It’s Officially Time to Redefine 'Evangelical'

The term has been hijacked by politics for too long.

In the 1987 cult classic movie The Princess Bride, actor Wallace Shawn’s character constantly uses the word “inconceivable” to describe pretty much everything he encounters. Finally, Mandy Patinkin’s iconic Inigo Montoya says what everyone watching is thinking:

“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means,” he says.

During the past few months, I keep having Montoya-like responses to the term “evangelical.” This election season—even more than others, it seems—cable news personalities and pundits throw the term around every few minutes. As we’ve moved through the primary elections, it seems like every single state we hear about factors in the so-called “evangelical vote.” And pretty much since the beginning of the season, we’ve heard “evangelical” in dramatic headlines, like “The Key to Iowa: Evangelical Voters.”

The way I keep hearing the term makes less and less sense compared to what I know about it. After all, “evangelicalism” really has nothing to do with politics—at least, not in its original form. Increasingly, I’m not alone in this frustration. Last week, Russell Moore, wrote in the Washington Post that he may not even be comfortable with the term “evangelical” anymore.

“The word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways, the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of ‘evangelical,’ seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities.”

What Is an ‘Evangelical’ Anyway?

When it comes to actually defining "evangelical," the task seems both simple and endlessly complex.

At its root, the term draws on the Greek (the language of the New Testament) word for “good news," referring specifically to the good news (the Gospel) of Jesus Christ. In this sense, evangelical refers to a person, church or organization committed to this good news of Jesus. Because of that, Martin Luther first began using the term “evangelical” to describe the Protestant churches coming out of Roman Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation. These churches, at least in theory, were established on the authority of the message of the Gospel, not what they see as the human authority of the Roman Church.

At its best, evangelicalism still stands for the same thing: A group of Christians and churches who build their beliefs and work around the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But this makes the cable news version of evangelicalism all the more confusing.

Perhaps the most widely held definition you’ll see comes from David Bebbington in his famous book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. He describes four characteristics that define an evangelical: Biblicism (holding the Bible as God's authoritative word); Crucicentrism (placing the cross of Christ at the center of their teaching and preaching); Activism (participating in the mission of God through evangelism and charitable work); and Conversionism (teaching that each person must turn from sin and believe in the work of Christ).

These four characteristics, though they’re not always agreed on, generally describe who evangelicals are. But just as much as they suggest unity among evangelicals, it’s hard to miss how much flexibility this leaves for both beliefs and practices. This is why the movement, outside these few core identity markers, is so difficult to generalize. Historian Doug Sweeny highlights this tension in his book The American Evangelical Story. He writes:

Not only do evangelicals come in different shapes and sizes, but they also participate in hundreds of different denominations—some of which were founded in opposition to some of the others! The vast majority are Protestant, but even among the Protestants there are Lutheran, Reformed and Anabaptist evangelicals. There are Anglicans, Methodists, Holiness people and Pentecostals. There are Calvinists and Arminians. Some evangelicals go to churches that are overseen by bishops, others by presbyteries, while most prove fiercely independent. Some adhere to historic confessions drafted in Augsburg and Westminster. Still others oppose the use of confessions altogether.

There has never been—and there never will be—an evangelical denomination, despite the references one hears to the evangelical church.

At its best, evangelicalism still stands for the same thing: A group of Christians and churches who build their beliefs and work around the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But this makes the cable news version of evangelicalism all the more confusing.

A Political Demographic?

While certainly, evangelicals have exerted influence on whatever society they find themselves in (think Luther, William Wilberforce, etc.), the politicization of American evangelicalism seems to have formalized in the early 1980s with the founding of the political group "The Moral Majority." The group’s purpose was to consolidate voters who share an ethical outlook similar to the judeo-Christian tradition in order to influence the moral direction of the U.S. through the political process. It’s tough to tell exactly when the term “evangelical” itself began melting, but this election season, it's clear the the word means little more than a lazy demographic category for non-progressive people who aren’t atheists.

