McCain and "evangelicals" -- whatever

watchrod 1No wonder millions of young, biblically conservative young people no longer want to be known as "evangelicals." You have to keep asking the question that your GetReligionistas have been asking since the dawn of blogging: What in the world does "evangelical" mean, anyway? The Washington Post ran yet another piece this week that perfectly illustrates that "evangelical" is quickly becoming the new "fundamentalist."

While Sen. Barack Obama continues to struggle with his advanced Trinity studies, the mainstream press has -- with valid cause -- continued to probe the fringe of the Christian conservatives that Sen. John McCain frantically courted while fighting for his political life.

This particular blast focuses on the Rev. Rod Parsley, who believes that abortion is wrong, that homosexuality is sin and that traditional Christians should view Islam roughly the same way that traditional Muslims view Christianity. In other words, he is very controversial. He is a loud and proud Prosperity Gospel superpreacher.

And McCain sought his help, trying to build bridges to the Christian right:

Images of one of the nation's rising stars of television evangelism are widely available on DVDs and Web sites, with sermons that are almost certain to inflame some segment of the voting public. But in its quest to secure support from evangelical Christians, the campaign of presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain did not note a long record of inflammatory statements by Parsley and the Rev. John Hagee of Texas, another TV evangelist, until long after McCain had accepted their endorsements.

The move backfired ... when clips of the ministers' sermons gained national attention, prompting McCain to reject their support. The candidate's abrupt turnabout brought criticism not only from secular viewers, who questioned why he had aligned himself with controversial religious voices, but also from evangelicals, who said he may have alienated a powerful bloc of potential Republican voters.

"He wants us to support him, but as soon as his back was against the wall, he overreacted. He is now less likely to get the evangelical vote and will have a difficult time getting strong endorsements from other ministers," said Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., founder and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, an evangelical group that advises ministers on political and policy issues.

"For McCain to have to repudiate these people is much worse than ever having their endorsement in the first place,'' said Doug Wead, a political consultant who ranked 1,000 evangelical pastors for former president George H.W. Bush to court for endorsements. "If evangelical Christians feel this is an attack on them, even if they don't agree with Parsley and Hagee or follow them, it could galvanize them against McCain."

Once again, the assumption is that Parsley is somehow, truly, a typical "evangelical," as opposed to Anglican evangelicals, Southern Baptist evangelicals, Pentecostal black evangelicals, United Methodist evangelicals, Evangelical Presbyterian evangelicals, etc., etc. Who are the people who are supposed to be offended that McCain cut loose someone who is in no way connected to most, let alone all, of the divergent strands of whatever evangelicalism is? Is Parsley a Charisma evangelical, a Christianity Today evangelical, a World evangelical, or what?

Here is what we get, in terms of fitting this man -- who I freely admit I have never heard of -- into the larger picture.

At age 51, he is more than two decades younger than Pat Robertson, the 78-year-old chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and is considered to be among the next generation of leaders who will be major political players. Last year, the Religion News Service called Parsley one of the nation's top 10 influential "kingmakers."

Using his mega-church, his television and radio shows, and two best-selling books. Parsley elevated his status among the political elite. In 2004, he campaigned for President Bush in Ohio, where he won a narrow victory.

I guess I need to start watching Larry King Live, a venue reached by Parsley once or twice.

Clearly we are at the stage where we cannot assume that one isolated pastor of one megachurch can somehow be described as a power broker of such a large a diverse group of people.

My advice? Skip the labels. Tell us the details about what a person believes and does. Don't label the beliefs, either. Just lay them out. Describe the person's allies and the networks in which he or she moves. Just report. Please. The labels are becoming more and more meaningless.

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