Defining “Evangelicals” — important & complicated


Many people refer to themselves as “Evangelical Christians” to distinguish them from others. What is The Guy’s definition?


In Latin America and Europe, “Evangelical” usually means simply “Protestant” of all types. Thus the following pertains only to the U.S., where Evangelicalism is an important, potent, and distinctive force within Protestantism, united by conservative belief but complicated in organization. This network or movement consists of conservative denominations, traditionalist factions within other denominations, seemingly countless non-denominational congregations, “para-church” ministries of all sorts, and a subculture with its own schools and homeschools, radio and TV broadcasts, preachers and evangelists, authors and publishers, Web sites, vocational associations — even favored musicians, financial gurus, and other in-group celebrities.

Randall Balmer, the religion chair at Dartmouth, says Evangelicalism has long since become “the most influential religious and social movement in American history,” in his Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism. He defines an Evangelical as one who believes in the “conversion” or “born again” experience as the criterion for entering heaven, and “takes the Bible seriously as God’s revelation,” interpreted more or less literally. The Guy would expand on key traits like so:

1) Yes, a personalized, conscious commitment to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord is central, though this doesn’t necessarily involve a specific “born again” or conversion experience, particularly for those raised Christian.

2) Yes, the Bible is God’s Word and the sole source of authority, interpreted as literally as contexts allow, and trusted as reliable or “infallible” — and for some, historically “inerrant.”

3) In addition, since Evangelicals cherish the “evangel” (Greek for “good news,” referring to the Christian message) they’re notably “evangelistic” or missionary-minded in spreading it at home and abroad.

4) It’s important to add their commitment to classical Christian doctrines and morals, based upon the Bible.

However, some Evangelicals shun doctrinal statements and favor “the Bible only” or “no creed but Christ.” Some groups with an evangelical flavor are not evangelical in theology, for instance “Oneness” Pentecostalists who reject the orthodox doctrine of Christ. So do Jehovah’s Witnesses, yet journalists sometimes mislabel them “Fundamentalists” because they’re literalistic on the Bible, and evangelistic.

Speaking of Fundamentalists, The Guy would consider them the militant or hard-shell wing within Evangelicalism.

Other definitional details:

Members of conservative denominations that are large or have distinct tenets are Evangelicals but may identify themselves more by their church (e.g. “non-instrumental” Churches of Christ, Mennonites and other pacifist groups, Missouri Synod Lutherans, most Pentecostalists, the Salvation Army, Seventh-day Adventists, Southern Baptists).

Some emphasize End Times prophecies, fostered especially by “Dispensationalist” theology taught by many radio preachers and Bible colleges and popularized by those Left Behind novels and other apocalyptic books. Contrary to some media portrayals, this is almost certainly a minority outlook among Evangelicals. The same with the “prosperity gospel.” Many Evangelical churches have informal worship with contemporary music, but many do not, so this is no defining characteristic.

Media coverage since the Reagan days associates Evangelicalism with conservative and Republican politics. There’s obvious overlap, especially on moral issues, but this is not part of the religious definition. Some Evangelicals are politically liberal, and party alignments are always subject to change.

African-American Protestants are very often evangelical in style and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in doctrine, yet have such a unique heritage and social role that they are considered a separate Christian category.

Finally, Evangelicals are a very important faction within another major Protestant category, the predominantly white “Mainline” denominations (Episcopal, Presbyterian USA, United Methodist, etc.) that are pluralistic in theology. Careful surveys by political scientists with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have shown “traditionalist” Mainliners (in other words, Evangelicals) are distinctly more conservative on doctrine, morality, and views of the Bible than others in their denominations. They form one-fourth of the Mainline membership, though numbers are shrinking as liberalism exercises increasing power.

Using Pew numbers, if we combine those Mainline traditionalists with other Evangelicals and the Latino Protestants, who are heavily evangelical, then Evangelicals all told constitute as much as a third of adult Americans, by far the nation’s biggest religious bloc.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • Camino1

    This article does not explain the history of the development of Evangelicalism v. Fundamentalism in the US, which is why there is a separate category here and not in other countries.

    Understanding this will clarify why African Americans do not tend to self-identify as Evangelicals, having never been part of the “moderinism” conflict among whites.

  • Gregory Peterson

    My definition of “Evangelical” is: “White Protestants who say they love me, when they obviously don’t.”