To their credit, some of these sources understand the nuance of evangelicalism and try to be fair. But even demographically, how you quantify evangelicals isn’t simple. For example, as this research gathered by NPR shows, Pew Research considers as evangelical anyone who self-identifies as one—leading them to say that 35 percent of the U.S. population is evangelical. Contrast that to Barna Research, which defines an evangelical based on answers to nine theological questions.

This disparity could easily explain some pundits’ confusion when “evangelicals” vote for a certain candidate with seemingly so little in common with them—all those voters may not even be evangelicals in the first place.

The idea that evangelicals would be a consistent voting bloc makes sense on the surface. Largely, Christians do tend to hold similar views on many moral issues. And there’s no denying that those denominations and groups that fit within evangelicalism tend toward one side of the political spectrum. But that shouldn’t mean the ongoing heritage of evangelicals can be reduced to a political subgroup.

Time to Reimagine ‘Evangelical’

Like Moore, many evangelical Christians are tired of this. In his Washington Post piece, he writes:

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Look at the millennial pastors and church planters all over the country. Look at who is in evangelical seminaries, of every denomination. Look at who is flocking to evangelical conferences—from Urbana to Passion to Send North America to The Gospel Coalition. The future of evangelicalism is vibrant, prophetic, theologically-grounded, gospel-centered and unwilling to be anyone’s political mascot.

Evangelical is a magnificent word—a word that resonates with the gospel dissent of Martin Luther and the gospel crusades of Billy Graham. More than that, it is rooted in the New Testament itself that tells us that Jesus saves.

So it’s time redefine—or better, reimagine—what “evangelical” means. If the very heart of the evangelical movement is actively living out the Bible’s message that the world can have hope in the person of Jesus Christ, then nothing could be further from the heart of a true evangelical then siloing off from the rest of the world in order to advance a political agenda. True evangelicalism is not about maintaining a particular earthly kingdom, but about calling people into the kingdom of God.

Of course, there’s probably nothing we can do stop the talking heads and political commentary machine from sputtering the word “evangelical” to talk about any voter south of Washington D.C. But we can, like modern-day Montoyas, challenge the abused term—and then point not to a candidate but to the evangel itself.

Top Comments

Ben Suggs

11

Ben Suggs commented…

So I'm curious, why did you use Ted Cruz's picture here next to the headline of "redefining evangelical"? He seems to be the candidate that lines up with the original meaning the most. In fact, Moore's original article (which I read before this one and that this article seems to re-phrase heavily) was more in response to how "evangelicals" are flocking to Trump.

John Powell

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John Powell commented…

I applaud the divorce of Evangelical Christian influence from politics for the very reason you stated, “…with pastors more concerned about gaining political clout than pointing people toward Christ. And those pastors wouldn't have existed without theological and philosophical precursors that pointed toward political clout/action as the answer to ensure a visible, powerful place for the church in American society.” It was always a false theology that connected political clout with the power of the church in society. Yes, it seemed to work for a while and many still believe it is a preferred and even biblical method, but the church has never needed the state for its power, protection or influence in society. If “evangelical” was synonymous with politics, then the term must be discarded for the premise was always false and was built on sand. The two never should have been married to begin with. I think the conservative church needs to reform its beliefs of the kingdom of God and its relationship to democracy, politics and power and discover that we are not called to be the moral gatekeepers in society. When the church is humble and on mission it will find it is the salt and light our culture needs, but change and influence will not come from the world of politics.

14 Comments

David Lee Ballard

1

David Lee Ballard commented…

I'd argue that it's not "secularists" who "don't understand" the meaning of "evangelical", but rather those who've enjoyed the ease of insular ignorance as that terminology was co-opted for decades for political manipulation and gratuitous condemnation of those not fitting the "Christian Model". Many words have more than one meaning - "secularists" and all others who've spent their lives on the receiving end of the Right-Wing Political Juggernaut know EXACTLY the meaning of "evangelical". Don't patronize and condescend by blaming the misunderstanding on "them".

