For the past 20-plus years, the overwhelming majority of my students have come from schools that could, to one degree or another, accurately be described as part of "evangelical" Protestant life here in America.
Yes, there are quotes around the word "evangelical," not because the word is scary, but because many people, including journalists, are not sure what it means.
Early on, most of my students -- when asked what kind of church they attend -- would have described themselves as part of flocks that were "independent," "nondenominational" and "evangelical." A few would have added the word "charismatic." The common denominator, however, was the word "evangelical."
Then, about six or seven years ago, that totally changed. Oh, most of my students still come from schools that can be called "evangelical." Most grew up in "evangelical" churches and most still attend churches that can be called "evangelical" to one degree or another. However, many if not most students are now backing away from that word -- "evangelical."
The reason why is pretty obvious: "Evangelical" has become a political term in public discourse. We are now a full decade since Time magazine named Sen. Rick Santorum, an loyal Catholic, as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. I found that strange, so I called Time to ask about it. I was told that that they knew Santorum was a Catholic, but that he "voted like an evangelical."
This topic -- call it "Define 'evangelical' -- give three examples" -- has been discussed many times here at GetReligion and it came up again this week during our latest Crossroads podcast, when host Todd Wilken and I talked about the long-awaited decision to allow female bishops in the Church of England. Click here to listen to that or subscribe at iTunes.
In my post on that topic, I noted that The New York Times described the opposition to female bishops among one group of English evangelicals, but failed to note that the vast majority of evangelicals in the Anglican world -- especially among charismatic Anglicans -- actually support the ordination of women.
Once again, the word "evangelical" was just in a simplistic and shallow manner -- the generic backwards people. At the same time, The Times team failed to note that the deepest opposition to female priests and bishops is found among Anglo-Catholics and others -- think Rome and the Orthodox East -- whose life is deeply rooted in Church tradition and centuries of doctrine on such matters.
Whatever the word "evangelical" means, in the current context, it is hard to link it to the word "tradition" and certainly note to "Tradition," with a big "T." Evangelicalism is largely a phenomenon of contemporary culture and, well, "niche" culture.
Thus, the word is hard to define and, far too often, the political noise drowns out most rational discussion on this topic. Don't take my word for this. Loyal GetReligion readers (or those who follow my column) may remember the following from 2004:
Ask Americans to rank the world’s most influential evangelicals and the Rev. Billy Graham will lead the list.
So you might assume that the world’s most famous evangelist has an easy answer for this tricky political question: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” If you assumed this, you would be wrong. In fact, Graham once bounced that question right back at me.
“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”
Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.” ...
Long ago, Graham stressed that this term most be understood in doctrinal terms, if it is to be understood at all. He finally defined an “evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.
But who gets to determine what is, and what is not, "evangelical" doctrine? This is why it's so important to realize that evangelicalism is a movement, a subcultural or a market niche -- not an organization, a tradition or, well, even a church. It is also not a political party, as anyone who has studied this topic in America and the Third World would know.
So, should the Times team have noted that many Anglican evangelicals support female bishops? Should the world's most powerful newspaper have noted that the opposition to female bishops could best be described as "catholic" rather than "evangelical"? Certainly.
Will "evangelicalism," whatever that is, divide on other crucial issues in the future? Obviously, because that is already happening. Is there an "evangelical" left? Of course there is. Will it be larger and more powerful in the future? Of course it will.
Why is that? Culture evolves. Is there an evangelical "tradition" to prevent that from happening in many "evangelical" pulpits and pews? Editors at The Times and in other newsrooms need to pay attention to that.
In the end, what is the doctrinal content of the "evangelical" movement and subculture? The bottom line: That depends on who you ask.