Who’s an evangelical? Until last year the answer seemed clear: Evangelical was the label of choice of Christians with conservative views on politics, economics and Biblical morality.
Now the word may be losing its moorings, sliding toward the same linguistic demise that “fundamentalist” met decades ago because it has been misunderstood, misappropriated and maligned.
“Save the E-Word,” was the headline on a fall editorial in Christianity Today, the 50-year-old magazine founded by Billy Graham. It quoted opinion polls in England and the USA showing “the tide has gone out” on the term, increasingly seen as negative and extremist. “When I travel, I call myself a ‘creedal Christian’ now,” says Francis Beckwith, president of the Evangelical Theological Society and a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Mark Bailey, president of the Dallas Theological Seminary and a self-described “biblical Christian,” says “evangelical” is taking a beating because “people who preach values in its name didn’t live up to their values in their actions and politics.”
Conservative Christians claimed President Bush’s re-election as a sign of evangelical power and tried, largely unsuccessfully, to leverage their views in public policy, says John Green, professor of political science at Bowling Green University in Ohio. “They overreached and it backfired for them.”
Ongoing battles over embryonic stem-cell research and end-of-life choices gave an impression that evangelicals wanted to impose sectarian values on society.
The term has become so diluted and covers such a wide spectrum of believers that it no longer clearly identifies specific leaders, programs or ideas.
Evangelicals have no pope, no one person with ultimate authority on belief, says Beckwith. The National Association of Evangelicals is “a loose association of churches and para-churches that held each other accountable and exchanged ideas,” he says, comparing it to Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
If the term evangelical stands for a list of values, “the question is who gets the privilege of creating the list?” asks Bailey. “What happens when people agree theologically,” but differ on priorities?
Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners/Call to Renewal has long advocated an evangelical agenda focused on issues such as peace, anti-poverty, the environment, and religious liberty. Some new groups speaking to and for “evangelicals” on these points include:
An alliance of 40 progressive and liberal Baptist leaders, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who plan to issue a “new Baptist Covenant,” that goes beyond “sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ” to social justice action.
The Institute for Progressive Christianity, a group that describes itself as “firmly rooted in Scripture” and focused on ethics and social justice based in “tolerance, diversity and reason.”
Faithful Democrats, an online community formed by clergy, scholars and commentators. It defended the Rev. Rick Warren after he was blasted by conservatives for inviting abortion-rights advocate Sen. Barack Obama to speak to an AIDS conference at Warren’s California church.
Red-Letter Christians, formed in September, focus on poverty, peace and environment. They emphasize Jesus’ words, which some Bibles highlight in red.
Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, is a Faithful Democrat, a Red Letter Christian and a believer who says he’s going to stick with the word evangelical. “If everyone from Jerry Falwell to Jim Wallis to Rick Warren wants to identify as evangelical, it tells you something about the attractiveness and good character of the term.”
Although 38% of Americans call themselves evangelical, only 9% actually agree with key evangelical beliefs, says research firm the Barna Group. In a surveys of 4,014 adults nationwide, conducted over four months in 2006, “one out of every four self-identified evangelicals has not even accepted Christ as their savior,” says George Barna.
How you see “evangelical” depends on where you stand, says the Rev. Mark Coppenger, founding pastor of the Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and former spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention.
Coppenger still calls himself evangelical “to distinguish myself from the more liberal mainline Christian groups.” But, he adds, “I’m more inclined to call myself a ‘Christian,’ ‘Bible believer,’ ‘Baptist,’ or ‘Southern Baptist.’ “