Define ‘evangelical’ … Give three examples

Late one night last week, while I was attending a journalism conference in Kiev, I plunked myself down in the wifi zone in the hotel lobby and pounded out a quick post about at topic that your GetReligionistas have been discussing ever since the cyber-doors opened at this here weblog — the fact that hardly anyone knows what the word “evangelical” means.

For me, personally, one of the touchstone moments in this debate was the day I spent with the Rev. Billy Graham — on behalf of The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — shortly before his 1987 Rocky Mountain Crusade in Denver.

I wrote about that interview at the time, of course, and once again in a 2004 column for the Scripps Howard News Service (“Define ‘evangelical’ — please”). To understand where I am coming from, here is the top of that column:

Ask Americans to rank the world’s most influential evangelicals and the Rev. Billy Graham will lead the list.

So you might assume that the world’s most famous evangelist has an easy answer for this tricky political question: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” If you assumed this, you would be wrong. In fact, Graham once bounced that question right back at me.

“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.” …

Long ago, Graham stressed that this term most be understood in doctrinal terms, if it is to be understood at all. He finally defined an “evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.

I thought it was crucial that Graham thought this subject was a minefield for journalists, among others, and that he thought it was important to seek a doctrinal answer to the question. It is also, of course, important to note that evangelicals are found in a wide variety of pews, which means there is no one body of people that has the authority to define the borders of this particular niche in the world of Protestantism.

This subject fascinated me, as someone who grew up in the world of free church, non-creedal Protestantism (Southern Baptist, to be specific), yet has gone on a doctrinal pilgrimage that took me out of Protestantism into ancient Orthodox Christianity.

As my recent post made clear, I am convinced that the definition of the term “evangelical” (if there ever was one) has become more and more blurry over the years. I also know that, as a non-evangelical, I am not in charge of defining it. Trust me, I am clear on that.

However, mainstream journalists — for better and for worse — have to use this term as clearly as possible and, as Graham said, this means asking doctrinal questions. That’s the kind of journalism issue that we explore here at GetReligion, since this is a journalism site about religion-news coverage, not a religion site about any one particular religious body or movement.

In this case, the majority of responses to my post were irrelevant, focusing on claims that I was trying to say who is and who is not an evangelical. Thus, I spiked as many of these comments as I could, with limited wifi in Ukraine and a packed schedule as well.

Of course, it mattered that I framed my post as a discussion of whether “evangelical” remains the best word, or combination of words, that journalists could be using to describe a very controversial figure in the tense arena of Protestantism in America — the Rev. Brian McLaren. Thinking back to the Graham interview, I suggested that it would be helpful for journalists to ask doctrinal questions when writing about the emerging-church leader and offered three questions (the so-called “tmatt trio“) that I have used through the years in many, many interviews with Christians on both left and right. Thus, I wrote:

Let me stress, once again, that these are questions that — working as a mainstream religion-beat pro — I found useful when trying to get the lay of the land on disputes inside various Christian flocks, on the left and right. The whole point to was to get information about doctrinal basics and, in our era, these are some hot-button subjects in a wide variety of groups. The goal is to listen carefully as people answered or, on many cases, tried to avoid answering these questions.

Many readers thought that, with my three doctrinal questions, I was trying to define who is and who is not an “evangelical” — when the post specifically said that was not the point. What I was arguing was that journalists, like it or not, have to seek out doctrinal information when deciding when to use and when not to use religious terms that are linked to doctrine. I realize that some people define “evangelical” in terms of cultural niches and norms, but — as Graham said — you eventually end up talking about biblical authority and doctrine.

Why discuss this topic? Why not let the people in question self-identify themselves? Journalists often have to resort to that, but it simply doesn’t solve all of the journalistic problems that will come up on the religion beat.

