That Billy Graham flashback, again: Campolo, Neff and an open evangelical left

It's an old question, but it keeps coming up here at GetReligion and in many other settings online, in journalism and in academia: What does the word "evangelical" mean?

Is this, as many young people insist (including lots of my students), just another name for white Republicans?

Is this a sociological term, describing a movement of people in a specific subset of conservative Protestantism, one best defined in terms of culture, zip codes and upbringing? 

Is it simply a term that describes a specific marketing niche containing conservative Protestants who consume certain types of media, admire specific religious celebrities and support the same parachurch ministries?

Is this a term with precise doctrinal and historical content, one linked to specific confessions of the faith? If "evangelical" is a term with doctrinal content, who has the ecclesiastical power to define or alter that content?

People were arguing about this issue again, of course, In the wake of the media mini-storm surrounding evangelical activist Tony Campolo's long-awaited open embrace of gay marriage, as a doctrinal statement, as well as political policy. GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that this was the topic of my "On Religion" column this week for the Universal syndicate and also the topic of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

For many commentators it was much more significant that recently retired Christianity Today editor David Neff moved to the doctrinal left on gay marriage, in comparison to the rather predictable statement by Campolo. In my column I noted:

Campolo's shift was not shocking. He has, for decades, been one of the leaders most likely to appear in lists of self-avowed evangelicals backing Democratic presidents in fights with religious conservatives. The surprise was when his decision drew praise from David Neff, who from 1993 to 2012 was editor of Christianity Today, founded in 1956 by Graham and theologian Carl F.H. Henry.
In Facebook statements, Neff first said: "God bless Tony Campolo. He is acting in good faith and is, I think, on the right track." Later, he confirmed his doctrinal shift in an exchange with a Christianity Today writer: "I have come to read the relevant passages differently ... and have come along a similar path" as Campolo.
Christianity Today immediately responded with an editorial -- "Breaking News: 2 Billion Christians Believe in Traditional Marriage" -- by current editor Mark Galli.
The church, he argued, "remains overwhelmingly united" around a core theology "assumed or articulated by the great theologians and Christian philosophers in the Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic traditions -- the most sophisticated recent effort being John Paul II's work on the theology of the body. ... It is not driven by an irrational prejudice of people living in the past, as the American zeitgeist assumes."

Notice that, in a debate inside evangelicalism, Galli elected to refer to both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism -- traditions with articulated, creedal approaches to doctrine -- to strengthen his argument. This is crucial and another sign that there is no one "evangelicalism" in our world today.

This, of course, reminded me of my 1987 interview with the Rev. Billy Graham when I asked him to weigh in on this question. Here is a flashback:

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."

I pressed Graham on this and he said that the term must be given doctrinal content, if it is to have any meaning. OK, I said, how does that work?

Graham ... 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.
"I think there are evangelicals in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox churches," he said.

However, Campolo also took a similar approach, in his online essay in which he defended his evolving views on sex and marriage, and specifically linked himself to an ancient set of doctrines.

As a young man I surrendered my life to Jesus and trusted in Him for my salvation, and I have been a staunch evangelical ever since. I rely on the doctrines of the Apostles Creed. I believe the Bible to have been written by men inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.

So what is Campolo's status? What does the word "evangelical" mean, when it comes to doctrinal issues of marriage, sex and family life? Will there be more "evangelicals" who join this emerging doctrinal left wing of the movement?

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