Leo Briones

1

Leo Briones commented…

There is actually an ugly truth to what we have come to know as Evangelical Christianity in America. It's association with the Right Wing of the GOP and so-called socially conservative elements in our society have been nothing but a veneer for a powerful racist streak in our society that believes Christianity is concomitant with a superior race of people mainly of western European ancestry. So in many ways the modern church in the United States (or at least since the late 70's) has been more of a social movement whose goal was to preserve a very ethnocentric view of history. These racist/fascist instincts are nothing new. Indeed, the Apostle Paul was subject those seeking to make the gospel culturally competitive. He responded in his first letter to the Corinthians by saying, "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." So let us as a body of Christ have a bold faith that speaks in the spirit of truth and that truth is that a large (but thankfully shrinking) element of the modern American church is the wolf if ethnocentric/racism in the clothing of the Gospel. If Jesus had a politic it was extremely independent of the politics of his time. He ignored the Romans...Give Ceasar what is Ceasar's...he called the liberal Pharisee's 'The Bones of Dead Men" (they were considered liberal because they rejected the Temple hierarchy and adhered to flexible Talmudic interpretation. By today's standards they would be conservatives), he said of the conservative Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead and were from the elite class) 'beware of the experts in the law' essentially proclaiming them to be righteous in thought with superficial adherence to the law but because they rejected eternal life they did not truly understand or respect God's plan for out souls (today, we would consider Sadducees limousine liberals.) Obviously, there is a lot of pressure of us as Christians to adhere to our own form of political correctness and not criticize anyone calling themselves a evangelical Christian. I understand people's reluctance to do so, However, no one said this walk would be easy nor without controversy, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." For myself, I have no qualm nor insecurity in saying, "That those who use Christianity as a social gospel meant to judge others and promote cultural superiority are practicing heresy." As for my day-to-day spiritual discipline in interfacing with anyone–liberal or conservative–who tries to misinterpret was CS Lewis called 'Classic Christianity' I simply say, "That great but what does it have to do with the gospel and healing the spirit of the broken?"

Gary Capshaw

1

Gary Capshaw commented…

I think the biggest problem isn't with political commentators, but with Christian and Pseudo-Christians who think Evangelicalism is defined by "conservative" political positions. In essence, when they fall for that lie, they effectively define Christianity by the same thing and that's the Christianity those outside the faith are seeing and rejecting.

Joshua Little

1

Joshua Little commented…

This article doesn't actually propose a new definition at all -- it suggests that we stop pointing to candidates and start pointing to Jesus... is that really a solution to the problem?

If this is your conclusion:

"Of course, there’s probably nothing we can do stop the talking heads and political commentary machine from sputtering the word “evangelical” to talk about any voter south of Washington D.C.
But we can, like modern-day Montoyas, challenge the abused term—and then point not to a candidate but to the evangel itself."

... then you're not trying to redefine anything, or fix the actual problem. The problem, as you described it, is not evangelicals (except for the occasional Jerry Falwell Jr or Robert Jefress, who identify more with fundamentalism anyway), then the solution is not to redefine it. The solution is *exactly* what you said "we probably can't do," which is influence the talking heads and the reporters in DC.

Why do we shrug this off as something we can't do? By your own admission, the problem is that the people using the term evangelical are not doing so with proper attribution or knowledge of the people they're talking about, and the beliefs they hold. They speak in terms of political voting blocs because they think in terms of politics.

There is a way to solve this: get more Christians (and people who understand religion, in general) involved in the mainstream media. Increase ideological diversity in newsrooms. Infuse the journalistic profession with actual ethics. This should be an actual priority for us, and yet we continue to see ourselves as the problem. If someone is telling lies about you, then take the microphone, and correct them... right?

Christoph Koebel

5

Christoph Koebel commented…

Well when the author makes reference to Luther he shows any lack of the German language. The English term "evangelical" must be translated either "evangelisch" which means being Protestant OR evangelikal, which is a much narrow term.

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