Once more, into the religion-beat word wars (with an emphasis on the often foggy meaning of the word "evangelical")! People who paid close attention to The New Yorker piece on Michele Bachmann now have another reason to parse that text again with a critical eye.
Writing for Religion News Service (posted at Huffington Post), the veteran Godbeat specialist (and progressive evangelical) Cathleen Falsani has taken a critical, fact-driven look at some of the terms tossed around in that magnum opus. While she liked the piece quite a bit, some of its loose labels troubled her.
A veteran on the beat, and a Wheaton College graduate (just like Billy Graham), Falsani was compelled to dig a bit deeper -- especially about the magazine's use of the terms "evangelical," "born-again" and "fundamentalist."
Thus, we read:
It seemed they were employed interchangeably, as if their definitions were synonymous. In popular culture, those terms are shorthand for "staunchly conservative," "small-minded," and "mean-spirited." It's a matter of semantics, but it is spiritually significant.
The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek "evangelion," meaning "the good news" or "the gospel." During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther adopted the word to describe his breakaway church; for hundreds of years thereafter, "evangelical" meant, simply, "Protestant."
That's a good start. But when dealing with issues of history, it's always good to have an authoritative voice to back you up.
Today, in American society the term is used in three ways, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College:
-- Theologically, it is an umbrella term for Christians who believe in the need for conversion, the command to spread the gospel, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the primacy of Jesus Christ's atoning death on the cross.
-- Stylistically, "evangelical" also describes a kind of religious practice as much as a set of doctrines. This is where you really see the diversity of evangelicalism: Mennonites, African-American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Catholic charismatics and Dutch Reformed all fall under the "evangelical-as-a-style" umbrella.
-- Politically, "evangelical" describes a coalition of Protestants (including evangelist Billy Graham) who used the term in an attempt to distance themselves from the "Christian fundamentalist" movements of the 1920s and '30s. Fundamentalism's hallmarks were (and to a certain extent remain) anti-intellectualism, anti-modernity and a belief that the church should not engage with culture. Mainstream evangelicals, by contrast, sought to actively be a part of culture in order to transform it.
Alas, at that point Falsani goes on to adopt the post-Associated Press Stylebook stance on the meaning of "fundamentalist," as opposed to using the historic model that she has already applied to "evangelical."
Still, there is much wisdom to be absorbed in those paragraphs from the Wheaton team.
I would urge reporters to take the same fact-based, as opposed to opinion-based, approach to defining religion terms in general. Look for the history of the terms and see who originated them and who claims them. That is always a wise and prudent place to start.
Those (in newsrooms) who have ears, let them hear.
IMAGE: The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.