Every election period the media mention, usually in ominous terms, Evangelicals. This year is no exception. And just as frequently, Evangelicals are identified with Fundamentalists and the Religious Right. This identification is false and harmful to the spirit of civil public discourse. Since I am an Evangelical, it may be helpful for me to explain what the term means. Two preliminary points are important. First, Evangelicals, just like anyone of commonsense, reserve the right to define who they are and what they stand for and we Evangelicals resent the mediaâ€™s superficial and misleading characterization of us. Second, Evangelicalism is not primarily a social, political, or cultural movement. At its core, it is to be defined theologically.
Though this is not a definition, as a starter, a pretty good indication that someone is an Evangelical would be the fact that he or she admires Billy Graham and identifies with the truth and importance of his ministry and preaching. More to the point, as Roger Olson has noted, an Evangelical is one who satisfies five characteristics: (1) biblicism (adherence to the supreme authority of the Bible regarding everything it teaches when properly interpreted); (2) conversionism (belief in the essential importance of radical conversion to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior); (3) the centrality of the cross of Jesus and the forgiveness it provides in attempts to grow in character and spirituality; (4) persuasive, respectful evangelism and social action on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and powerless, including the unborn; (5) a respect for but not slavish dependence on the history of Christian tradition and doctrine.
Evangelicals are not Fundamentalists. While they share many beliefs in common with Evangelicals, contemporary Christian Fundamentalists differ from Evangelicals in that Fundamentalists are far more black and white, they are deeply suspicious of culture and anything that smacks of compromise with contemporary thought, they are too confrontational, narrow, rigid, judgmental, and harsh for Evangelicals. Fundamentalists tend to elevate minor areas of Christian teaching to the status of central dogmas and militantly fight all who compromise. The texture and tone of Fundamentalists differ sharply from those of Evangelicals. Fundamentalists tend to be defensive while Evangelicals tend to be more mercy-oriented towards outsiders.
Evangelicals are not the Religious Right. For one thing, there is more political diversity among Evangelicals that one finds in the Religious Right. For another, even where Evangelicals would agree with conservative political thought, they are careful to derive their views and express their allegiance to radical discipleship unto Jesus and not primarily with regard to the Constitution.
The theological beliefs of Evangelicals may not be of interest to you, but I trust you care to understand a major sub-group of Americans in terms with which they would readily identify.