The Common Good

Defining "Evangelical" and Other Unsolved Mysteries

Cathleen Falsani by Katrina Wittkamp.
Cathleen Falsani by Katrina Wittkamp.

As someone who self-identifies as an evangelical Christian, often I begin to feel like the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary, particularly in the midst of a heated presidential election cycle.

It’s Evangelical Week here on Discovery! Travel with us as our explorers track the elusive evangelical in its native habitats. Watch as evangelicals worship, work and play, all captured on film with the latest high definition technology. And follow our intrepid documentary team members as they bravely venture into the most dangerous of exotic evangelical locations — the voting booth!

I understand the interest in us evangelicals, I really do. The way much of the mainstream media covers our communities in the news can make us seem like a puzzling subspecies of the American population, not unlike the Rocky Mountain long-haired yeti. 

Are we really that difficult to comprehend?

In a word, yes.

Last autumn, we here at the God’s Politics blog launched an ongoing series called “What is an Evangelical?” in the hopes of providing a better answer to the question that, apparently, so many of our neighbors and friends in the media are preoccupied with in these days leading to the November 2012 general election where, we are told, evangelical voters may again cast the deciding swing votes.

To that end, we invited a number of evangelical Christian thinkers — pastors, writers, scholars, filmmakers, artists, theologians, etc. — to tell us in their own words what they believe it means to be an evangelical, or, rather, what it should mean.

Not surprisingly, the answers we’ve received and published so far have been as varied and nuanced as the authors themselves. Evangelicals are decided not a monolith.

Here, for your reading pleasure and edification, is a sampling of some of their answers:

Randall Balmer, Episcopal priest and professor of American Religious History at Columbia University:

 Antebellum evangelicalism also included a robust peace movement, and Charles Grandison Finney, the most influential evangelical of the 19th century, excoriated capitalism as utterly inimical to Christianity. Finney allowed that "the business aims and practices of business men are almost universally an abomination in the sight of God." What are the principles of those who engage in business? Finney asked. "Seeking their own ends; doing something not for others, but for self." Other evangelicals echoed Finney's suspicion of business interests, as did evangelicals of a later era, people such as William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic nominee for president. But the one overriding characteristic of these evangelicals was their concern for those on the margins of society.

David Vanderveen, Entrepreneur, Surfer and Author:

Being an Evangelical Christian means accepting grace and being honest about your faith with others. First, I think you have be honest with yourself and God; and, then, when you’re as true as you can be about both what you actually know and what you actually don’t -- that’s what’s worth sharing.

Lynne Hybels, author and co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.:

In Jesus I found a radical call to compassionate action in the world. At Jesus' first public appearance he said, "I have come to set the captives free and to preach good news to the poor." Then, through his teaching and life of servanthood, he slowly and methodically turned the values of the powerful Roman Empire upside down. He threw the moneychangers out of the temple because they were exploiting the poor. He said that when we feed the hungry or clothe the naked it's like we're doing it to him. He said to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us. Jesus changed the rules and ushered in an upside-down Kingdom.

Greg Fromholz, Author, filmmaker and director of the Church of Ireland’s 3Rock Youth Program:

When I think of the question ... my brain, it splits in two. One side hears the word and immediately thinks of a bland, beige, flaccid idea -- something that inspires apathy. The other part of me thinks of brands and what they are now synonymous with. You know, like Kleenex equals tissues, and Hoovers equal vacuums. Evangelical? Well, judgmentalism. Control. Even hatred. And that really bugs me because these are only symptoms of a word no longer living up to its meaning.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Author and former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America:

You can always interview someone who will validate the stereotype. But there are other millions who don’t. Yet, no one seems to notice (or care.) Sensible studies of this elastic group called “evangelicals” reveal those with strong views on the political right, but others with moderate, centrist political convictions, and still more on the progressive side of the spectrum. These views become even more diverse as you look at evangelicals who are younger and those who are non-white — in other words, those parts of the evangelical constituency who are shaping its future.

Linda Midgett, Documentary filmmaker and Emmy Award-winning television producer:

I think an evangelical is someone who believes Jesus is the Son of God, that the Word of God is true, and that we all need redemption from this fallen word. There's other theology I could throw in, but it's pretty boilerplate. And I believe it all, wholeheartedly.

Larry Shallenberger, Pastor and author:

The term "Evangelical" is like a pair of hand-me-down underwear. It's been stretched over so many shapes and sizes that it's lost its snap and doesn't fit anyone anymore. It’s been pulled around the circumference of Mars Hill, Seattle and Mars Hill, Grand Rapids. Billy Graham, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Jay Bakker Benny Hinn, Scot McKnight, Don Miller, Jimmy Carter, W., John Piper, Ken Ham, Jim Wallis, and Bill Hybels have all had their turn sporting this hand-me-down garment.  

Susan Isaacs, Author and actor:

While I may detect a difference between “evangelical Christian” (theological connotation) and “evangelical” (political connotation), a person outside the faith may not. Tell an agnostic you’re an evangelical — meaning you believe in the words of the Apostle’s creed — and he may assume you’re anti-gay, anti-Obama and pro-British Petroleum….I don’t know if we’ll ever divest “evangelical” of its political connotation. We might have to ban the word the way Germany outlawed Hitler as a surname. Which is sad, because the Greek root, evangel, means “good news.”

As you can see from the answers some of our authors have offered, “evangelical” at best has a fluid definition, depending on whether the question is asked in a cultural, religious, historical or political context — and then colored by where both the speaker and the listener situate themselves in those worlds.

Perhaps defining “evangelical” is a bit like trying to define (definitively) what pornography is. To paraphrase former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a 1964 Court opinion, I shall not today attempt further to define it, but I know it when I see it.

The best answer I’ve heard lately to the question, “What is an Evangelical,” arrived unexpectedly at a New Year’s Eve party I attended a few weeks ago in the southern California town where I live. Not long before the clock struck 12, a mutual friend casually turned to my longtime friend (and now neighbor) Rob Bell, former pastor of Mars Hill church in Michigan, and casually asked him what “evangelical” really means.

With a glass of champagne in one hand and a smile on his face, Rob answered, “An evangelical is someone who, when they leave the room, you have more hope than when they entered.”

No matter how we might extrapolate what an evangelical is from there, I hope Rob’s answer is one that all of us evangelicals would affirm with a heartfelt, “Amen.”

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is author of four nonfiction books, including her latest, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.

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