Define "evangelical" (or lose your mind)

evangelicals 01Here we go again. As any regular reader knows, your GetReligionistas are rather picky when it comes to how journalists use the imperfect words that describe various religious groups in American and around the world. There's that "fundamentalist" clause in the Associated Press Stylebook, for starters. We are not postmodern journalists. Maybe it's the religious history major in me.

We also have wrestled with one of the vague, foggy, almost meaningless words in American religion -- "evangelical." You think? Long ago, I read a mainstream reference to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's "evangelical" stance on nuclear arms control. What, pray tell, would that have been?

As I keep saying, Billy Graham once told me that he has little or no idea what that word means. So when Billy "The world's best known evangelist" Graham doesn't know what the word means, but the theologians at Newsweek think that they do, then I have questions.

Still, in the spirit of bringing us all together, I think we can all agree that the following reference in the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., just doesn't, well, cut it. Mark Bowden's piece is about the realities that will settle in, once President-elect Obama is truly preparing to sit at The. Big. Desk.

Ready? Brace yourself:

Lowest-common-denominator rhetoric rarely squares with reality, and at best requires artful interpretation. Take, for just one example, Iran, a thorny problem for the United States in the Middle East. It is a bellicose, evangelical Muslim theocracy seemingly bent on building its own nuclear arsenal, with little regard for international law or, for that matter, civilized behavior. Obama was characterized as wanting to capitulate in advance to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while McCain was branded with an ill-considered ditty on the old Beach Boys hit "Barbara Ann" -- he jokingly substituted the words, "Bomb, bomb, bomb/ Bomb, bomb Iran."

Silly as they are, these extremes became part of the debate this year; typically, neither bears much resemblance to reality.

What in the world does "evangelical" -- an adjective -- mean in this context? People who want to spread their religion just like the nasty evangelicals here in America who, I assume, are preparing to invade Canada with troops to settle issues with other believers (think Iran-Iraq war) up there who disagree with them?

Or, is that fact that "evangelical" follows, in a parallel construction, the word "bellicose" all that we need to know?

Whatever the word "evangelical" means, it is linked to a movement with Protestant Christianity, perhaps beginning with the low-church Anglicans and the Methodists, etc., etc.

Honestly. Use your head, journalists. Get a clue.

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