Define ‘evangelical,’ yet again

Sorry ’bout this, but it’s time for another picky post on religion-beat linguistics. But first, a question about one of the biggest and most important religion trends of the late 20th century.

OK, readers, what is the form of faith that is — through its rapid growth — literally changing the face of South America? Does anyone recall that particular Pew Forum study that, justifiably so, generated so many headlines about five years ago? Right, that would be Pentecostal Christianity.

Now, Pentecostal and charismatic people are a pretty complex lot, since these are terms that can and do describe everyone from charismatic Catholics to Oneness Pentecostals have even have a unique (many would say heretical) view of the nature of the Godhead.

The latter also have interesting views on women and long hair.

Say what? With that in mind, let’s check out this entire Associated Press report, which showed up all over the web because of its rather strange crime hook:

SAO PAULO – Brazilian police say a thief cut off and stole a woman’s long hair while she waited at a bus stop.

Police say the hair was virgin, meaning it had not been chemically treated, and will probably be sold for the production of wigs.

Inspector Jose Carlos Bezerra da Silva said Friday to Globo TV’s G1 website that the woman was waiting for a bus in the central city of Goiania when the man used a knife-like weapon to cut the hair, which reached past her waist. She said she thought the man was going to steal her purse so she turned her back to him.

Silva said he’d never seen a theft like it in 20 years. He said the 24-year-old woman reported the case to police because she is evangelical and had to explain to her pastor why her hair wasn’t long anymore.

Readers! What think ye? Has anyone out there heard of “evangelicals” emphasizing women needing to keep their hair long? I mean, even among homeschooling folks?

So what are the odds that this woman was a Pentecostal believer — a Oneness, Apostolic Pentecostal believer in fact — and not a generic “evangelical”?

I know, I know. “Evangelical” is vague and has little meaning these days. That’s precisely my point.

In this case, the vague word it is also certainly inaccurate and makes the story weaker.

Correction, please.

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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.

  • Mark Byron

    As far as I can tell, Pentecostals are a subset of evangelical in most applications, at least the ones that aren’t charismatic Catholics; at least that how this “Bapticostal” sees it.

    In addition, in some Latin American settings, evangelical will be used as blanket term for non-Catholic Christians, including unorthodox folks like the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    Since the issue is hair rather than tongues, I don’t quite see drilling down to Pentecostal would make that much of a difference.

  • mattk

    I thought Evangelical was a quote. But I knew when I read it that in North America she would have said Pentecostal. And in Germany Evangelical means something other than Pentecostal and more specific than Evngelcal means in North America. Maybe the reporter should have said “she said she was Evangelical, which is what some Brazilians call Pentecostals.

  • Wolf Paul

    But there are a number of non-pentecostal, conservative protestant groups which could well be said to be evangelical which emphasize long hair; in non-Western countries even more so than in the “West”. Plymouth Brethren come to mind but also some of the more conservative Baptists and Mennonites.
    So, especially as I also thought that “evangelical” was the woman’s self-identification I don’t see the need for a correction to the AP report, but rather to tmatt’s perception of the very wide spectrum of Evangelicalism (hint: Evangelicalism is not the same as U.S. Evangelicalism, especially outside the US)

  • JWB

    This is presumably a paraphrase of something Inspector Silva (or Inspector da Silva?) said in Portuguese that the woman had said in Portuguese, and/or is a paraphrase of a Portuguese-language news story and thus one step further removed from the source of the information. I doubt the AP did much original reporting here. So one question is what Portuguese word was used in the AP writer’s immediate source? Was it “evangelico” or something else?

  • Steve

    As a former missionary in South America, it is important to note that Protestants there refer to themselves as Evangelicals. It does not have the same meaning as we use the term in the United States.

  • Karen

    And I would also point out that a friend got in trouble with her Lutheran minister for cutting her hair. Don’t know which Lutheran, but I’m betting it wasn’t ECLA.

  • Ann Rodgers

    In many parts of Latin America, as in much of Europe, “evangelical” simply means Protestant. And I second the person who pointed out that some evangelical traditions, particularly among certain Anabaptists and evangelical Holiness churches, stress long hair for women.

  • Frank Lockwood


  • Roberto

    So what are the odds that this woman was a Pentecostal believer — a Oneness, Apostolic Pentecostal believer in fact — and not a generic “evangelical”?

    My family attended a Spanish-speaking Assembly of God church in my teens and long hair on women was accepted. In fact, one of the first things las descarridas(backsliders) did upon leaving the church was to cut their hair.

    In this country, I hear the Assemblies of God referred to as “Evangelical” all the time.

  • Roberto

    Sorry, I meant “expected,” not “accepted.”