Please define ‘evangelical’ (yet again)

USA evangelicals2If you type the word “evangelicals” into Google Images, the art attached to the top of this post is the very first thing that turns up. This tells us quite a bit about how most Americans now define the vague word “evangelical.”

Even Wikipedia is better than this strictly political image and — horrors — you can see the battles over what the word means by reading the start of the “evangelicalism” entry at that mixmaster site:

The word evangelicalism often refers to a broad collection of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions which are found among Protestant Christians and some Catholics. Evangelicalism is typified by an emphasis on evangelism, a personal experience of conversion, biblically oriented faith and a belief in the relevance of Christian faith to some cultural issues. Historically, the movement began in the early 18th century as a response to Enlightenment thinking. It stressed a more personal relationship with God at the individual level; as well as activism based upon one’s biblically based beliefs.

Current media usage of the term (especially in the United States), is often synonymous with conservative Protestant Christians. This is only partly accurate, as the movement embraces a wide range of expressions of faith around the four core characteristics.

Notice, again, the entire history of the term Protestant, yet somehow we now have Catholics who apparently vote evangelical, which means there are Catholics who are now evangelical Protestants. The terrible phrase in the Wiki definition is the one that says evangelicals share a “biblically oriented faith” — which could mean just about anything. Thus, all the confusion. But it is not my intent to open up that subject for debate, yet again.

No, what caught my eye this time was a recent New York Times story by veteran religion writer Laurie Goodstein, which makes a solid attempt to add some clarity on the diversity of “evangelical” views on at least one issue that is hard to label as “liberal” or “conservative.”

Thus, the headline: “Coalition of Evangelicals Voices Support for Palestinian State.” This coalition is stressing that both Jews and Palestinians have rights “stretching back for millennia” to territory in the Holy Lands. These leaders have issued a letter calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that includes the “vast majority of the West Bank.”

Now, who are these people?

The letter is signed by 34 evangelical leaders, many of whom lead denominations, Christian charities, ministry organizations, seminaries and universities.

They include Gary M. Benedict, president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, a denomination of 2,000 churches; Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Gordon MacDonald, chairman of World Relief; Richard E. Stearns, president of World Vision; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Berten A. Waggoner, national director and president of The Vineyard USA, an association of 630 churches in the United States.

“This group is in no way anti-Israel, and we make it very clear we’re committed to the security of Israel,” said Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which often takes liberal positions on issues. “But we want a solution that is viable. Obviously there would have to be compromises.”

Once again, you can see how hard it is to use political labels in this context — especially in a short news report.

What in the world does it mean that Sider and company often take “liberal positions on issues”? That is simply far too vague. What issues? Is it “liberal” to favor economic justice? Is that politically “liberal” or theologically “liberal”? Sider, by the way, is consistently pro-life and a doctrinal conservative on sexuality issues.

You can see this struggle later in the article, as well:

In the last year and half, liberal and moderate evangelicals have initiated two other efforts that demonstrated fissures in the evangelical movement. Last year, they parted with the conservative flank by campaigning against climate change and global warming. This year, they denounced the use of torture in the fight against terrorism. Some of the participants in those campaigns also signed this letter.

I do not fault Goodstein in any way for this confusion between political “evangelicalism” and doctrinal “evangelicalism.” Truth is, the word is all but meaningless right now. The reporter is caught in an impossible situation.

9780801025778However, by the end of the piece Goodstein manages to squeeze in an authoritative voice (and I must confess that he is a friend and former teaching colleague of mine) who can crisply note the nature of the doctrinal debate that looms behind this debate over Israel and Palestine.

There is a crucial theological difference between Mr. (John) Hagee’s views on Israel and those expressed by the letter writers, said Timothy P. Weber, a church historian, former seminary president and the author of “On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend.”

Mr. Hagee and others are dispensationalists, Mr. Weber said, who interpret the Bible as predicting that in order for Christ to return, the Jews must gather in Israel, the third temple must be built in Jerusalem and the Battle of Armageddon must be fought.

Mr. Weber said, “The dispensationalists have parlayed what is a distinctly minority position theologically within evangelicalism into a major political voice.”

Now, most run-of-the-mill newspaper readers who make it this far are almost certainly going to have to ask, “What in the world is a dispensationalist?” And, there is no way around it — this is another big word worth arguing about.

But at least it’s the right word and a highly precise one at that.

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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.

  • ira rifkin

    Yes, dispensationalist could have used a definition.

    I’d have liked some clarity as well aound the letter’s statement that Israelis and Palestinians both have legitimate rights “stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine.”

    The question of whose claim is “older,” and therefore somehow more morally/politically valid, is a prime hot button issue in the conflict. Both sides dispute the other’s basis for the claim and line up religious/academic experts to wage scholarly/rhetorical battle. So what did the letter writer’s mean?