As Timothy Dalrymple of the Patheos leadership team noted, in reaction to my post:

Some suggest that self-identification is the only definition available to evangelicals, in the absence of a Pope or a teaching magisterium. If a person calls himself an evangelical, who are you to say otherwise? Well, I don’t think that’s true. My Pagan friend Star Foster — not that she would want to, of course — could not simply decide to call herself evangelical and we would all have to throw up our hands and say, “Well, nothing for it, I guess. If she says she’s an evangelical, she’s an evangelical. Wish we had a Pope!” That would be ludicrous.

Another interesting response came from McLaren himself, in a blog post that — in many ways — got the point of what I wrote. He called it, “An interesting discussion, somewhat peripherally about me …” Here’s a key point:

I think it’s fair to say that Terry’s original piece implied that one can identify a bona fide Evangelical (or smoke out a covert Mainline Liberal Protestant) based on three questions:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Terry’s three (actually five) questions make perfect sense to him, I’m sure. I suppose a simple “yes” answer to each means passing the Evangelical test. But to me his test questions are too interesting to simply pass or fail. They are jammed full of so many assumptions that they defy a simple yes or no. … As I say in my new book, it’s very hard to understand a different paradigm from the outside.

The problem, of course, is that I stressed that my questions were (a) not about defining who is and who is not an “evangelical,” whatever that word means, and (b) that the goal is not to seek a particular answer, but to listen to what believers — on the left and right — say in response and to gain insights and information from their answers or even their attempts not to answer.

Thus, for example, McLaren’s statement — which he develops in his blog post — that my question No. 1 is actually two questions, that, “Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate?” is a different question than, “Did this event really happen?” is an interesting response, one that would certainly lead to some interesting follow-up questions by the journalist asking it. Ditto for “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone?” being different than, “Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?”

In this day and age, asking these particular these questions often lead to interesting answers and interesting silences. That’s why I remain convinced, as a journalist, that they are helpful questions for journalists to ask when seeking doctrinal information to help them make decisions when doing journalism about trends and disputes among liberal Protestants, Pentecostals, traditional Catholics, progressive Catholics, the Orthodox, genuine fundamentalists, emergent whatevers and the stunningly wide variety of folks who gather under that vague, vague, vague umbrella called “evangelicalism.”

So be careful out there.

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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.

  • Kenton

    tmatt-

    I’m not a journalist, but I roomed with one in college.

    I’m struggling with understanding the point of the trio. On the one hand, you seem to be using them as a quick way to label someone. On the other hand, you’re interested in the conversations they invoke. The trio is made up of yes/no questions, and to me, they sound like they’re coming less from a journalist trying to get a story, and more from an attorney who’s trying to win a case. (Having been on the receiving end of heresy hunts, those are the kinds of questions one hears.)

    If you’re really interested in the conversation and less on the label, maybe you should reword them to be a little more open ended.

    Just my dos centavos.

  • tmatt

    I’m not a journalist, but I roomed with one in college.

    * LOL.

    I’m struggling with understanding the point of the trio. On the one hand, you seem to be using them as a quick way to label someone. On the other hand, you’re interested in the conversations they invoke. The trio is made up of yes/no questions, and to me, they sound like they’re coming less from a journalist trying to get a story, and more from an attorney who’s trying to win a case. (Having been on the receiving end of heresy hunts, those are the kinds of questions one hears.)

    * This is not what the questions sound like in human speech, in the course of an interview or conversation. This is me trying to state them as quickly and cleanly as possible as a kind of typology. Yes-no answers? This rarely happens. See the post from McLaren.

    If you’re really interested in the conversation and less on the label, maybe you should reword them to be a little more open ended.

    * Specific information rarely comes from vague questions. Ask any journalist, even your former roommate.

  • sari

    tmatt,
    That “evangelical” is misused and overused is a fact. But how easy is it really to pin the member of any religious group down? How accurate is what we read about Jews (as if we all adhere to the same set of beliefs/observances), Muslims, various types of Christians, etc.? I cringe every time I hear Hasidim defined as ultra-Orthodox Jews, because a) that tells the reader nothing and b) there’s much more that distinguishes Hasidism from generic ultra-Orthodoxy (whatever that is). I’d feel a lot better about this conversation if you expanded it to the more common problem of reporters attempting to neatly fit messy belief systems into nice, neat little boxes, since it is a systemic problem not unique to evangelicals.

