Thinking about that whole 'evangelical' definition thing, with historian Mark Noll

So how many times has GetReligion published posts about people -- journalists, academics, politicos, you name it -- struggling to define the term "evangelical"?

That's hard to say, because the question keeps evolving as the term grows more and more political, at least as it is used in the mainstream press. Here is a GetReligion search page that offers you 16 of these post in one handy collection.

This issue shows up in all kinds of settings, but it's clear that the political angle -- #DUH -- is the key here. Here is how I expressed that in a post a few years ago focusing on a familiar question: Why do journalists keep getting confused about the faith practiced by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum?

A decade ago, the editors of Time magazine decided -- during one of the many "Who the heck are these born-gain people?" moments in the recent life of the mainstream press -- to do a cover story focusing on the 25 most influential evangelical Protestants in American life.
It was an interesting list. However, one name in particular raised many eyebrows -- Sen. Rick Santorum. The issue? Santorum was and is a very conservative Roman Catholic.
This struck me as interesting, so I did some background research on this issue. The consensus was that the Time team realized that Santorum was not a Protestant -- and thus, not an evangelical -- but the larger truth was that he, well, "voted evangelical."

That "voted evangelical" came from a magazine spokesperson. It's a classic.

Now, if I was going to point journalists toward an authoritative voice on this topic, historian Mark Noll would be right at the top of this list. Here is the intro to a Q&A interview with Noll published by the The Record, the student newspaper at Wheaton College.

For 27 years, Dr. Mark Noll served on the History Department faculty, ending his tenure as McManis Professor of Christian Thought in 2006. In 2016, he retired from The University of Notre Dame after teaching for 10 years. Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind” (1994) earned him a lasting place in evangelical scholarship. In 2005, Time Magazine named Noll one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.

You knew the following question had to come up. Right?

C: Your banner book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” has, of course, secured you a place in modern history of evangelicalism in America. Do you think that the definition of evangelicalism is changing or has changed, since you wrote your famous book in 1994?
M: I think people your age are going to have to answer that question. Because I think the real problem is trying to define evangelical in any simple way. The things that David Bebbington identified, that others have used and I’ve used -- cross, Bible, conversion, activity in the world -- these all characterize broadly speaking “evangelical” people. I don’t actually think “evangelicalism” exists. There are evangelical institutions, evangelical movements, evangelical people, evangelical emphases. But you say, what’s the institutional or organizational continuity? And there just isn’t any. So does the word mean anything? If when people hear “evangelical” they think of something political first, then the serious meaning of the word is gone.

Wait, there is more.

How does one explain"evangelical" support for one Donald Trump?

M: I think what’s called “evangelical support for Trump” had to do with the pro-life position of the Republican party, it had to do with a lot of antagonism against some of the cultural steps taken by the Obama administration. It certainly had to do with the memory of Bill Clinton’s immorality in the White House, and a lot of white evangelicals were concerned about economics. ... I do think we have increasing numbers of Christian academics who would have a much more sophisticated approach to political life than, “I’m angry at Hillary so I’m voting for Trump.” But I’m worried about the Christian populace at large listening all the time to their media go-to and never being concerned about folks who are trying to see things more broadly.

There is more, of course. And what about Wheaton and the headlines about the professor who said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.?

Read it all. Also, click here for a fine Library of Congress interview with Noll.

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