    • Adrian Warnock

      Ouch Gregory, sounds like you may have had some bad experiences. I am praying and working for a day when you hear the word Evangelical and think “those are people who love EVERYBODY, motivated by the love they believe Jesus has shown them.”

      When I tried to define “Evangelical” myself I found it really difficult. Here is my attempt:

      • Gregory Peterson

        I actually enjoyed my religious upbringing in the Methodist church…but it eventually… it seemed to offer rationalizations erected upon rationalizations as theology. That’s not enough. I don’t want rationalizations, however scholarly or heart felt, I want a certain sort of intellectual integrity.

        Never mind if Jesus is a Person of the One Godhead, fully God and fully human…why would early Christians want/need/make Jesus into a god/God? Why would/should I?

        Perhaps It’s from being sleep deprived, but after reading your link…it also seems to offer me rationalizations for why various Evangelical movements believe as they do, rather than why they would want to believe as they do, and what they get from believing as they do,,, in this life.

        Why would one want to believe in biblical inerrancy? What’s the American history of that belief? Having studied the anti-abolitionist and anti-Civil Right’s movements, I think I may have a clue to those questions. I suspect that if you could know if something is inerrant, you would be God…and why would I want to be God?

        I could well be wrong, I’m an eccentric artist, not a theologian or historian of the church, but I think Calvin picked up predestination from Augustine.

        What do Calvinists get from being Calvinists? My unsubstantiated opinion, at this time of the night anyway, is that Calvinism is inclined to authoritarianism.

        How come the statements of beliefs/faith never seem to have a belief or faith in the Golden Rule?

        • Adrian Warnock

          To answer your last question first, the golden rule is about our behaviour rather than what we believe. But it does concern me that increasingly evangelicals do not have a reputation for love. Some of that is the media. Some of it is our fault. I do see that changing in the future, however. Evangelicals are waking up to the massive opportunities that an age of austerity presents us to demonstrate the love of God. As for what we get in this world from our beliefs, we get a hope that is unshakable even by death or impending death, we get a joy that remains even if we are struck down by sorrow or depression, we get a peace that nobody else understands. Thats a good start!

          • Gregory Peterson

            I think Karen Armstrong would agree with me that the Golden Rule is a belief, which like other beliefs, influences our behavior.

          • Adrian Warnock

            What we believe about ourselves, and about our neighbors, and about God influences how we behave. Love is an action. There is not much on actions in the typical statement of faith. This is because, once you accept that Jesus is the son of God, that he is worthy of worship, that he died and rose again for us, and that he is coming back, well you kind of tend to want to do what he says. Perhaps one problem we have in some churches today is that we don’t pay enough attention on the whole “how then should we act in light of all this” question. In the past I think pastors tended to assume that their people could work that out for themselves. These days I am not so sure! Still most Christians I know believe in Loving God and loving your neighbor, but perhaps we could do a better job of both explaining that, and better yet DEMONSTRATING it.

  • Matt Davis

    You know the exchange between the Eskimo and the Evangelical Missionary, don’t you?

    “It seems a Christian missionary was visiting with remote Inuit (aka, Eskimo) people in the Arctic, and had explained to this particular man that if one believed in Jesus, one would would go to heaven, while those who didn’t, would go to hell.

    The Inuit asked, “What about all the people who have never heard of your Jesus? Are they all going to hell?’

    The missionary explained, “No, of course not. God wants you to have a choice. God is a merciful God, he would never send anyone to hell who’d never heard of Jesus.”

    The Inuit replied, “So why did you tell me?”

    The rather obvious answer to the Inuit’s question is this: “In order to coerce you to join my religion.”

    In other words, the joke is actually an illustration of the psychologically coercive nature of religion in general and the myth of Hell in particular. Most people won’t see this, however, unless it is pointed out to them.”

  • Jerry

    When I heard that Pope Francis has emphasized evangelizing, the question of non-evangelical evangelizing wandered into my brain. Then there are Catholic Evangelicals.

    Starting from “normal”, non-theological English, it seems reasonable to me that Evangelicals (noun) would evangelize (verb) based on how nouns and verbs are formed formed. Theology is clearly not “normal” English.

    Then, of course, you have a word as used by experts and the same word differently than used in public discourse. Hacking of course is a golf term.

    Maybe we should just start over with some new words?

  • Allan477

    Originally, at the time of the Reformation, “Evangelical” meant “Lutheran” and even today most Lutheran Churches have the word “Evangelical” in their legal title. However, I find that most Lutherans want nothing to do with these recent, so-called “Evangelical” groups.