Not long after the 2004 presidential election, I was dining with some friends in Brooklyn when the conversation turned to religion and politics - the two things you're never supposed to discuss in polite company.
George W. Bush had just been re-elected with the help of what was described in the media as "evangelical voters." And knowing that I am an evangelical Christian, my friends were terribly curious.
"What, exactly, is an evangelical?" one gentleman asked, as if he were inquiring about my time living among the lowland gorillas of Cameroon.
I suddenly found myself as cultural translator for the evangelical mind.
"As I understand it," I began, "what 'evangelical' really means is that a person believes in Jesus Christ, has a personal relationship with him and because of that relationship feels compelled to share their experience of God's love with other people. "How they choose to share that 'good news' with others is entirely up to the individual. Beyond that, the rest is details and style."
Most of my friends knew evangelicalism only through the big, bellicose voices of TV preachers and religio-political activists such as Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson. Not surprisingly, my friends hadn't experienced an evangelicalism that sounded particularly loving, accepting, or open-minded.
After eschewing the descriptor because I hadn't wanted to be associated with a faith tradition known more for harsh judgmentalism and fearmongering than the revolutionary love and freedom that Jesus taught, I began publicly referring to myself again as an evangelical. By speaking up, I hoped I might help reclaim "evangelical" for what it is supposed to mean.
With the 2012 presidential race upon us, the "evangelical" question is once again front and center, chiefly with the campaign of Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party darling who proudly wears the evangelical label.
As I read the recent profile of Bachmann in The New Yorker, it was painfully clear that the what-is-an-evangelical question remains largely unanswered for many who live outside the born-again bubble.
The piece, titled "Leap of Faith," delved into Bachmann's rise to public and political prominence, focusing particularly on her religious and philosophical beliefs. The story was well-researched and eloquently written, but I was struck by the author's use of the terms "evangelical," "born-again," and "fundamentalist." It seemed they were employed interchangeably, as if their definitions were synonymous.
In popular culture, those terms are shorthand for "staunchly conservative," "small-minded," and "mean-spirited." It's a matter of semantics, but it is spiritually significant.
The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek evangelion, meaning "the good news" or "the gospel." During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther adopted the word to describe his breakaway church; for hundreds of years thereafter, "evangelical" meant, simply, "Protestant."
Today, in American society the term is used in three ways, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College: