I'm An Evangelical! What Does that Even Mean?

It's been interesting talking to various people inside and outside of evangelicalism and getting so many different ideas about what I am "supposed" to be. One person from Princeton (as well as a family member) informed me that I was a "fundamentalist." Another person made sure I knew I was a "liberal"--whatever any of this means.

Given current stereo-types many if they know I am an evangelical already are not shocked to hear I am a Republican (at least for now), unless they learn I care deeply about social justice. Still, there is no place for most of my fellow church members or mentors through the years who were democrats. They apparently do not exist. Supposedly, I am supposed to be supporting Trump as are most of my evangelical friends and acquaintances (I only know one or two who see him as a lesser evil politically).

In truth, in the many circles I have traveled in there was not much of an emphasis on politics. No gate-keeping to make sure everyone was of a particular persuasion or sermons from the pulpit with any clear leaning. This is not the case for everyone I am assuming, but it was for me. Although, I do recall that close to election day my dad had given a sermon and several church members of different affiliations gave him a wink knowing who he was voting for--their guy!

I am also supposed to be a young-earth creationist, have a flat understanding of inerrancy and a Left Behind version of the "End Times."

Oh well.

What is Evangelicalism?

Evangelicalism is an extremely broad category spanning many denominations, para-church organizations, ethnicities, and countries who have undergone many internal changes over the years and will experience more in the future. Some basics that seem to be held in common (though some in different ways) are:

1.     The Bible is the supreme authority for faith and practice and is the inspired word of God.

2.     Basic Christian Orthodoxy held to by all Christians (i.e. we are Trinitarians).

3.     Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.

4.     Jesus died on the cross to free us from our sins and only he could do so.

5.     One must have a personal relationship with God.

This is an extremely basic list. If you hold to these and are active in your local church, chances are you are an evangelical. Historically, evangelicals have been revivalists calling everyone to have a personal relationship with God acknowledging their own wrongdoing (Billy Graham, Finney). They have also (for better or worse) tended to be highly concerned about social issues from social justice to being anti this or that.

In actuality, we are a diverse bunch held together by broad brush beliefs and some cultural quirks.

Unfortunately, we evangelicals have also had our fundamentalist era in the U.S. and at some point were extremely anti-Catholic, preoccupied with the end times, preoccupied with a narrow definition of biblical inerrancy and thought the theory of evolution was the latest ploy of the devil. None of these latter views define evangelicalism, but some of the thought patterns are still present in extreme and moderate forms for some individuals and churches in the U.S. and yet are also baffling to many other evangelicals in the U.S. and especially abroad.

Consider the contributions and beliefs of the following prominent evangelical preachers in the U.S. and notice some huge differences and similarities especially in this sample where many (but not all) have a Southern Baptist heritage. Note many evangelicals are prominent in limited circles but I have tried to choose those others are likely to have at least heard of or if not at least know of some of their concrete influences. Also, note that when I say “preoccupation” I am not taking a position as much as critiquing a matter of emphasis.

Frances Willard (1839-1898)- President of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and was known for her preaching, labor reform (8 hour work day, no child labor), women’s rights (first-wave feminist), helping to raise the age of consent, started what is known as kindergarten, anti-liquor, and was a Christian socialist. Methodist church affiliation.

Billy Graham (1918-present)- Very famous evangelist, very concerned with global Christianity and inter-faith relations, known for work helping race relations and tearing down barriers (literally) separating blacks and whites at his talks, early Southern Baptist, has more recently taken an “inclusivist” theological position regarding salvation.

Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)- Prominent preacher and anti-violence civil rights activist who changed the trajectory of the United States for the better regarding race relations, famous for his “I Have A Dream” address, received a doctorate in 1955, was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and gave the money from the prize to further civil rights. Martyred 1968.

Pat Robertson (1930-present)- extremely controversial figure, chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Netword, founder of ABC Family, and several other organizations, host of the 700 club, “charismatic” Southern Baptist (rare), tried to be the Republican nominee of 1988, anti-feminist, often thinks natural disasters are God’s punishments, preoccupied with negative views of homosexuality.

Joyce Meyer (1943-present)- Lutheran background but currently “Charismatic” (spiritual gifts have a prominent role in the church today), one of the world’s leading Bible teachers, NY Times best-selling author who has written over 70 books, conference speaker, outspoken against sexual and emotional abuse, believes Jesus descended into hell before his resurrection (a very Christian belief but not as popular among many evangelicals).  

Rick Warren (1954-present)- Prominent pastor of Saddleback church (quietly affiliated with Southern Baptist denomination), best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” pro abstinence-only education, women serving in leadership roles are called “directors” rather than pastors, attended Fuller Seminary, lots of international work promoting reconciliation and helping the poor.

Yes, Martin Luther King Jr and Pat Robertson are/were evangelicals.

In sum, we are an all over the map, odd bunch that share what is considered a very important common core. Politically we are all over the map and have different denominational distinctives--though there is diversity even within. We have done some good things and bad things. We have held some great beliefs and influenced the world for the better and held to some silly and/or damaging things. What we will look like in the future is anyone's guess, but I would love to see a return of our revivalist DNA and deep concern for human rights inherent to our faith in Jesus Christ and personal relationship with God.













The point: Stop stereotyping!