    Are they saying Israelis have a direct link to Biblical-era Hebrews/Israelites/Jews? (The Palestinian side says no way, arguing that today’s Israeli Jews are latter-day colonialists with no ancient connection whatsoever to the land.)

    Or that Palestinians are direct descendants of the Canaanites or that Palestinian Christians are direct descendants of the first Christians? (Both these arguments are advanced by the Palestinian side and rejected by the Israeli side; I’ve heard American Christians and Palestinians claim Jesus, a Jew, was the “first Palestinian.” Muslims, of course, say he was a Muslim. The Israeli side says today’s Palestinians are mostly descendants of Arabs and others who came to the Holy Land during the Ottoman or British Mandate periods.)

    Before writing this post I called Ron Sider and asked for clarification. He told me, “certainly there are no careful historical records,” despite the letter’s use of the term “historical honesty,” and that the letter writers were just trying to be even-handed.

    Personally, I think it best to put aside all Biblical/ ancient historical claims when wrestling with Israel/Palestine. Best to deal with what is today and try and move forward.

    The story rightly focused on the fact that not all evangelicals agree on Israel/Palestine, and the writer only had so much space to tell her tale. But given the continued centrality of the antagonists’ claims, some acknowledgement that the historical record is hotly debated was called for.

  • Chris

    As confusing as the term “evangelical” is now (if the word has any meaning anymore), I am struggling to understand exactly what the different theological views teach.

    Looking through the the definition of “dispensationlist” I wonder if any of the individuals that signed this letter would fall into this definition, such as the heads of the Christian and Missionary Alliance or the Vineyard Churches.

    The bottom line may be that using any “labels” to define people’s positions on these issues may be creating more confusion that to just describing them as “Christian Leaders”.

  • Jerry

    One note. That Wikipedia entry is not the only one on this topic. There is the disambiguation entry as well. On such hazy topics as this, I also find it very instructive to look at the accompanying discussion page. Note, for example, this item from the talk page:

    …merge Evangelical Catholic into Evangelicalism. To have two different articles seems to imply that they could be mutually exclusive, but any evangelical Catholics are, by definition, adherents of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism encompasses more than Protestant Christian denominations, and anyone interested in learning more about either should see them in the same article on the same evangelical topic….

    Of course, since Wikipedia is open to you, you might try fixing the entry.

  • Erik

    My experience is that many dispensationalists don’t even know they’re dispensationalists, or what that means. Not everyone, mind you, but enough that it muddies the water. And that stems from the fact that evangelicalism is more about style than theology. Granted, most evangelicals will be theologically conservative. But there is no systematic evangelical theology, and much less a systematic evangelical political theory. It’s time to get beyond mere surprise over the fact that evangelicals disagree on something, and get to the meat of the disagreement. I’ve long believed that evangelicals focus on abortion and same-sex marriage because they disagree on what to do about nearly everything else.

    As for the conflict itself, I agree with comment number 1 above: best to put aside the biblical and historical claims, since the arguments will never be resolved. There’s still plenty to argue over. Of course, niether side is likely to be willing to do so. The letter still seems a bit naive to me, but it was reasonable.

  • Brian

    Gosh, and here I was thinking that Americans overwhelmingly support Israel because it’s a democracy that has been under constant threat from its neighbors for 50+ years, and because we tend to lack sympathy for people who resort to blowing up everything from airplanes to school buses to restaurants to get political attention. Apparently it’s actually because most Americans are dispensationalists!

  • Gary

    I take issue with Mr. Weber’s statement “…that dispensationalists have parlayed what is a distinctly minority position theologically within evangelicalism..” A minority position? What about the power and reach of Dallas Theological Seminary? The number one dispensationalist seminary in the country. Should not Dallas be mention when dispensationalism is discussed?

  • tmatt

    Dallas is an important seminary, but dwarfed in comparison with the dozens or even hundreds of non-dispensationalist Protestant seminaries, including Southern Baptist campuses with include a wide range of viewpoints on that issue.

    I taught with Webber, btw, at Denver Seminary — with has some strong links with Dallas through the years (but, again, included a wide range of views).

  • mattk

    Evangelical: Anyone who is a member or suporter of the NAE, or a member or supporter of a group that is a member of the NAE.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    From The Article:

    Now, most run-of-the-mill newspaper readers who make it this far are almost certainly going to have to ask, “What in the world is a dispensationalist?” And, there is no way around it — this is another big word worth arguing about.