  • Kenton

    Thanks for the reply.

    Just to clarify, I think there is a distinction between “open ended” and “vague.” I’m suggesting the former but hopefully not the latter.

    To wit, I’d prefer to answer question #2 if it were phrased “how do you read John 14:6 where Jesus answers that He is ‘the way, the truth and the life’?”. That’s rather open ended, but not vague. It opens a conversation without introducing an array of assumptions that are wrapped around an idea of “salvation [being] found through Jesus Christ alone.” (What is meant by “salvation”? Does it being found “through Jesus Christ alone” mean only through the Christian religion?) Yes, McLaren elaborated nicely, but then again, he’s made his living as a writer, a minister, and an English professor. I hear that question and imagine I’m a defendant on the stand.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Part of the issue here is that all of these labels have historical and organizational significances as well as pure doctrinal labels. For instance, the Wikipedia article on evangelical Christianity describes it as a “movement”, not a doctrinal position, which I think is a more accurate characterization. It’s clear that in some respects the core emergents like McLaren have some evangelical roots and share some theological values with those more plainly labelled as evangelicals, but they also have a strong input from mainline/modernist theology which the core evangelicals tend not to accept (I’m not expecting a positive assessment of Tillich in the pages of Christianity Today any time soon).

    I personally would tend to refrain from identifying McLaren as an evangelical. It’s pretty clear that both he and the core traditional evangelicals see each other as separate camps. That said, there’s some strong resistance to the emergents being identified as a camp of the same ilk as other theological positions, but as far as McLaren himself is concerned, he and a number of other prominent emergents (e.g. Rob Bell) could be characterized as a common class based upon shared views about polity and theology (and especially theological process), and because of their similar histories. That this class may not encompass everyone emergent is not really relevant, and I suspect that the emergent movement is going to differentiate further. But I think we’ve reached the point where I would characterize McLaren as a voice in opposition to more traditional evangelicalism, and would classify him and Bell (among others) as a distinct position.

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    Excellent post as usual, Terry.

    I have a question. By raising these questions in the direction of McLaren, you’re obviously not necessarily insinuating that he falls short of evangelical standards on these points, because you asked the same question of Billy Graham. But how do you envision the mechanics of this. Let’s say a reporter is tasked with writing about Brian McLaren. He discusses these issues with him, as you discuss. Would the reporter then decide, “Well, I know some people call McLaren an evangelical, but on the basis of his responses I don’t think I should?” And then find another term to use in his report?

  • http://Www.debatingobama.blogspot.com Gregmetzger

    Thanks, Terry, for this follow up. I’ll try to work my way through it carefully and thoughtfully.

  • Evanston2

    “However, mainstream journalists — for better and for worse — have to use this term as clearly as possible.” Let’s chop off the “as clearly as possible” and think about why journalists have to use this term at all. I have only seen the term “evangelical” used in articles that claim the “evangelicals” are like everybody else in lifestyle, voting patterns, etc. So in my experience it is used for hit pieces by journalists who have been fed a study from a liberal interest group. Nothing more. Even organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals seem to be little more than self-appointed poohba’s. Seriously, who knows who these people are and who thinks what they say matters? The NAE web site lists 40 denominations as “members” but does that mean anything beyond a vague desire for “brotherhood” in “the faith?” Do any denominations actually take guidance from them, or do any individual churches/pastors, or do individual worshipers look to them? Do they produce anything more than hot air and papers that gather dust? The word “evangelical” has no pragmatic meaning, so just stop it. Stop using it — leave it to the theologians, who get paid proportionately to their ability to make terms nuanced, complicated, and ultimately useless. News stories should cover actual churches, denominations, etc. and decisions that have an impact in the real world. Quit giving ink to made up movements and issues.


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