Evangelical? Born again? Fundie? Whatever …

Once more, into the religion-beat word wars (with an emphasis on the often foggy meaning of the word “evangelical”)!

People who paid close attention to The New Yorker piece on Michele Bachmann now have another reason to parse that text again with a critical eye.

Writing for Religion News Service (posted at Huffington Post), the veteran Godbeat specialist (and progressive evangelical) Cathleen Falsani has taken a critical, fact-driven look at some of the terms tossed around in that magnum opus. While she liked the piece quite a bit, some of its loose labels troubled her.

A veteran on the beat, and a Wheaton College graduate (just like Billy Graham), Falsani was compelled to dig a bit deeper — especially about the magazine’s use of the terms “evangelical,” “born-again” and “fundamentalist.”

Thus, we read:

It seemed they were employed interchangeably, as if their definitions were synonymous. In popular culture, those terms are shorthand for “staunchly conservative,” “small-minded,” and “mean-spirited.” It’s a matter of semantics, but it is spiritually significant.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek “evangelion,” meaning “the good news” or “the gospel.” During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther adopted the word to describe his breakaway church; for hundreds of years thereafter, “evangelical” meant, simply, “Protestant.”

That’s a good start. But when dealing with issues of history, it’s always good to have an authoritative voice to back you up.

So, continuing:

Today, in American society the term is used in three ways, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College:

– Theologically, it is an umbrella term for Christians who believe in the need for conversion, the command to spread the gospel, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the primacy of Jesus Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

– Stylistically, “evangelical” also describes a kind of religious practice as much as a set of doctrines. This is where you really see the diversity of evangelicalism: Mennonites, African-American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Catholic charismatics and Dutch Reformed all fall under the “evangelical-as-a-style” umbrella.

– Politically, “evangelical” describes a coalition of Protestants (including evangelist Billy Graham) who used the term in an attempt to distance themselves from the “Christian fundamentalist” movements of the 1920s and ’30s. Fundamentalism’s hallmarks were (and to a certain extent remain) anti-intellectualism, anti-modernity and a belief that the church should not engage with culture. Mainstream evangelicals, by contrast, sought to actively be a part of culture in order to transform it.

Alas, at that point Falsani goes on to adopt the post-Associated Press Stylebook stance on the meaning of “fundamentalist,” as opposed to using the historic model that she has already applied to “evangelical.”

Still, there is much wisdom to be absorbed in those paragraphs from the Wheaton team.

I would urge reporters to take the same fact-based, as opposed to opinion-based, approach to defining religion terms in general. Look for the history of the terms and see who originated them and who claims them. That is always a wise and prudent place to start.

Those (in newsrooms) who have ears, let them hear.

IMAGE: The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

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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.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Sarah Bachmann?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    A very long day, my friends. A very long day.

    Fixed. Time to go take something for my headache.

  • Cliff Mathis

    The theological definition of “evangelical” offered isn’t exactly helpful as many American evangelicals reject inerrancy or refuse to use the term to describe their view of the Bible.

    Why not use the broader language of biblical authority or biblicism in a definition of “evangelical”?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I was talking to someone last week and he asked me what, exactly, an evangelical was. And when I defined it almost exactly as Falsani does above, he said the definition fit his own views. He asked this question in the context of the New Yorker profile, and he’d thought it was shorthand for something to do with Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann …

  • Jeffrey

    Bottom line, however, isn’t it reasonable to say Bachmann is an Evagelical and appears to be born-again? That her popularity in Iowa could be attributed to talking the language and politics of self-described evangelicals? Are journalists wrong to say that, especially in shorter pieces where they don’t have time to spend paragraphs explaining the nuances of who is and isn’t an evangelical, a term used in political polling in which people self-identify?

  • tmatt


    Certainly. But you missed Falsani’s point. She was upset — accurately so — that three terms with clashing definitions were being used interchangeably, especially fundamentalist and evangelical. These two terms are literally used in real life as a way of drawing LINES between different camps.

    Read her article again.

  • Jettboy

    Why not use the term “Christian conservative” to describe them if they must be described at all? I mean, it can be a catch phrase that the media is aiming at by using these interchangeable words. When reading an article with evangelical or fundamental, fill it in with Christian conservative and see if it makes any substantial difference in meaning. How hard is it to call Michelle Bachmann a Christian conservative Lutheran? Of course, we all know (if you don’t then I think you are lying to yourself) the reporters are using those words to put fear into people’s, especially the liberal culture the reporters are part of, minds.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    In my personal view, using “conservative” in a religious sense (except where the religious body applies it to itself in a formal title), imports a political term into a sphere where it does not belong. “Traditionalist” and/or (small-o) “orthodox” are far more accurate and descriptive.

  • Joshua little

    Interesting — her summaries are helpful, to a point. But dramatically oversimplified. Why not go back to the original “bennington quadrilateral” for a stylistic definition?

  • Grupetti

    “Why not go back to the original “bennington quadrilateral” for a stylistic definition?”

    The Bebbington quadrilateral also works nicely. :)

  • MJBubba

    Jettboy (#7), Michelle Bachman is not a Lutheran, as has been discussed here at GetReligion: http://www.getreligion.org/2011/07/are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been-a-lutheran/#comments
    I agree with Deacon M.D.Harmon that “conservative” is an inferior choice to use to distinguish between Christians. I suppose we are stuck with it, but this is chiefly because Politics is the religion of most journalists.

  • Sean P

    First off I’d like to say that I am an Evangelical Christian (although saying Evangelical does imply the Christian part doesn’t it?).
    Few people on the outside and few people within many churches understand that there are many different denominations within “evangelicalism”, for instance I’m a Presbyterian (PCA), but there are other evangelicals that are Lutherans, Baptists, etc. etc.

    Beyond that, I believe that modern so called “evangelicalism” is hardly evangelical in many, many aspects. In fact, many so called evangelicals couldn’t define to you the Gospel (evangel), although they usually do have some general sense.

    Micheal Horton wrote a good book called “Christless Christianity” on this.

  • Jettboy

    MJBubba, thank your for that. I am not sure what she is now, and not sure we know? At the least she could still be described as a Christian conservative who was formally Lutheran. If she describes herself as an “Evangelical,” “born-again,” or “Fundamentalist” or what-not, then I don’t see any reason not to use those words.

    Deacon, I understand there are also religious reasons for “Conservative” and “Liberal” terms. However, when dealing with a politician they would certainly be considered more political descriptive by most readers.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Have you seen ANY evidence that Bachmann has described herself as both an “evangelical” and, in direct contradiction, a “fundamentalist”?

    If journalists were allowing her to describe her own beliefs, we would not be having this discussion.