Who is an evangelical? Who isn’t? Who says so?

Having thus, according to his own opinion, explained how a clergyman should show himself approved unto God, as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, [Obadiah Slope] went on to explain how the word of truth should be divided; and here he took a rather narrow view of the question; and fetched arguments from afar. His object was to express his abomination of all ceremonious modes of utterance, to cry down any religious feeling which might be excited, not by the sense, but by the sound of words, and in fact to insult the cathedral practices. Had St Paul spoken of rightly pronouncing instead of rightly dividing the word of truth, this part of his sermon would have been more to the purpose; but the preacher’s immediate object was to preach Mr Slope’s doctrine, and not St Paul’s, and he contrived to give the necessary twist to the text with some skill.

– Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Chap. 6 “War” (1857)

I am pretty sure I know what an evangelical is — someone who believes and worships as I do.

Don’t press me too hard on this point. For the past 15 years I have written for The Church of England Newspaper, since 1828 the voice of the Evangelical party of the Church of England. Trollope refers to our august publication in Barchester Towers under its name at that time “The Record” with disdain, noting the odious Obadiah Slope, the oily chaplain to Bishop Proudie, is a “Recordite.” Evangelical for me is a set of beliefs and style of churchmanship. And it is a particular party affiliation.

Now I will not be the first Episcopalian or Anglican to systematize the Christian world according to our particular prejudices: there are Catholics, the Orthodox, foreigners — everyone else who speaks English should properly be an Episcopalian. Sadly the world has not been persuaded of the merits of these arguments. Nor do I expect my suppositions on who is an Evangelical to be the final word.

The Rev. Billy Graham for one, as tmatt has reported at GetReligion, will not define an evangelical. One of tmatt’s more frequent story lines is “define evangelical. Give three examples.” He also has devised a test, the tmatt trio, that places a Christian on the spectrum of belief, that many argue (tmatt disagrees) roughly corresponds to evangelical belief.

(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?

Yet these questions could be answered the same way by Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, even Episcopalians (well some of us at any rate.) Placing my arch attempts at Anglican humor to one side, I agree with tmatt, (and Billy Graham) that it is quite hard to define an evangelical today.

However, I will stick out my neck and say a recent article in FaithStreet misuses the word evangelical. What it wants to say and should have said was “proselytize.”

The article entitled “Hare Krishna Gets Evangelical” with the subheading “The fringe Hindu faith is rebranding itself in America — with evangelical techniques” does an excellent job in reporting on the state of movement. The author, Rosalie Murphy, does a terrific job in discussing the trajectory of the group from a “hippie” counter cultural movement to a faith dominated today by immigrants from India. The article discusses attempts by the first and recent wave of American converts to return the Hare Krishna movement to the mission field and convert Americans.

A caveat about the text of the article is that I would have welcomed hearing from those who do not want the Hare Krishna movement to change. Is everyone in the Krishna Consciousness movement, American converts and Indian immigrants, agreed on the need to break free from the faith’s Indian trappings?

The article presents the issues of acculturation — can the Krishna Consciousness movement adopt the culture of its local environment, while retaining its faith principles? But the language the author uses is too imprecise. Christian vocabulary and its theological constructs are not readily applicable to Hinduism.

What drives Krishna West, however, is not merely a desire to adapt, but a profound evangelical spirit. Resnick and Penney believe Hare Krishna can bring peace to American lives. Devotees believe chanting Hare Krishna, much like prayer, brings divine energy into the chanter, which she can then use to better her community.

Dictionary definitions of the word place it firmly within the context of the Christian faith. As the National Association of Evangelicals notes:

The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

I understand what the editors mean by using Evangelical/evangelical. They are seeking to draw upon the mental imagery of Christian proselytism in Western culture. But is this shorthand cultural reference accurate or fair to The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON)? Or, is the choice of Christian language in describing ISKCON proselytism a conscious reference to the concept of Sanatana-Dharma, the Hindu “eternal law” that other faiths can uncover?

This is the kind of language issue that journalists in the mainstream press must take seriously. That’s what we do here at this blog. So what do you think, readers?

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  • Julia B

    I can’t locate it off the top of my head, but I have read that at the same time that Christianity was first becoming known in the Roman Empire, there was a similar movement from Rome to proclaim the good news of the Emperors being gods. So they were competing in proclaiming good news. And “bible” only means “book”.
    Second point: I can understand not thinking it a good idea for Hindus or people describing them to use the term “evangelical”. But the terms “evangelists, evangelize” and the like pre-exist actual “Evangelicals” so I don’t have a problem with using those other words to describe spreading the faith/good news of their beliefs. But Evangelical – no.

  • Joshua Jeffery

    The term evangelical has been used in Western Christianity for at least a couple of hundred years, and while we have a hard time defining it now (and I think the tmatt trio is a very poorly crafted litmus test to determine membership in evangelicalism for multiple reasons), the historical meaning of the word has also shifted over time. While proselytize might be a more accurate word to describe what they are trying to accomplish, I don’t know that evangelical is necessarily the absolutely wrong word to convey the idea. Especially when the reporter is using the word as an adjective. If the reporter was using the name as a noun, I think you’d have a much tighter case.

  • http://about.me/brett.pavia Brett Francis Anthony Pavia

    Early Lutherans were known as Evangelical Catholics and oftentimes use the term evangelical as part of their synod and/or local church name. Yet somehow Lutherans are often kept off the lists people make of evangelical churches. Strange right?

    • helen

      Some Lutherans still define themselves as evangelical catholics…small “e”, small “c”.
      As a Lutheran, I don’t want to be on “the lists people make of Evangelical churches”, since they are almost always meaning Reformed denominations, (or non-denominations).
      [And some members of those who I've read on the lists are vitriolically anti-Lutheran (and anti-Roman Catholic). They don't appear to know much about either one, in fact, but that doesn't slow them down.]

      “Evangelical” is a word used by Christians. Other groups using Christian words to describe themselves tend to want to say, “All roads lead to heaven.”

      Jesus Christ said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man comes to the Father but by Me.”

      So, no, geoconger, let’s not confuse the situation by using Christian terms for non Christian activities.

  • Matt

    “Evangelical” basically means “of the Gospel.” George is right to speak of it as a party label. Like “Democratic” and “Republican,” the word “evangelical” has a basic meaning that no one opposes and has been claimed by different, and sometimes diametrically opposed, Christian subgroups over the years. Some of the other comments here are basically pointing out examples of this.

    But this really has little to do with the Hare Krishna article under review. In this case, the reporter simply used the wrong word. Instead of “evangelical,” she should have said “evangelistic,” with the meaning “dedicated to spreading the message.”

    • Asemodeus

      Actually the term evangelical was a hold off from what happened after the scopes monkey trial. Back then fundamentalism was the prevailing label until it was stained by that trial. It took a while for religious leaders to come up with a new slogan that was essentially the same thing. George Barna was the one that first came up with a operational definition of the newer term.

      • Matt

        That does not contradict my account of the nature of the term.
        But I would say that a subset of the fundamentalists looked for a new label to signify that they were steering a somewhat more moderate course, leading to today’s configuration of fundamentalists to the right of evangelicals.

        • Asemodeus

          You forgot to mention the scopes trial as the reason why the term was invented in the first place. You are also wrong in thinking that there is any significant difference between fundamentalist and evangelicals.

          • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Rev_Aggie_98

            Actually, the term Evangelical came out of the Reformation as the descriptor of those who preached in accordance with the Augsburg Confession. It was later co-opted by other groups.