Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of 'Evangelical'
Today, on Easter, evangelical Christians can celebrate knowing that they are part of a movement that has never been so powerful or so large. But like any dominating force, evangelicalism is not monolithic, and it seems that now, at a time of heightened power, old fissures are widening, and new theological and political splits are developing.
Perhaps it's not surprising that these conflicts are occurring as many of evangelicalism's elder statesmen — most notably, the Rev. Billy Graham — are retiring, and a new generation of leaders is vying to define its center.
"When he leaves the scene, there will be some deep fractures that come out into the open and become wider," said Roger E. Olson, a theology professor at Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary. "It will be harder for anyone to talk about evangelicalism as a movement with any unity."
Evangelical leaders have clashed recently over a range of issues, including whether the movement should get involved in the debates over global warming and immigration. A tug of war is also unfolding behind the scenes over theology — should evangelicalism be a big tent, open to more divergent views, or a smaller, purer theology?
To a certain extent, divisions are to be expected, because the evangelical movement has become increasingly diverse as it has grown, making it harder to define, or for any one person to serve as even its symbolic head, as Mr. Graham did.
"There are many people today who call themselves evangelical whom no person would call an evangelical 40 years ago," said Donald A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.
John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, used polling data to separate evangelicals into three camps, traditionalist, centrist and modernist. The traditionalists, characterized by high affinity for orthodox religious beliefs and little inclination to adapt them to a changing world, bear the closest resemblance to what has been labeled the Christian right, whose most visible spokesmen have been figures like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the television evangelist Pat Robertson, Dr. Green said.
Centrists, he said, might be represented by the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and author of the best-selling book, "The Purpose Driven Life." Mr. Warren is theologically and socially conservative, but has mostly avoided politics and recently turned much of his focus to fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa.
According to Dr. Green's findings from a survey taken in 2004, the traditionalist and centrist segments are roughly the same size within evangelicalism, each accounting for approximately 40 to 50 percent of the movement's adherents. Modernist evangelicals, who have much more diversity in their beliefs and lower levels of church attendance, are a small minority. Fissures between the traditionalist and centrist camps of evangelicalism have begun to emerge much more prominently in recent months in the political realm.
Earlier this year, more than 80 evangelical leaders, many of them pastors who would likely be classified as centrists, including Mr. Warren and the Rev. Leith Anderson, pastor of a megachurch outside of Minneapolis and a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, signed an evangelical call to action on global warming.
Meanwhile many of the more conservative leaders in the movement, including Dr. James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson, were conspicuously absent.
"It's a tension that exists between the traditionalists and the centrists," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, which did not sign the statement after pressure from Dr. Dobson, Mr. Falwell and others. "The centrists want to deal with these issues. The traditionalists are saying, 'Hey now, I thought we understood the issues.' "
In its public statements, Focus on the Family said Dr. Dobson chose not to sign on because the group questioned the validity of the theory and believed that it put plants and animals above humans. "For us, we have to focus on some core issues that are connected to our principles," said Paul L. Hetrick, a spokesman for the group. "One of our core principles is the value or sanctity of human life."
Mr. Hetrick criticized other evangelicals like Mr. Cizik and the Rev. Jim Wallis, a prominent, politically liberal evangelical, who have been active on climate change and, more recently, immigration issues, for neglecting core concerns like abortion and gay marriage.
"What's interesting is many times these folks can't get worked up in a lather about 45 million babies killed," he said.
There is also a growing conflict over theology, or specifically the orthodoxy of the "emerging church" movement.
ALTHOUGH much of the attention on the emerging church movement has been on changes that its leaders have made in worship — bringing back liturgy and ancient practices like meditation and chanting — the movement has also sought to introduce theological innovations.
It emphasizes reading the Bible as a narrative, perfect in its purposes but not necessarily inerrant; de-emphasizing individual salvation in favor of a more holistic mission in serving the world; even making evangelicals less absolutist on whether people from other religions might find their way to heaven.
All of this has made many evangelical leaders nervous. They worry that the "emerging church" will water down the theology.
"It's over the question of the nature of truth," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., whose appointment in 1993 helped seal what many critics saw as a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, evangelicalism's largest denomination.
But Brian D. McLaren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church outside of Baltimore and a chief apostle of the emerging church, argues that he is not promoting relativism; rather, he believes the evangelical movement has been hijacked theologically, as well as politically, by its more fundamentalist elements, something he is trying to correct.
"In many, many areas, I'm looking at polarization, " he said, "and I'm looking at a third way."
These disputes are nothing new for evangelicalism. The evangelical movement as it is known today emerged in the 1940's and 50's as a middle way between what many Christian leaders perceived as theological liberalism in the mainline Protestant denominations and the cultural separatism of the fundamentalist movement.
Today, with the term, "evangelical," often equated with "fundamentalist," many in the movement are even discussing whether the label evangelical should be jettisoned completely, said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine.
"I did sit in a room with a number of key leaders, some Christian college presidents, some representatives of major college ministries," he said. "They were seriously discussing whether the word evangelical should be used anymore, or should we call ourselves classic Christians or historic orthodox Christians."