I don’t think I know what the word ‘evangelical” means anymore, and when we can no longer effectively define a word, it may be time to retire that word. Writing in the New Yorker, Tim Keller describes the word’s origins and purpose:
For centuries, renewal movements have emerged within Christianity and taken on different forms and names. Often, they have invoked the word “evangelical.” Followers of Martin Luther, who emphasized the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, described themselves in this way. The Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon, who led the Low Church renewal movement within the Church of England, adopted the label. The trans-Atlantic eighteenth-century awakenings and revivals led by the Wesleys were also often called “evangelical.” In the nineteen-forties and fifties, Billy Graham and others promoted the word to describe themselves and the religious space they were seeking to create between the cultural withdrawal espoused by the fundamentalist movement, on the one hand, and mainline Protestantism’s departures from historic Christian doctrine, on the other. In each of these phases, the term has had a somewhat different meaning, and yet it keeps surfacing because it has described a set of basic historic beliefs and impulses.
Those “basic historic beliefs and impulses” are best described as a form of non-fundamentalist Protestant orthodoxy. Keller outlines the basic beliefs :
Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete . . . They also see it as the ultimate authority, unlike Catholics, who make church tradition equal to it. In addition, the ancient creedal formulations of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as others, are taken at face value, without reservation.
I grew up in a fundamentalist, sectarian church — the a capella churches of Christ — and when I left that church I eagerly called myself Evangelical. For most of us who came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a way of distinguishing yourself from the mainline and the extremes. It broadcast that you took your faith seriously, but you didn’t obsess over denominational differences. Within evangelical circles the term was a clear marker of friendship and unity. As Keller notes, it used to clearly distinguish you from the fundamentalists. Now, sadly, it’s more likely to identify you as a fundamentalist.
Or maybe it just increasingly identifies you as a Republican. When you hear the word, who do you think it describes? A large number of conservative voters describe themselves as Evangelical to pollsters when they’re no such thing — at least according to the classic definitions. For them, “evangelical” is simply the term that best fits their demographic amongst the limited menu of options in an exit poll. But these polling options have consequences, leading to self-identification and public identification that’s clearly at odds with historic definitions.
In fact, the political aspect of the term has hopelessly distorted the meaning. There are legions of black or Hispanic Christians whose beliefs squarely fit within the evangelical tradition who wouldn’t be caught dead using the term. There are millions of white conservatives who proudly declare their allegiance to evangelicalism even if they rarely (if ever) darken the door of a church. Even as far back as a decade ago — before the term became as contentious as it is today — the Barna Research Group discovered that less than 20 percent of self-proclaimed evangelicals actually met their basic theological definition. The word is increasingly worthless.
But what can replace it? Is there a need for a term that describes serious-but-not-fundamentalist Protestants? In a rapidly secularizing culture, I’m starting to think that a new, special term is unnecessary. After all, denominational and sectarian lines are blurring so much that basically every day except Reformation Day there’s a Catholic/Protestant lovefest online and in the real world. Old rivalries have largely disappeared. Old theological arguments have become increasingly academic. The questions are increasingly basic. “Do you believe the Apostle’s Creed?” “Is the Bible the inspired Word of God?” Cool. We’re brothers. Let’s roll.
I remember my first few weeks at Harvard Law School. For the first time in my life I was part of a fellowship group that featured virtually every major Protestant denomination and even (sometimes) a Catholic or two. I came from a world that debated whether Baptists could get into heaven. I entered a world where Baptists and Pentecostals and Anglicans worshipped side-by-side, united by their mere Christianity. A quarter-century later, American culture is more like Harvard than I ever thought it would be. When the word “evangelical” sheds more heat than light, then perhaps “Christian” is the only label we need.