Define “evangelical” (or lose your mind)

evangelicals 01Here we go again.

As any regular reader knows, your GetReligionistas are rather picky when it comes to how journalists use the imperfect words that describe various religious groups in American and around the world. There’s that “fundamentalist” clause in the Associated Press Stylebook, for starters. We are not postmodern journalists. Maybe it’s the religious history major in me.

We also have wrestled with one of the vague, foggy, almost meaningless words in American religion — “evangelical.” You think? Long ago, I read a mainstream reference to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s “evangelical” stance on nuclear arms control. What, pray tell, would that have been?

As I keep saying, Billy Graham once told me that he has little or no idea what that word means. So when Billy “The world’s best known evangelist” Graham doesn’t know what the word means, but the theologians at Newsweek think that they do, then I have questions.

Still, in the spirit of bringing us all together, I think we can all agree that the following reference in the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., just doesn’t, well, cut it. Mark Bowden’s piece is about the realities that will settle in, once President-elect Obama is truly preparing to sit at The. Big. Desk.

Ready? Brace yourself:

Lowest-common-denominator rhetoric rarely squares with reality, and at best requires artful interpretation. Take, for just one example, Iran, a thorny problem for the United States in the Middle East. It is a bellicose, evangelical Muslim theocracy seemingly bent on building its own nuclear arsenal, with little regard for international law or, for that matter, civilized behavior. Obama was characterized as wanting to capitulate in advance to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while McCain was branded with an ill-considered ditty on the old Beach Boys hit “Barbara Ann” — he jokingly substituted the words, “Bomb, bomb, bomb/ Bomb, bomb Iran.”

Silly as they are, these extremes became part of the debate this year; typically, neither bears much resemblance to reality.

What in the world does “evangelical” — an adjective — mean in this context? People who want to spread their religion just like the nasty evangelicals here in America who, I assume, are preparing to invade Canada with troops to settle issues with other believers (think Iran-Iraq war) up there who disagree with them?

Or, is that fact that “evangelical” follows, in a parallel construction, the word “bellicose” all that we need to know?

Whatever the word “evangelical” means, it is linked to a movement with Protestant Christianity, perhaps beginning with the low-church Anglicans and the Methodists, etc., etc.

Honestly. Use your head, journalists. Get a clue.

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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.

  • danr

    Seems pretty clear he was equating “evangelical” with “fundamentalist”. It was only a matter of time before this common semantic association in journalists’ heads made it into a publication.
    orthodox Christian = evangelical = fundamentalist = orthodox Muslim = bad (in whatever order one chooses)

  • Dave

    I think in this context it means people who want to spread their religion. Period.

  • Jerry

    According to an online dictionary, the last definition of evangelical is Characterized by ardent or crusading enthusiasm; zealous: an evangelical liberal. http://www.answers.com/evangelical That definition is also one I found in other online dictionaries. So to me, using that term in that way is a correct albeit rarer usage.

  • David S

    I just can’t let pass the irony that the phrase “bellicose, evangelical Muslim theocracy” comes in a paragraph that leads off:
    “Lowest common denominator rhetoric rarely squares with reality….” You think?

  • Dale

    Jerry and Dave–

    The fact that a large number of people are misusing a word does not mean the usage is correct, even if it’s reflected in a dictionary. The etymology of “evangelical” is clear–it’s derived from the latin/greek words for “good news”, a synonym for gospel. It is specifically tied to Christianity, albeit in all forms, not just conservative Protestantism. There are more appropriate words–like orthodox or strictly observant–to describe the Shi’ite regime in Iran. Those words do not make a spurious connection to Christianity, and those should be used especially when a writer is describing a controversial Muslim political regime.

    Anyhow, I wasn’t particularly aware of Shi’ite efforts to spread Islam. At least in my part of the world, it’s the Sunnis who make the most effort to educate the public about their beliefs and invite outsiders into the mosques. I don’t think those Sunnis would describe themselves as “evangelical,” or welcome an attempt to attach that word, with its inherent Christian connotations, to their faith. The Shi’ites are functionally invisible. So “evangelical” fails as both a descriptor and a metaphor.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Jerry,
    I received the same response when I once questioned a newspaper editor’s description of Jesuit missionaries as “evangelical.” The word adds nothing to the sentence above, and only confuses matters. Whatever happened to “omit unnecessary words”?

