I had a long chat with a reporter yesterday. She’s writing a story for News 21 about the changes afoot among “evangelical” voters in the coming election. I put scare quotes around “evangelical” because much of our conversation revolved around the usefulness of that term.
In short, I find the term “evangelical” almost completely unhelpful.
Here’s why: to most evangelicals – at least those who’ve been to a Bible college, a Christian college, seminary, or been involved in the leadership of an evangelical ministry (e.g., Young Life, Campus Crusade, FCA, InterVarsity) – “evangelical” is a theological category. It represents what one believes about the Bible, about Jesus, about salvation, and about the afterlife.

But to the mainstream media, “evangelical” is a cultural category. One is an “evangelical” based on whom you vote for, whether you listen to Christian radio, shop at Christian bookstores, contribute to evangelical ministries, and vote for certain candidates.
So there’s a great disconnect.
When doing our PhD work at Princeton, my friend Andy Root and I were reading lots of sociological work on evangelicals in America. Andy suggested that instead of the usual sociological markers like whether one considers oneself “born again” or attends an “evangelical” church, we would put together a list of fifty items, including
Chuck Swindoll
Christianity Today
Young Life
Youth for Christ
James Dobson
Wheaton College
Etc…
Respondants would check any of these names, organizations, and periodicals with which they affiliate, and they would receive a score. Then we would determine a threshold and, if your score is above that threshold, you are an “evangelical.” At least that would make journalists, sociologists, and pollsters happy.
Evangelicals themselves, however, would still be unsatisfied. As the recent Evangelical Manifesto attests, evangelicals still want to be classified theologically. Too bad that document didn’t get nearly the media play that I assume they hoped for…
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