Over the years, your GetReligionistas have asked variations on the following question many times: What does the word “evangelical” mean?
Faithful readers will recall that, in 1987, I had a chance to ask the Rev. Billy Graham that question and, basically, he said that he no longer felt confident that he knew the answer. He then proceeded to frame “evangelical” in terms of ancient Christian doctrines, saying that he defined an “evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene or the Apostles creeds. Graham stressed the centrality of belief in the resurrection and that salvation is through Jesus, alone.
However, if you follow the news, you know that most pollsters, politicos and journalists no longer believe that “evangelical” is primarily a religious word. During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I discussed this puzzle as we tried to make sense out of a recent “Newsmax’s 100 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” list.
Take a second and scan that list, if you will. Note that, after the predictable Billy Graham nod at No. 1, the next nine are Graham’s son Franklin, Joel Osteen, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell Jr., Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the married Hollywood duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
In my new “On Religion” column on this topic, historian Thomas Kidd made the following observation about the Newsmax list:
Disputes about the meaning of “evangelical” are so sharp that “several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals’ as defined by any set of core doctrines,” said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.
Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to “some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both,” as opposed to “leading successful churches or Christian organizations. … I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture – but that’s about it.”
Even the list’s few pastors and church leaders – such as Tim Keller of New York City or Max Lucado of San Antonio – are best known as popular authors. It’s rather surprising, noted Kidd, that Calvinist scholar John Piper was ranked No. 22 and historian Mark Noll hit No. 37.
“I mean,” quipped Kidd, “would Fox News even know who John Piper is?”
So, basically, a key piece of the “evangelical” puzzle these days is whether a person would feel at home offering commentary on Fox News and would frequently be asked to do so?
In that same column, religious-liberty pro David French of National Review added this sobering “American public square” definition:
“The easy answer, which also has the virtue of being true, is that ‘evangelical’ has become the tribal marker used to describe white Christians who vote Republican,” said French. …
“There was a time when ‘evangelical’ was a positive word, when compared with ‘fundamentalist.’ ” But those days are gone, he added, because far too many Americans now assume the “word ‘evangelical’ simply means both – ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘evangelical.’ Both terms are equally bad.
In other words, it’s hard to talk about the complex reality that is evangelicalism – in North American and around the world – when the word keeps being used as a political term over and over, day after day, in public life and, thus, in public media. Or is it the other way around?
Kidd recently wrote a fascinating blog commentary about this at the website of The Gospel Coalition. He then expanded it for Vox.com – locking in on how the term “evangelical” is being used in polls and news coverage of Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore. Right up top, he states:
One widely reported polling statistic had 37 percent of Alabama “evangelicals” saying that they were “more likely” to support Moore following the allegations.
As a professor who studies the history of Christianity – and an evangelical – I find myself continually frustrated with news pieces like this. When I read such stories about “evangelicals,” I wonder who these “evangelicals” actually are, and why much of the media is so eager to peddle storylines, however implausible, related to evangelical hypocrisy.
Anyone who thought for a second about the supposed evangelical reaction to Moore should have been incredulous. To me, the charges against Moore are disturbing and disqualifying. Many of his supporters disagree. But really, would anybody tell a pollster that allegations that a candidate had sexually abused minors would make them more inclined to support that candidate?
Journalists will want to note the role that “fake news” plays in this sad drama, according to Kidd. I would add an “amen” to this.
The bottom line: In an age in which more and more journalists on left and right are veering into advocacy, “European” journalism, it is way too easy for partisans to ignore whatever is reported in the mainstream news. When journalists stop trying to be balanced and fair, lots of news consumers are going to ask why anyone should believe that what they are reporting is accurate (even when stories include lots of on-the-record sources)?
Thus, Kidd adds:
Whoever these “evangelicals” might be, they’re obviously saying that they don’t believe the charges against Moore, and they’re sticking by their man in the face of “fake news.” I’m not trying to defend Moore here; I’m just suggesting that the power of the fake news theme gives Moore’s defenders a ready response against the explosive charges women have made against him. …
It’s an all-too-common cycle. Some in the media believe and promote the absolute worst about evangelicals. Those evangelicals then lament fake news, even when the news (like the charges against Moore) seems not so fake.
This is a must-read essay for journalists, religious leaders, political strategists and anyone interested in how slippery definitions of the word “evangelical” are affecting the world of political polls and journalism.
At this point, according to Kidd, this appears to be the lowest-common-denominator public definition of “evangelical” – a white American who says they are “born again,” or words to that effect, and likes Fox News.
What does that have to do with church history? Doctrine? Meaningful participation in traditionally evangelical congregations?
Enjoy the podcast.