Defining ‘Evangelical,’ or not, in 2013

Published 2:00 pm Friday, January 18, 2013

List America’s prominent evangelicals and the Rev. Rick Warren remains near the top, right up there with the Rev. Brian McLaren, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Jim Wallis, the Rev. Tim Keller and others.

Evangelicals, of course, have been known to argue about who belongs on that list. In recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that the experts are struggling to decide who is and who is not an evangelical in the first place.

“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branches and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”

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The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelizing the lost, defending biblical authority, helping the needy and proclaiming that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a church-history term — “got co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren, in a recent telephone interview.

Debates about this vague word are not new. During a 1987 interview with the Rev. Billy Graham, I asked him point blank, “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?”

The world’s most famous evangelist responded, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.” Ultimately, Graham said “evangelicals” preach salvation through faith in Jesus and believe all the doctrines in the Nicene Creed — especially in the resurrection.

Warren said he would certainly agree with Graham’s bottom line, which is that “evangelical” must be defined in doctrinal terms. The problem is that this isn’t how the term is being used in public life, especially by the news media.

During the George W. Bush administration, he said, most journalists “seemed to think that ‘evangelical’ meant that you backed the Iraq war, for some reason or another. … But right now, I don’t think there is any question that most people think that evangelicals are people who oppose gay rights — period. Unfortunately, that’s all the word means.”

Time after time, said Warren, interviewers assumed that his beliefs on moral and cultural issues — from salvation to sexual ethics — were based on mere politics, rather than on convictions about the Bible and centuries of doctrine.

“I’ve decided that when people don’t have faith, politics is their religion,” he said. “Politics is the only thing that is really real to many people in our world today. … So if politics isn’t at the center of your life, then many people just can’t understand what you’re saying.”

In the end, said Warren, it may be time for various brands of conservative Protestants — Baptists, charismatics, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Calvinists and others — to stop trying to crowd under a common “evangelical” umbrella. They need to start talking more about the specific traditions that shape their lives.

“Maybe ‘evangelical’ will be like the word ‘liberal,’” he said. “When that word turned into a negative, everybody on the left just turned into ‘progressives’ and they moved right on. … Maybe it’s time to give the word ‘evangelical’ a rest.”