Big cats will keep fighting over e-word

Cat Fight  Siberian TigersBy 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.

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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.

  • Eric W

    I’ve mentioned this before, but D. G. Hart wrote a book called DECONSTRUCTING EVANGELICALISM (c) 2004 in which he argues that the term is meaningless, and explains why. As he notes: “The point, then, is that evangelicalism is not a tradition. As much as academics and religious leaders have invested the term with some significance, it cannot carry the weight of a human endeavor that qualifies as a tradition. In its post-World War II significance, evangelicalism has been a movement or, in Jon R. Stone’s words, “a coalition.”… The moral of this story is that movements and coalitions are generally good at mobilizing masses of people around certain goals or values, and in this sense, evangelicalism has been a remarkable success. It has functioned as a term that points to a broad coalition of Americans…. But as a shaper of a tradition, evangelicalism has been an utter failure. Its breadth has come with the price of shallowness, while its mass appeal has generated slogans more than careful reflection…. At its best, it is a sentiment. At its worst, it is a solvent of tradition because religious traditions are too narrow for evangelical purposes; they are too dogmatic and therefore too confining. In other words, Christian traditions, unlike evangelicalism, rely on structures of succession and accountability that run counter to popular sovereignty. For this reason, to add the weight of tradition to evangelicalism, as Williams and others propose, is to add a burden that would inevitably crush born-again Protestantism.”

  • Jerry

    The discussion about the word evangelical reminds me of a cat fight I was involved in years ago about what the word “hacker” should mean. Was a hacker good or evil? What should we call evil hackers since ‘hackers’ were really computer enthusiasts? Should we always use ‘white hat hacker’ and ‘black hat hacker’ to make sure people understood the word was neutral.?

    And, of course, anyone who would use the word hacker as in “golf hacker” or “weekend tennis hacker” was clearly living beyond the pale.

    Perhaps, in the end, we should remember the classic comment about what words mean:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

  • Carl

    I’ve always assumed “evangelical” means one who fervently espouses the spread of the gospel. I’ve met self-proclaimed Eastern Orthodox evangelicals (not tmatt), so it’s not impossible for one to be a self-proclaimed non-fundamentalist evangelical.

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  • http://www.getreligion.org Chris Bolinger

    Terry, the LA Times writer took an excerpt from a long letter and used it out of context (deliberately) to make a questionable assertion. Why? Because the mainstream press loves political catfights and enjoys interpreting just about everything in the religious sphere through a political lens.

    The writer took an NAE-internal squabble and cast it as a “struggle for control of the evangelical agenda” and a threat to the “close ties” between the “evangelical movement” and the Republican Party. People should read the letter that spurred the article:
    http://www.citizenlink.org/pdfs/NAELetterFinal.pdf

    They also should read Christianity Today’s much better report:
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/marchweb-only/109-53.0.html

    Who asked Cathy Lynn Grossman to “shed some light on the confusion”? This is just the press fanning the flames of a fire that the press created in the first place.

  • Dale

    My favorite quote in the Christianity Today article:

    When read a list of the signatories, [National Association of Evangelicals interim president] Anderson said, “We would normally look to our own constituency … and not to those who have chosen not to be members of the NAE … for counsel.”

    Anderson to Falwell and Dobson: “Who do you think you are?”

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    “Rev. Billy Graham once told me that he no longer knows what “evangelical” means…”

    That’s because “Evangelical” properly means one who proclaims the good news that God sent His Son to die in our place for our sins. Modern “Evangelicals” corrupted the meaning of the word to mean someone who thinks they can save themselves by choosing Christ (independently of God-given faith)and behaving as a Christian (with the corresponding social and political views that Dobson refers to).No wonder few today know what the term “Evangelical” means.

  • Gary

    Lutherans were the first evangelicals; then came the Calvinists. An evangelical was one who held to sola Fide and sola Scriptura. How many modern American evangelicals have ever heard of sola Fide?

  • Eric W

    Lutherans were the first evangelicals; then came the Calvinists. An evangelical was one who held to sola Fide and sola Scriptura. How many modern American evangelicals have ever heard of sola Fide?

    How many of the Apostolic and Early Church Fathers have ever heard of Sola Fide?

  • David

    Part of the problem stems from confusing the terms “evangelistic” and “evangelical.” The former has to do with the proclamation of the good news (gospel). As far as I know, the latter is a modern term that was more a reaction to Fundamentalism than anything else. I love Jerry’s reference to Alice in Wonderland as that seems to be why the term evangelical has “lost its way.”

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    “How many of the Apostolic and Early Church Fathers have ever heard of Sola Fide?”

    Well, how many of the Apostolic and Early Church Fathers spoke Latin? Most, if not all, I assume. It is a Latin phrase and means by faith alone.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    Evangelical is the term that means to proclaim the good news of the gospel (the evangel). It is not a modern term. It has been used to describe the Lutheran church since Martin Luther’s time. In recent times, it was taken over by a certain group of modern Christians and its meaning was altered. D.G. Hart’s book which was mentioned earlier is a must-read for any Christian, but especially those who call themselves Evangelical.

  • Rathje

    “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.”

    So I guess that leaves out Mormons.

    Let me tell ya, I’m absolutely crushed.


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