How fundamentalist and evangelical Christians differ

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    Chad Connelly, Director of Faith Engagement for the Republican National Committee, prays with a group of pastors at an American Renewal Project dinner in Westminster, Colorado October 23, 2014. (Reuters)

    n the 2008 campaign for president, the candidate who publicly acknowledged Jesus Christ as lord and savior was Barack Obama, not John McCain.

    And yet in 2008 and again in 2012, those described by media as “evangelical Christians” voted overwhelmingly for the Republican nominees for president, McCain and Mitt Romney (a Mormon), unwilling to accept Mr. Obama’s witness to his Christian faith.

    In 2012, Hillary Clinton, a Methodist and confessing Christian, was also rejected by “evangelical Christians,” 81 percent of whom voted for Donald Trump despite his lifestyle, seen by many as a denial of basic Christian teachings and values.

    That said, the media’s political coverage continues to demonstrate critical ignorance of American Christianity, repeatedly identifying supporters of Republican candidates as “evangelicals” when they are overwhelmingly fundamentalists.

    The morphing of Christian fundamentalists into evangelical Christians began with 9/11, when leaders and clergy of fundamentalist denominations, like the Southern Baptists, Protestantism’s largest, understood that any confusion between radical Muslim fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists was a problem.

    Fundamentalism was dropped and “evangelical,” which is culturally less threatening and socially more acceptable, became the watch word — and the media bought into it.

    The fundamentalist/evangelical controversy is not new. It has a history.

    Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the titans of the 20th-century American pulpit. Initially pastor at New York City’s First Presbyterian and later at Riverside Church (built for him by John D. Rockefeller), Fosdick often railed against Christian “fundamentalism,” and yet considered himself and others of comparable views as “evangelical.”

    Fosdick and William Jennings Bryan were at the center of the great fundamentalist-modernist debate, which has long disappeared from the front pages of our newspapers, but it is still with us, as the number of fundamentalists is greater now than ever before.

    What then is Christian fundamentalism? At its core, it argues the Bible is inerrant, without error; that every word and every verse of every chapter in every book of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation, is literally true.

    This interpretation of Scripture, called “verbal inspiration” by theologians, means the books of the Bible, in both Testaments, were written by men who became God’s stenographers, writing as He spoke. Hence, by that act of composition, the Bible is, they contend, without error.

    However, there is another body of Christian believers, who hold to a different view, who believe in scripture’s plenary inspiration; that the effect of inspiration moved biblical writers to produce the words God wanted but takes into account their “individual backgrounds, personal traits and literary styles.”

    And yet many who hold this view, such as Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Mike Slaughter, Ron Sider, Adam Hamilton, Timothy Keller and many other church leaders, also consider themselves evangelicals.

    To a non-Christian, a nonfaith, nonreligious person, why should it matter? Verbal inspiration, plenary inspiration, fundamentalist, evangelical, modernist, orthodox, who cares?

    There is no requirement to care, unless you’re a journalist, then there’s a requirement to get it right — if accuracy in media is prized. And “getting it right” means explaining that while all fundamentalists may be evangelicals in asserting that Jesus Christ is Lord, not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.

    Fundamentalists are pro-life, many evangelicals, pro-choice. Fundamentalists oppose gay marriages, not all evangelicals do. Fundamentalists believe in creationism, most evangelicals accept Darwin and keep an open mind. Because fundamentalists oppose abortion and gay rights, the two issues that dominate their political agenda, they consistently vote Republican; not all Christians do.

    Nonfundamentalist evangelicals have broader concerns — the war in Afghanistan, global warming, health care, racism, the economy, Wall Street, women’s rights, the plight of the poor, etc.

    The conundrum of fundamentalist/evangelical is heightened by media neither understanding it nor willing to make the distinction, unwilling to do the hard work necessary to separate one from the other, instead choosing to identify them as one — “evangelicals.” And by that failure, confusion is rampant on what issues divide these two differing bodies of Christian believers — politically and theologically.

    Fundamentalists and evangelicals share a common faith in the person of Jesus Christ, but it isn’t that which separates them — it’s everything else.

    Mitrovich leads three American public forums in San Diego, Denver and Boston, and served as president of the Ecumenical Council of San Diego County, an organization of more than 100 Christian churches.

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