Define evangelical: give three examples before Nov. 2

That sound you hear right now on the Religious Right is stunned silence about the president's change of heart on same-sex unions. The rank and file are trying to figure out why President Bush did one of the only things he could possibly do to drown the enthusiasm of his base a few days before the election. Not only did he go Sister Souljah on them, he didn't seem aware -- surprise -- of the reality-based details of the issue at hand. Frankly, I have also been amazed at the low-key media response. Everyone knows that Bush needs a massive pew-gap turn out from religious conservatives to win, or his strategists sure seem to think so.

Thus, we have seen some coverage of the complexity -- which is real, by the way -- that is found among voters on the evangelical, "born again" and culturally conservative side of the aisle. It's time to start reminding people that it is immature, or even bad theology, to go into the voting booth and pull that lever based on one or two religious issues, such as abortion. It's time for religious conservatives to be more mature and nuanced. Here is a sample from a Christianity Today editorial along these lines.

The dark side of single-issue politics is that it has forced evangelicals to become ever more shrill and ever less imaginative. Dominant-issue politics shows greater promise in addressing our society amid all the pressing issues our society faces, including terrorism, economic justice, church-state relations, gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, and so on.

Abortion is a monstrous tragedy for the nation, but our Christian commitment to a culture of life does not permit us the luxury of abandoning other important issues. While single-mindedness in following Christ is always wise, single-issue voting may not be.

This is the kind of language that makes Republicans have nightmares and lash out. Take my word for it. I've got people writing me angry emails right now saying that I tried to take Bush down a notch or two in my Scripps Howard column this week.

There is no way to know the motives of journalists involved in writing these stories, so don't even try to go there. But this is a real story. The bottom line is that the world of evangelicalism is more complex than people in some newsrooms (and many pulpits) want to admit. Thus, there is no one "evangelical" view on Bush.

For starters, it is hard to know what any of the old religious labels mean, anymore. It might help some reporters to glance through materials posted at the home page of George Barna, one of America's most influential pollsters on all things "evangelical."

It is important to note that Barna separates "evangelicals" from the "born again" and he says that a mere 8 percent of the nation qualifies as "evangelical." Here is how he defines this flock:

We categorize an evangelical based upon their answers to nine questions about faith matters. Those included in this segment meet the criteria for being born again; say their faith is very important in their life today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that the eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing , all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Thus, evangelicals are a subset of the born again population.

In other words, Barna uses doctrinal standards to define this term -- a kind of free-church Protestant creed. This is a frightening concept to many low-church Protestants, especially Baptists. Barna's definition of "born again" is different. It is experiential. "Born again" believers are people who say that they have been "born again" and have some kind of ongoing relationship with the Christian faith, however they choose to define this. According to Barna, 33 percent of the nation is "born again," but not truly "evangelical."

Meanwhile, another 44 percent of the population gets any even foggier label -- "notional Christians." Notional Christians are people who say they are Christians -- period. And what does the term "Christian" mean in this context? Who knows. For a look at the rest of Barna's labels and definitions, click here.

Please remember that this is one merely set of definitions. I once asked Billy Graham if he could define "evangelical" and he said he had no idea what the word meant. One person's evangelical is another's fundamentalist. Ask the New York Times. Another person's "moderate" evangelical is another's heretic. Ask Bill Clinton, or Tony Campolo, or the theology departments at many Baptist schools.

So there are evangelicals who are pro-life, but oppose Bush on all kinds of justice and peace issues. There are evangelicals whose "sola scriptura" approach to the Bible has led them to swing left on issues of sexual morality. There are lots of evangelicals who love "Will & Grace" and "Oprah" and think it's just time for everybody to get along. Maybe their voices are hard to hear in the barrage of media coverage of the Christian right, but these progressive evangelicals are out there and they plan to vote for Kerry. Take that, Jerry Falwell.

For a glimpse into this world, click here and listen in as Chicago Sun-Times religion writer Cathleen Falsani visits with five of her Wheaton College roommates. Here is her survey of this evangelical landscape:

Moderate evangelicals, who hold more-or-less traditional Christian beliefs but are slightly less active in church than those who better fit the "religious right" stereotype, make up about 10 percent of the electorate, according to John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

Then there are the liberal evangelicals, more theologically liberal than their moderate brethren but still firmly encamped inside evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention. This most curious minority, which makes up about 2.5 percent of voters, could end up swinging the election in Sen. John Kerry's favor, Green and other pol watchers say.

Reporter Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times recently ventured into the same corner of the electorate in a story entitled: "Conflicted Evangelicals Could Cost Bush Votes." You can almost hear the copy desk cheering as that headline went to the press.

Once again, the emphasis is on the "freestyle evangelicals" who, more than anything else, abhor the Religious Right. Many are pro-life Democrats who have been locked out of their own party's halls of power. Some are Catholic Republicans who wish they could get Republicans to read Vatican documents on war and peace, social justice, health care, labor and other non-conservative concerns. Every now and then, these concerns bubble into public view. Wallsten notes one major example:

Within the evangelical community, the complicated fabric of politics was underscored this month when the board of the National Assn. of Evangelicals unanimously approved a document laying out a new "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." The document embraces traditional opposition to abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But it also mirrors aspects of the Democratic Party platform, quoting scripture to endorse policies that encourage racial and economic equity and promote a cleaner environment.

"You can't shoehorn the Bible into one political party's ideology," said Richard Cizik, a vice president of the association and an author of the report.

This affects ordinary people as well as policy documents.

Here is one sample, from a Wallsten interview with a frustrated evangelical named Wendy Skroch in the battleground state of Wisconsin. She is not alone and, in a race this tight, her voice matters. Is she a Democrat from the age before Roe v. Wade? Is she a Republican who has been mugged by economic realities? Listen.

A speech pathologist who works part time at a senior care center and has three children, Skroch said she sees firsthand the problems of the healthcare system. Her family's insurance plan doesn't cover their needs. Bush did nothing to fix the system, she said.

One day Kerry showed up at her office for a campaign visit. A woman asked the Democrat why he voted against the ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion. To Skroch's dismay, she said, he didn't have an answer.

"I feel disenfranchised," she said. "Sometimes I think the best thing for me to do if I can't make up my mind is to just not vote."

Please respect our Commenting Policy