What is an Evangelical, anyway?

evangelicals-cartoonMost 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.

The Problem With Christian Labels

A week or two after the 2004 election, I was dining with some friends in New York when the conversation turned to religion and politics -- the two things that 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."