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For a half-century or more, there has been no question about whose name would top any list of the “Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”

Terry Mattingly mug

Mattingly

Conservatives at Newsmax have produced just such a list for 2017 and, sure enough, the Rev. Billy Graham was No. 1. At 99 years of age, he remains the patriarch of conservative Protestantism, even while living quietly in the family’s log home in the North Carolina mountains. For many, the world’s most famous evangelist is the living definition of the word “evangelical.”

However, the 100-person Newsmax list also demonstrates that no one really knows what the word “evangelical” means, these days. Should it be defined in terms of political clout, religious doctrines or mass-media popularity?

The rest of the Top 10, for example, includes Graham’s son Franklin, prosperity gospel superstar Joel Osteen, talk-show politico Mike Huckabee, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Rick “Purpose Driven Life” Warren, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., TV host Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, religious entertainment mavens in Hollywood.

Disputes about the meaning of “evangelical” are so sharp that “several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals’ as defined by any set of core doctrines,” said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.

Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to “some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both,” as opposed to “leading successful churches or Christian organizations. ... I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture — but that’s about it.”

Even the list’s few pastors and church leaders — such as Tim Keller of New York City or Max Lucado of San Antonio — are best known as popular authors. It’s rather surprising, noted Kidd, that Calvinist scholar John Piper was ranked No. 22 and historian Mark Noll hit No. 37.

“I mean,” quipped Kidd, “would Fox News even know who John Piper is?”

All of this confusion wouldn’t surprise Billy Graham.

During a 1987 interview, I asked him to define “evangelical.” Graham said he wasn’t sure what the word means, since it has “become blurred. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.” In the end, he added, one man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.”

Based on his experiences with Christians around the world, Graham said it was important to keep trying to link this term with doctrinal orthodoxy. Thus, he defined an “evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Apostles Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.

It would be hard, during these bitterly politicized times, to convince pollsters, journalists and political activists to embrace that kind of definition, said David French, a Harvard Law School graduate known for his National Review columns on politics and religious liberty.

In the public square, everyone thinks they know what “evangelical” means.

“The easy answer, which also has the virtue of being true, is that ‘evangelical’ has become the tribal marker used to describe white Christians who vote Republican,” said French, who was an internet lightning rod during 2016 because of his opposition to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

At some point, “orthodox” Protestants are going to have to find a way to define themselves in terms of faith, worship and ministry, as well as their convictions in public life, he said. This may require new language.

“Liberals used to be called ‘liberals,’ but then that became a negative word so they turned into ‘progressives,’” noted French.

“There was a time when ‘evangelical’ was a positive word, when compared with ‘fundamentalist.’” But those days are gone, he added, because far too many Americans now assume the word “evangelical” “simply means both — “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” Both terms are equally bad.

“We are going to have to find a way to talk about our faith that doesn’t sound like we are alienated, alone, isolated and angry.”

Terry Mattingly is editor of GetReligion.org and senior fellow for media and religion at The King’s College in New York City.

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(5) comments

tomoba

The greatest malignancy in the USA today is the conservative evangelical. They are trying to hide and deny the depths of that malignancy, but yet it is apparent for all to see. The clarion call for religious liberty is in reality a demand for dominance for the ignorant and vicious over the rational human being. Credit the Fox Nazi Network as the primary propaganda outlet for much of the savagery. Dark days, indeed.

oldhomey

I fear this is the case of the right wing religionists making this bed for themselves and now are uncomfortable being seen getting into it. Too bad. From this column, as a working definition I would accept this as a definition for the word:

"The easy answer, which also has the virtue of being true, is that ‘evangelical’ has become the tribal marker used to describe white Christians who vote Republican."

I would add to it, however, that they are white Christians who also insist on making their brand of perceived morality (I am talking about abortion) a universal law, and their wish to get tax support to proselytize their beliefs to the young in their own, private schools. Enlightenment is the broadening of minds and world views, but it currently is the business of evangelicals to narrow them, again, to a time that the nation was ruled by and for Christian white males. That would be me, a Christian white male, but that is not the direction I want my society to fall back into, thank you very much.

I must say Mr. Mattingly is looking righteously groovy these days with that rakish topper and his sparse but neatly trimmed chin pelt.

kingman10

I would agree homey. Strictly speaking "evangelical" simply means to spread the gospel, or preach the good news. But the hard right Christians have claimed it as their own so they can be easily recognized as a separate religious sect, and thereby can compare and judge harshly others Christians (and especially non Christians) who do not belong to that label. They want their theology not only to rule over other religions but be an integral part of government functions and laws. Theocracy seems to be their ultimate goal, much like in the days of the witch hunts where anyone suspected of suspicious activity is treated harshly. They want to flex their political muscle so America will eventually surrender their doctrine of the separation between church and state,

kingman10

I must add that Mattinglly looks like a character out of the movie "lord of the rings". He looks like he would fit right in with the hobbits or maybe even be a wizard!

Clarification

Words adopt new meanings as time passes. I would never use the term for fear of being of being mistaken for a Hobby Lobby smuggler or a "sometimes God uses imperfect people" to excuser for Trump or Moore.

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