    This is indeed the right word to be discussing. And if the casual reader of the religion section of the newspaper is taken to opening up her dictionary and looking it up, that isn’t such a bad thing. Of course, a popular definition wouldn’t be as exact as we would like, but when Christian theological vocabulary such as “premillenial dispensationalism” makes it into the more common currency of religious news coverage, that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if common newspaper readers are ever to understand theopolitical issues in a religion such as Islam, then they will most likely approach it by understanding Christian theological language first.

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  • MisterDavid

    Brian says:
    July 30, 2007, at 5:55 pm
    Gosh, and here I was thinking that Americans overwhelmingly support Israel because it’s a democracy that has been under constant threat from its neighbors for 50+ years…


    Yes, a lot of people do ‘support Israel’ (whatever that means) because of its democracy and threatened status, but what about 50 years ago? Christians widely supported the establishment of the state of Israel before such reasons came into existence.

    Christian Zionism developed alongside the wider Zionism movement from the mid-1850s onwards (if not before), and one of the main reasons that the state of Israel could be brought into being was the influence of dispensationalist theology in very high levels of government (originally in Britain, then increasingly in the US).

    I’m pretty surprised that we haven’t seen a lot more written about dispensationalism (or at least Christian Zionism, which includes it – they aren’t synonymous) in the last few years. There are many many Christians today (I have friends who went to an ‘Israel Mandate’ conference in KC) who see the role of Israel as an absolute fundamental factor in world history, and that influence is touching world affairs as we speak.

    Now I’d quite like to know if there’s such a thing as a theologically-conservative but socially-liberal evangelical dispensationalist – you’d need another diagram to define it :)

  • Ivan Wolfe

    So – why is Utah in the “Evangelical” section of the map? I don’t think Mormons use that label.

  • tmatt


    That’s the point! For the media, Utah VOTES Evangelical.

  • Julia

    Checking the linked June article on Catholic Evangelicals, I note the following in that article:

    “the editors included Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest, and Rick Santorum, a Catholic layman”

    In this thread on what to call religious folks, may I ask why Neuhaus is called a ROMAN Catholic and Santorum is only a Catholic?

    Newhaus and Santorum are both members of the Western or Latin part of the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome. But the Catholic rites of the Eastern part of the church, such as the Chaldean, Greek, Melkite, Maronite, Armenian, Malabar, etc., also are connected to Rome.

    So – it is incorrect to qualify the Catholics you see around you in N and S America, Africa and Europe with the term of “Roman”. Since ALL Catholics are connected to Rome and only differ in their liturgies and administrative rules. If you must make a distinction it should be “West”/”Latin” and “East”/”Greek”.

    Second point: Catholics who think of themselves as evangelical or charismatic describe (or should describe) themselves as Catholic with evangelical leanings or emphasis or something like that. OR Catholics who are part of the charismatic movement – not Charistmatic Catholics.

    Catholics who belong to Opus Dei don’t call themselves “Opus Dei” Catholics. Jesuits do not call themselves “Jesuit” Catholics. I belonged to the Legion of Mary at one time, but I never called myself a “Legion of Mary” Catholic. I like Gregorian Chant, but I’m not a Traditional Catholic. The Catholic Church does not have “denominations” in the same way that Protestants do.
    We’re all mixed up in the same parish churches. I think that’s where this problem of nomenclature started.

  • tmatt


    In most publications where I have worked, it is Roman Catholic on the first reference and Catholic thereafter — in part due to the fact that catholic, small “c,” is a word in its own right (as opposed to rite).

  • Julia

    You said “In most publications where I have worked, it is Roman Catholic on the first reference and Catholic thereafter — in part due to the fact that catholic, small “c,” is a word in its own right (as opposed to rite).”

    That makes no sense. Evangelical with a small “e” is also a word in its own right and so is “Orthodox”. So what?

    If you must, why not call us “Latin” Catholics or “Western” Catholics? That is much more accurate than “Roman”. You seem to call other religions by the name they give themselves – not what other people call them.

    FYI In the Catholic Church, the Western or Latin portion has only one rite – the Latin Rite. The Eastern portion of the Catholic Church has quite a few rites. There is no Roman Rite. We are all plain old Catholics connected to each other through the Pope in Rome.

    The Eastern Catholic folks don’t like it when you distinguish Western Catholics with the moniker of “Roman” because it implies that they are not connected to Rome and are a different religion. The style mavens should understand that as the issue and not use Anglican claims as the determinant on what to call a religion. When you are writing about “Roman” Catholics, you are implying that the Eastern Catholics aren’t included in what you are saying. Perhaps the style-book folks don’t realize there are a lot of Catholics in the Eastern part of the world, such as India and Lebanon, who are just as Catholic as their American neighbors and are not Orthodox. In fact, some of their American neighbors are probably members of Catholic churches of various rites other than the Latin.