The Record

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

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?

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