
The line lives on in the Los Angeles Times, Christianity Today, Getreligion.org, and other sites such as Beliefnet. But the ball started rolling in a USA TODAY story I wrote in January titled, “Can The ‘E-Word’ be Saved?” on the shifting meaning of the word “Evangelical.”
If you follow the Grossman link, you’ll find that she is not saying this rather political definition of “evangelical” is something the members of the non-Borg here at GetReligion embrace, but, rather, that young master Daniel Pulliam had commented on a Los Angeles Times story that said this concerning the pronouncements of Dr. James Dobson and others:
In religious terms, an evangelical is a Christian who has been born again, seeks a personal relationship with Christ, and considers the Bible the word of God, to be faithfully obeyed.
But Dobson and his fellow letter-writers suggested that evangelical should also signify “conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality.”
Evangelical views on “politics”? Get out of here. That’s just way too vague.
The key issues there are the moral views that do have strong roots in ancient doctrines and scores of biblical texts. The problem, of course, is that you can say the same thing about scores of issues on justice for the poor and the oppressed and, as a result, we have the painful schism at the heart of American politics ever since Roe v. Wade.
For evangelicals, the problem is this: How do you define biblical authority? Where is the line between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” and who gets to draw it?
This is a very important issue. So flash back and read Grossman’s “Can The ‘E-Word’ be Saved?” You can also read a 2004 column I wrote for Scripps Howard News Service on the same theme, focusing on the fact that the Rev. Billy Graham once told me that he no longer knows what “evangelical” means. Thus:
Long ago, Graham stressed that this term most be understood in doctrinal terms, if it is to be understood at all. He finally defined an “evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.
“I think there are evangelicals in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox churches,” he said.
The bottom line: The evangelical cat fights (involving bigger and bigger cats) are going to continue. Why? No one knows who gets to make the rules.