  • Dave

    Dale, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but neither “evangelical” not “gospel” is copyrighted by Christianity any more. Language evolves.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVE:

    Spoken like a true postmodern, a position that essentially makes accurate, fair journalism impossible (not that everyone cares about that).

    You have precisely stated the position that this weblog rejects. Words have meanings. Your position is, essentially, anti-doctrine. But I am sure that you know that.

  • Dale

    Language evolves.

    Language evolves within the context of a community, not a single journalist who ignores the history and common use of the word.

    The other part of the post-modern equation you forgot is that imposing a language change on an existing community is a form of oppression. To alter the use of the word “evangelical” so greatly that it describes an Islamic regime that executes its citizens for the crime of converting to Christianity is dishonest–not to mention unpleasantly ironic.

  • Dave2

    tmatt,

    The word ‘evangelize’ is frequently used in non-religious contexts. Is toleration for this usage “postmodern” or “anti-doctrine”?

    Also, unless I’m mistaken, everyone agrees that words have meanings. But do you think some of us would deny that words have meanings?

  • http://www.freikirchen.at Wolf Paul

    I think what the author of that piece wanted to use in this context was “evangelistic” and like many secular writers he simply mixed up the word.

    Of course one could then argue whether “evangelistic” applies just to those spreading the “evangel” or Gospel, or whether it applies to any “missionary” movement.

  • Stoo

    It’s postmodern to say that meanings of words change???

  • Dave

    Terry, your critique of my “postmodern” position (I reject that label) is absurd. Language evolves and the meaning of words changes. The test of good journalistic use of words is whether the reporter conveys the meaning he or she intends. No one is going to mistake Shi’ite Muslims for Baptists with the application of the word “evangelical,” even if that use is not accurate as applied to Shi’ites. The term “gospel” is applied to all sorts of alleged secular truths.

    Good journalism is not the same as archaism.

    Your position is, essentially, anti-doctrine.

    I’m not sure how you mean this, but you are right that I do not accept any Christian doctrine.

  • Dale

    Dave:

    Language evolves and the meaning of words changes.

    Words can also be used to falsely describe a group of people, and implicitly disparage another. To argue in defense of such usage merely that “language evolves” is facile.

    No one is going to mistake Shi’ite Muslims for Baptists with the application of the word “evangelical,” even if that use is not accurate as applied to Shi’ites.

    When one applies the word “evangelical” as a descriptor of the government in Iran, one can not avoid the implicit presumption that the Shi’ite Muslim regime in Iran is somehow analogous to American evangelicalism. It’s a controversial claim, to say the least, and extremely subjective, and thus has no place in journalism that claims objectivity.

  • Dave

    Dale:

    Words can also be used to falsely describe a group of people, and implicitly disparage another. To argue in defense of such usage merely that “language evolves” is facile.

    I was not defending the usage. I was offering an opinion of what the usage meant in this instance.

    When one applies the word “evangelical” as a descriptor of the government in Iran, one can not avoid the implicit presumption that the Shi’ite Muslim regime in Iran is somehow analogous to American evangelicalism.

    Of course one can avoid it. I did so without difficulty.

  • Dale

    I was not defending the usage. I was offering an opinion of what the usage meant in this instance.

    Hair-splitting.

    Of course one can avoid it. I did so without difficulty.

    No you didn’t. The fact that you don’t see the problem speaks loads about your own biases.

  • Stoo

    Maybe the fact that you see problems so readily speaks loads about yours?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    OK, so words evolve and change. People can use them any way that they want, so long as they make sense to the writer and communicate what the writer wishes.

    So you’re all happy with Pat Robertson talking about Jihad Democrats? Muslims should accept this historically absurd use of the word, too?

  • Bern

    tmatt, OK: let’s accept that the meanings of words change over time and due to various social, cultural, and yes even religious circumstances. Let’s also agree that people use words in different contexts to convey different things. SO, in those cases is the use–which I would deem imprecise–of “evangelical” before the word “Muslim” by the journalist somehow equivalent to the use of the word “Jihad” by the um evangelical before the word “Democrat” somehow equivalent . . . ????

