Defining “Evangelicals” — important & complicated

PAUL IN VIRGINIA ASKS:

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

THE GUY ANSWERS:

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.

500 years later, how do Protestants and Catholics view each other?
Are tattoos OK for Jews and Christians?
What are America's biggest Christian groups?
How -- and why -- did John the Baptist baptize Jesus?
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.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X