No. 7,000: Please define “evangelical” — again

So, this post represents the 7,000th GetReligion offering that is still stashed on our server. That’s a landmark, of some sort or another, especially since this comes so soon after our 8th birthday party the other day.

There have, by the way, been quite a few GetReligion posts that were deleted along the way, primarily at the time when we made the jump to the WordPress software after about two years of publishing. You see, we once had a sidebar feature that offered shorter posts that kind of resembled the whole “aggregation” trend that is so hot these days on many news websites. I think we lost all of those in the software switch.

Cyberspace giveth, cyberspace taketh away. So be it.

When we started out it was just me and The Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc who were doing the writing and the goal was to get up one or two posts a day. These days, with 5.5 scribes (give or take a Hemingway), we strive for three and sometimes four — depending on what’s going on in our real jobs and the state of religion coverage on any given day. Then there’s jet planes that take us to speaking gigs, conferences, other duties, family life, etc.

Still, 7,000 articles — at roughly 700 words or so (Wait! Father George averages about 1,400 words a post!) — is just under 5,000,000 words in seven years. That’s a lot of digital ink.

So, on what should I focus this post — No. 7,000? The topic needs to be somewhat symbolic, don’t you think?

I considered having the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway do a WomenPriests post of some kind. Did you know that if you Google “GetReligion” and “Womenpriests” you get about 24,000 hits? I have no idea what that means.

No, why don’t we throw another harpoon at one of those great-white-whale topics that we’ve been studying from the get-go? So that’s ask, once again: What in the world does the oft-abused term “evangelical” mean?

Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake City Tribune addressed that topic the other day and gave GetReligion a tip of the hat. Click here to read the version of this Religion News Service piece that ran in USA Today. Here is how that opens:

Evangelicals have been in the news a lot lately, from the Denver Broncos’ Tim Tebow and his take-a-knee prayers to the Texas pastor and his wife who spent 24 hours in bed preaching the virtues of sex in Christian marriages.

Mitt Romney is struggling to gain evangelical support for his presidential bid, and Rick Santorum — a Catholic — won the blessing of more than 100 evangelical pastors gathered at a Texas ranch.

So who are these Christians? What do they have in common and how are they different from other believers? Even famed preacher Billy Graham wasn’t sure of the answer.

“Actually, that’s a question, I’d like to ask somebody, too,” Graham told religion reporter Terry Mattingly in a 1987 interview. “The lines (have) become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

So there is one of the keys. If one knows what the word “fundamentalist” means — the Associate Press Stylebook is pretty clear on that, even if journalists keep ignoring its wise advice — then the key is to draw a line between the “evangelicals” and the “fundamentalists.”

Good luck with that.

You really need to read the whole piece to see how Stack addresses that, with the help of a whole bunch of folks, including Notre Dame historian Mark Noll, author of “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” and other relevant tomes.

So here is a final bite to ponder, as she chases a definition that all will embrace:

Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, expands the definition further, saying “evangelicals have always been a cultural niche/commercial product kind of thing. No set doctrines.” …

Noll: The serious answer is the ‘eye of the beholder.’ I believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ, which makes me a fundamentalist in the eyes of some people, but I take an occasional glass of wine and don’t worry about evolution, which means that, for many people, I can’t be a fundamentalist.

Anyway, your GetReligionistas will carry on for, we hope, thousands of other posts — including more on this topic, I am sure. As you know, words really matter when you’re walking the religion beat.

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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.

  • David Rupert

    I love Get Religion, because no one really does get it. The definitions, the perceptions, the words the world — and the church — uses are constantly changing. Thanks for helping sort it out. A valiant mission! 14,000 here we come!


  • susie

    Two more words that have changed meaning in the eyes of “the world”. I prefer the actual definitions of the words as I do believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and I do believe the Gospel as taught in the first four books of the New Testament. I believe that makes me an evangelical fundamentalist. They are not mutually exclusive terms.

    The differences though are similar to the differences in the words “catholic” and “Catholic”. I hold to the “catholic” faith and am not a “Catholic”. …

  • Martha

    Many congratulations and continued success!

  • thomas

    “I believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ, which makes me a fundamentalist in the eyes of some people.” Really? Maybe we should start distinguishing between evangelical and Evangelical; unfortunately, unlike the catholic/Catholic distinction, there is no institutional/magisterial backing to ‘Evangelical’ to anchor its meaning.

  • susie

    I did try to distinguish between the two but unintentionally said something that was either offensive or off topic.

    I apologize.

  • Jon in the Nati

    It is somehow appropriate that a milestone post for GR deals with one of the issues that has been a perennial one. I do so hope that you continue tilting at windmills for many years to come.

    To this article’s credit, at least there is the acknowledgment that Santorum is Catholic, rather than some variety of evangelical (or evangelicalist). We will recall, of course, that TIME once ran a list of the ‘most influential evangelicals’ which included two Roman Catholics.

    I am troubled, though, by TMatt’s intimation that evangelicalism is sort of an amorphous ‘mood’ with no set boundaries or doctrinal standards; I think most self-described evangelicals would disagree. If would point readers to this article, among others, by Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a man for whom I have immense respect as an intellectual, historian and cultural commentator, our theological differences notwithstanding. If anyone is poised to comment on what it means to be an evangelical, I believe it would be him.

  • Jerry

    Jon in the Nati’s comment about windmills seems very appropriate to me as a marker for the 7000 articles.