  • Dale

    Maybe the fact that you see problems so readily speaks loads about yours?

    If I’m not mistaken, you live in the U.K. You have little, if any, knowledge about American evangelical Christianity that hasn’t been filtered through the media. I live here, I’m an evangelical Christian, and I can tell you that “progressive” politicians have made numerous false equations between evangelical Christianity and oppressive Islamic regimes, just as Republicans have made false equations between Obama’s social welfare policies and Marxism. It’s slanderous and dishonest, and your snide remarks doesn’t make it any less so.

  • Dale

    is the use—which I would deem imprecise—of “evangelical” before the word “Muslim” by the journalist somehow equivalent to the use of the word “Jihad” by the um evangelical before the word “Democrat” somehow equivalent . . . ????

    Yes. It’s ripping a word (Jihad) out of its usual context in the conflict between the Islamic countries and the West, where it has described a course of terrorism, and attaching it to a word with which it has a tenuous relationship–Democrat. “Jihad” literally means struggle, and certainly a political campaign is a struggle, so I can weave together a justification for using it in connection with “Democrat”. That, of course, ignores the rhetorical game of attaching a word with strongly negative connotations to “Democrat”, and influencing the reader to see an erroneous similarity between terrorism and a political campaign.

    That’s exactly what is done when a writer describes a “bellicose” oppressive Islamic regime as “evangelical”.

  • Bern

    Dale, in other words equivalently nonsensical, for those who understand the terms precisely as opposed to those who only understand them vaguely.

    “Evangelical” has become unmoored from its original (benign or positive) meaning. So much so that, as a previous post points out, a leading figure like Billy Graham can be quoted as saying he doesn’t know what it means–I’m presuming not “literally” because surely he knows the origins of the word just as well as you do.

    No less so “jihad”.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BERN:

    Now I have to correct this one.

    Graham was saying that he did not know what the word “evangelical” meant in terms of specific DOCTRINES.

    He was well aware that it was a term in Christian history for a specific movement of Protestant churches.

    Here’s the link again:

    http://tmatt.gospelcom.net/column/2004/11/24/

    Just to be clear, I believe that journalists who believe in accuracy and fairness SHOULD NOT start twisting these kinds of words. Words matter. Doctrines matter, too.

  • Dave2

    The English term ‘evangelize’ predates the Reformation, which is why Wyclif could use it in 1382. Extended uses of the term to include any ‘spreading the good word’, even outside of Christian contexts, have been around for a long time.

    Consequently, I believe almost nobody but certain Americans would ever look at “bellicose, evangelical Muslim theocracy” and have 20th century evangelical Christianity (or any incendiary comparison thereto) come to mind. This looks like much ado over nothing.

  • Dave

    Dale (#17), your remarks do not reflect well on your seriousness. There is a difference between defending the use of a word as a descriptor generally and agreeing that it is correctly applied in a given instance.

    And you seem to think that you can read my mind. I did not think of American evangelicals when I saw that word applied to Muslims; do you imagine you know what I was thinking better than I do?

    Terry (#19) writes:

    OK, so words evolve and change. People can use them any way that they want, so long as they make sense to the writer and communicate what the writer wishes.

    The first sentence does not imply the second. Journalists should use words the way they are generally understood, not “any way that they want.”

  • Robert

    Dave2, you say: I believe almost nobody but certain Americans would ever look at “bellicose, evangelical Muslim theocracy” and have 20th century evangelical Christianity (or any incendiary comparison thereto) come to mind.

    Do you think Martin Luther and the protestant reformers that formed the Evangelische Kirche in Germany would have been be no less offended? Or William Wilberforce and the Anglican Evangelicals that fought to end the slave trade and promote reform in 19th century England? The term “evangelical” has a strong history of Christian reform, and to use it as a perjorative shows contempt of history as well as poor journalism.

  • Dave

    Robert, part of what’s at issue here is whether the use of the term by this reporter was in fact pejorative, or was intended as descriptive.


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