Please define 'evangelical' (yet again)

USA evangelicals2If you type the word "evangelicals" into Google Images, the art attached to the top of this post is the very first thing that turns up. This tells us quite a bit about how most Americans now define the vague word "evangelical." Even Wikipedia is better than this strictly political image and -- horrors -- you can see the battles over what the word means by reading the start of the "evangelicalism" entry at that mixmaster site:

The word evangelicalism often refers to a broad collection of religious beliefs, practices, and traditions which are found among Protestant Christians and some Catholics. Evangelicalism is typified by an emphasis on evangelism, a personal experience of conversion, biblically oriented faith and a belief in the relevance of Christian faith to some cultural issues. Historically, the movement began in the early 18th century as a response to Enlightenment thinking. It stressed a more personal relationship with God at the individual level; as well as activism based upon one's biblically based beliefs.

Current media usage of the term (especially in the United States), is often synonymous with conservative Protestant Christians. This is only partly accurate, as the movement embraces a wide range of expressions of faith around the four core characteristics.

Notice, again, the entire history of the term Protestant, yet somehow we now have Catholics who apparently vote evangelical, which means there are Catholics who are now evangelical Protestants. The terrible phrase in the Wiki definition is the one that says evangelicals share a "biblically oriented faith" -- which could mean just about anything. Thus, all the confusion. But it is not my intent to open up that subject for debate, yet again.

No, what caught my eye this time was a recent New York Times story by veteran religion writer Laurie Goodstein, which makes a solid attempt to add some clarity on the diversity of "evangelical" views on at least one issue that is hard to label as "liberal" or "conservative."

Thus, the headline: "Coalition of Evangelicals Voices Support for Palestinian State." This coalition is stressing that both Jews and Palestinians have rights "stretching back for millennia" to territory in the Holy Lands. These leaders have issued a letter calling for the creation of a Palestinian state that includes the "vast majority of the West Bank."

Now, who are these people?

The letter is signed by 34 evangelical leaders, many of whom lead denominations, Christian charities, ministry organizations, seminaries and universities.

They include Gary M. Benedict, president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, a denomination of 2,000 churches; Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Gordon MacDonald, chairman of World Relief; Richard E. Stearns, president of World Vision; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Berten A. Waggoner, national director and president of The Vineyard USA, an association of 630 churches in the United States.

"This group is in no way anti-Israel, and we make it very clear we're committed to the security of Israel," said Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which often takes liberal positions on issues. "But we want a solution that is viable. Obviously there would have to be compromises."

Once again, you can see how hard it is to use political labels in this context -- especially in a short news report.

What in the world does it mean that Sider and company often take "liberal positions on issues"? That is simply far too vague. What issues? Is it "liberal" to favor economic justice? Is that politically "liberal" or theologically "liberal"? Sider, by the way, is consistently pro-life and a doctrinal conservative on sexuality issues.

You can see this struggle later in the article, as well:

In the last year and half, liberal and moderate evangelicals have initiated two other efforts that demonstrated fissures in the evangelical movement. Last year, they parted with the conservative flank by campaigning against climate change and global warming. This year, they denounced the use of torture in the fight against terrorism. Some of the participants in those campaigns also signed this letter.

I do not fault Goodstein in any way for this confusion between political "evangelicalism" and doctrinal "evangelicalism." Truth is, the word is all but meaningless right now. The reporter is caught in an impossible situation.

9780801025778However, by the end of the piece Goodstein manages to squeeze in an authoritative voice (and I must confess that he is a friend and former teaching colleague of mine) who can crisply note the nature of the doctrinal debate that looms behind this debate over Israel and Palestine.

There is a crucial theological difference between Mr. (John) Hagee's views on Israel and those expressed by the letter writers, said Timothy P. Weber, a church historian, former seminary president and the author of "On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend."

Mr. Hagee and others are dispensationalists, Mr. Weber said, who interpret the Bible as predicting that in order for Christ to return, the Jews must gather in Israel, the third temple must be built in Jerusalem and the Battle of Armageddon must be fought.

Mr. Weber said, "The dispensationalists have parlayed what is a distinctly minority position theologically within evangelicalism into a major political voice."

Now, most run-of-the-mill newspaper readers who make it this far are almost certainly going to have to ask, "What in the world is a dispensationalist?" And, there is no way around it -- this is another big word worth arguing about.

But at least it's the right word and a highly precise one at that.

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