Generic ‘evangelical Christians,’ deja vu

Here we go again.

“Aspirations of a President” is the title of a new video by Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty.

The six-minute video opens with inspirational music and a U.S. flag rolling across the screen in what resembles the introduction to a “West Wing” episode.

But it’s the content — the former Minnesota governor and his wife, Mary, discussing their Christian faith — that caught the attention of major media.

From the Washington Post:

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty made a unabashed pitch to Iowa’s evangelical vote Wednesday with the release of a video featuring the presidential candidate and his wife, Mary, talking unguardedly about their religious Christian faith.

The video attests to his opposition to abortion and his view that marriage should be only between a man and a woman.

I know it’s too late, but I’m not a big fan of multisyllable editorialization in newspaper ledes, so I cut two of them. And while I was at it, I went ahead and changed “religious” to “Christian,” just to be specific. If you must, sue me.

In the video, the candidate talks about growing up Catholic before joining an evangelical church after meeting his wife in law school. Mary Pawlenty remembers her Evangelical Covenant Church upbringing, but notes that she and her husband attend the Wooddale Church, which is associated with the Baptist General Conference but describes itself as an “interdenominational evangelical church.”

A Godbeat friend tells me:

Pietists is the best term to use, I think, to describe the Covenant church and the BGC, which is also known as Converge Worldwide. They’ve got a high view of Scripture, send out a lot of missionaries and tend to be on the liturgical side. They also stress Christian living rather than doctrinal nitpicking. The BGC, the Covenant and the Evangelical Free church are all splits from the state church of Sweden.

Interesting. To me at least. Of course, none of that kind of information — not even the name of the Pawlentys’ church — made it into any of the stories I read on Pawlenty’s video, including reports by Politico, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Des Moines Register.

Instead — and honk if you’ve heard this before in this space — the generic term “evangelical Christian” is used pretty freely to describe the Pawlentys and the voters they’re targeting. From the Post:

Perhaps no group is more important to the outcome in Ames than evangelical Christians, who make up nearly half of likely Republican caucusgoers in Iowa, higher than the national figure for GOP voters.

From Politico:

The former Minnesota governor’s main message had been focused on jobs, the economy and management experience. The changes Wednesday mark the first time since announcing his 2012 run that Pawlenty has talked so openly and extensively about being an evangelical Christian, though he wrote about his faith prominently in his book, “Courage to Stand” and has kept a stump speech line, “We need to be a nation that turns toward God, not away from God.”

Bachmann, who’s leading in Iowa, has made her evangelical faith a centerpiece of her presidential campaign. But while Bachmann signed the controversial marriage pledge from conservative evangelical group The Family Leader, Pawlenty also announced on Wednesday that he wouldn’t, carefully staking out his own ground.

The Wall Street Journal came the closest to actually explaining the Pawlentys’ brand of evangelicalism:

In the video, Mr. Pawlenty and his wife talk about the role church played in their early lives and how Mary Pawlentygot her husband to convert from Catholicism to an evangelical strain of Christianity.

“My family and I were Catholics when I was growing up, but when I met Mary in law school, she was an evangelical and introduced me to the Lord in new and powerful ways,” he said.

What say ye, GetReligion readers: In a story such as this, does generic “evangelical Christian” work? Or do readers need more detailed information concerning the specific beliefs and backgrounds of the voters — and the candidates?

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Elijah

    I think I understand what the author intends, but I don’t like it. In my mind I find the term “evangelical” almost as confusing as “fundemental” since it can – and does – apply to different denominations, congregational churches, etc. We need more information.

  • dalea

    Godbeat says:

    They also stress Christian living rather than doctrinal nitpicking. The BGC, the Covenant and the Evangelical Free church are all splits from the state church of Sweden.

