Journalists use terms and labels daily to communicate meaning and historical significance to their readers. Now and then a term or label becomes so overused, misused or underused, that a reevaluation of that term or label is needed. While most newsroom discussions are best kept off the news pages due to their sheer banality, the discussion of how to describe groups is relevant. What better way to hash out the discussion than by sharing it with your readers? USA Today's Cathy Lynn Grossman did that for us in an excellent pair of pieces earlier this week that provide an ideal platform for discussing a tricky but very important word for religion reporters: evangelical. Here is how the main piece leads off:
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.
In a very helpful sidebar, someone -- can we presume it was Grossman? -- outlines a short history of the terms "fundamentalist" and "evangelical." The origin of the terms comes down to "different views on how to be a faithful Christian," and that is exactly why the terms matter so much.
The problem for journalists, as these words slide into obscurity as useful words in daily journalism, is what to replace them with. What should journalists call Christians who maintain the "inerrancy of Scripture" and "belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as 'separate but equal in attributes and glory' and essential for salvation"?