Define ‘evangelical’ — 2013 edition

List America’s prominent evangelical Protestant voices and the Rev. Rick Warren remains near the top, up in the mix with the Rev. Brian McLaren, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Jim Wallis, the Rev. Tim Keller and others.

Many evangelicals, of course, like to argue about who belongs on that list. In recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that the experts are finding it harder to decide who is and who is not an “evangelical” in the first place.

“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branch congregations and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”

The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelistic efforts to reach the lost, the defense of biblical authority, projects to help the needy and the conviction that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.

Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a term used in church history — got “co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren, in a recent telephone interview.

Arguments about this vague word are not new. During a 1987 interview with the Rev. Billy Graham, I asked him point blank, “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?”

The world’s best-known evangelist responded, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.” Ultimately, Graham said an “evangelical” is someone who preaches salvation through faith in Jesus and believes all the doctrines in the Nicene Creed — especially in the resurrection.

Warren said he would certainly agree with Graham’s bottom line, which is that “evangelical” must be defined in terms of doctrine. The problem is that this isn’t how the term is being used in the public square — especially in the news media.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, he said, most journalists “seemed to think seemed to think that ‘evangelical’ meant that you backed the Iraq war, for some reason or another. … Right now, I don’t think there is any question that way too many people have decided that evangelicals are people who oppose gay rights — period. That’s all the word means.”

Warren based this judgment on his experiences during 22 interviews with major newspapers, magazines and television networks — a pre-Christmas blitz marking the release of an expanded, 10th anniversary edition of his book “The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?” The book has sold more than 32 million copies around the world, with translations in 50 languages.

By the end of that media storm, Warren said members of his team were starting to cast bets on whether the perfunctory gay-marriage question would be the first, or the second, question in each interview. On CNN, interviewer Piers Morgan noted that the U.S. Constitution and the Bible are “well-intentioned” but “inherently flawed.”

Morgan continued: “My point to you about gay rights for example — it’s time for an amendment to the Bible.”

Warren, of course, disagreed: “I do not believe the Bible is flawed, and I willingly admit … that I base my worldview on the Bible, which I believe is true, and truth. … It was true 1,000 years ago, it’ll be true 1,000 years from today.”

Time after time, said Warren, interviewers assumed that his beliefs on moral and cultural issues — from salvation to sexual ethics — were based on mere political convictions, rather than on the Bible and centuries of doctrine.

“I’ve decided that don’t have faith, so politics is their religion,” he said. “Politics is the only thing that is really real to many people in our world today. … So if politics isn’t at the center of your life, then many people just can’t understand what you’re saying.”

In the end, said Warren, it may be time for various brands of Protestants — charismatics, Baptists, Wesleyans, Lutherans, Calvinists and others — to stop trying to rally under a common “evangelical” umbrella and to start talking more about the specific traditions that shape their beliefs and actions.

“Maybe ‘evangelical’ will be like the word ‘liberal,’ ” he said. “When that word turned into a negative, all of a sudden everybody on the left turned into ‘progressives’ and they moved right on. … Perhaps it’s time to give ‘evangelical’ a rest.”

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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.


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