USA Today posted an article on whether or not it is worth saving the E-word (evangelical), and interviewed a variety of folks. I posted on this not all that long ago, and in light of a good conversation I had this week with another professor via e-mail, I want to add a few thoughts:
Here’s how I understand the term, but I think something must be done quickly or the word will simply fall out of favor for evangelical moderates. I speak in the past tense because I don’t think it means this anymore, or at least it will not if something is not done.
First, it referred to Christians who are post-Fundamentalist and who broke out of Fundamentalism in the 1950s and 60s at the leadership of Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and the like — represented by Christianity Today. Evangelicals in those days were called neo-evangelicals (and that often was a slur by Fundamentalists).
Second, it referred to those who believed in the essential gospel doctrines: the majesty of Jesus Christ and his saving death, the Holy Spirit at work, personal faith, the authority of Scripture, the need for evangelistic work, and commitment to the local fellowship of Christians. These essential gospel doctrines led to a big umbrella for all those who joined in the same beliefs; in other words, neo-evangelicalism was “evangelical ecumenism.”
Third, in the 70s and 80s — Francis Schaeffer’s Evangelical Manifesto, the rise of the Moral Majority under the likes of Jerry Falwell, and the Presidency of Ronald Reagan — the evangelical movement took on board a conservative political orientation, and for many it was as self-defining as the previous gospel doctrines.
Fourth, in the Clinton era the now re-shaped evangelical movement became increasingly combative in a “take back America” posture and began to add to the list of gospel doctrines — and they continue to add to it (including your view of women). Put differently, evangelical now means “Fundamentalist” (what I have called neo-fundamentalist).
Today the word “evangelical” no longer means what it meant in the 50s and 60s. The question is whether or not the E-word is worth saving for many of us.
A story I was told: not long ago a major “evangelical” publisher had a meeting with some well-known “evangelical” authors and leaders, some of whom are professors at major “evangelical” institutions, and nearly to a person these leaders did not think it was worth the effort to save the E-word (they called themselves “evangelicals”) but had no term to label themselves in the Christian spectrum.
Should you care to know, one thing the word “emerging” seeks to capture is the older sense of evangelical for a new day.
I’m a follower of Jesus — orthodox, catholic, protestant and therefore sometimes (but clearly not always) “evangelical.” Five terms, in that order, so help me God.