    The Free Church is also split from the Churches of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Estonia and Latvia. The distinction is between fri and rik, cognate with the German word reich. Rikkyrkans tended to accept the enlightenment; frikykrans did not. The main issue came down to the role of personal piety in religion. When I was growing up, the local Covenant Church drew a line in the sand over social dancing. In junior high school, local Covenantors would show up to denounce waltzing as demonic and satanic.

  • John Petty

    Pawlenty probably likes the coverage. He obviously is promoting himself as an evangelical. Therefore, calling him one serves his purposes.

  • Bram

    In MSM parlance “Evangelical” means more or less: “A non-Catholic who actually believes all that Christian crap and takes it seriously as a moral guide.”

  • Peggy R

    Now, see, this strikes me as more offensive to Catholics (eg, me) than Bachmann’s church’s longstanding belief, which is the essence of protestantism, started by Luther himself. It is offensive in my mind to hear a candidate say how he grew up Catholic but didn’t really know Jesus or whatever, until he went “evangelical” (protestant). Pawlenty has specifically and personally rejected “popery” by leaving the Church. But Bachmann has not done so. Leaving Rome and suggesting it is inadequate, as Pawlenty effectively does (to my ears), is more offensive. Maybe he’ll get some evangelicals to buy in, but not active (liberal or conservative) Catholics.

  • Will

    In MSM parlance “Evangelical” means more or less: “A non-Catholic who actually believes all that Christian crap and takes it seriously as a moral guide.”

    And, judging from the talk I habitually here around me, “regular people” seem to think “Catholic” means “anyone who actually believes the stuff, and can’t be credibly labeled ‘fundamentalist’.” E.g., applying it to C.S. Lewis and even Sydney Carter.

  • Bram


    “Catholic” in MSM parlance requires an adjective.

    To wit:

    “Conservative Catholic:” “A non-Protestant who actually believes all that Christian crap and takes it seriously as a moral guide.”


    “Devout Catholic:” “A smart and well-educated liberal who doesn’t really believe in (most of) that Christian crap or take (most of) it seriously as a moral guide, but who nonetheless is sentimentally attached to ‘Catholic’ as a term and has as much right to it as anyone else.”

  • Will

    But since “Protestant”, in “normal” everyday parlance, means just “not Catholic”….. oooh, my brain hurts!

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Contra Peggy, from another Catholic:

    The quote is: introduced me to the Lord in new and powerful ways not he grew up Catholic but didn’t really know Jesus. Living in the buckle on the Baptist belt (north Texas), I’m accustomed to the latter construction, sometimes from family members. They all know someone who “got saved” after years as a Catholic. Having been raised Baptist, now Catholic (by way of the Episcopal Church), I can give an alternate testimony and we are still friends.

    I will admit this: though I’m usually interested in the candidate’s political philosophy and policy suggestions and not so much in his/her religion, I would be interested in knowing if Gov. Pawlenty’s change of religion would cause him a problem making common cause with Catholics where common cause is warranted. That would be interesting.

  • H. E. Baber

    “Evangelical” means more or less: “A non-Catholic who actually believes all that Christian crap and takes it seriously as a moral guide.”

    Please let’s be “fair and balanced”: there are some of us NON-evangelical non-Catholics who actually believe all that Christian crap–even if we don’t agree with the conservative moral agenda.

    The media is correct to the extent that they recognize a new religious landscape in which traditional denominational labels aren’t important, but rather the cut in the Protestant world is between evangelicals and mainline Protestants. But as a milline Protestant I’m a little disturbed by the assumption that we don’t “believe all that Christian crap.” It seems to me that the difference between evangelicals and others is that evangelicalism is the religion of the word, a style of religiosity that emphasizes preaching rather than liturgy.

    Anyway, I repeat: I take that “Christian crap” seriously, that is I believe in the supernatural, I believe that there is a God as ordinarily understood, and that theological language doesn’t just cash out as some baloney about commitment to an agapistic way of life or whatever.

  • James D. Bourne

    Whoa.. I thisnk Ive read this before… weird.