In the 1987 cult classic movie The Princess Bride, actor Wallace Shawn’s character constantly uses the word “inconceivable” to describe pretty much everything he encounters. Finally, Mandy Patinkin’s iconic Inigo Montoya says what everyone watching is thinking:
“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means,” he says.
During the past few months, I keep having Montoya-like responses to the term “evangelical.” This election season—even more than others, it seems—cable news personalities and pundits throw the term around every few minutes. As we’ve moved through the primary elections, it seems like every single state we hear about factors in the so-called “evangelical vote.” And pretty much since the beginning of the season, we’ve heard “evangelical” in dramatic headlines, like “The Key to Iowa: Evangelical Voters.”
The way I keep hearing the term makes less and less sense compared to what I know about it. After all, “evangelicalism” really has nothing to do with politics—at least, not in its original form. Increasingly, I’m not alone in this frustration. Last week, Russell Moore, wrote in the Washington Post that he may not even be comfortable with the term “evangelical” anymore.
“The word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways, the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of ‘evangelical,’ seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities.”
What Is an ‘Evangelical’ Anyway?
When it comes to actually defining “evangelical,” the task seems both simple and endlessly complex.
At its root, the term draws on the Greek (the language of the New Testament) word for “good news,” referring specifically to the good news (the Gospel) of Jesus Christ. In this sense, evangelical refers to a person, church or organization committed to this good news of Jesus. Because of that, Martin Luther first began using the term “evangelical” to describe the Protestant churches coming out of Roman Catholicism during the Protestant Reformation. These churches, at least in theory, were established on the authority of the message of the Gospel, not what they see as the human authority of the Roman Church.
Perhaps the most widely held definition you’ll see comes from David Bebbington in his famous book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. He describes four characteristics that define an evangelical: Biblicism (holding the Bible as God’s authoritative word); Crucicentrism (placing the cross of Christ at the center of their teaching and preaching); Activism (participating in the mission of God through evangelism and charitable work); and Conversionism (teaching that each person must turn from sin and believe in the work of Christ).
These four characteristics, though they’re not always agreed on, generally describe who evangelicals are. But just as much as they suggest unity among evangelicals, it’s hard to miss how much flexibility this leaves for both beliefs and practices. This is why the movement, outside these few core identity markers, is so difficult to generalize. Historian Doug Sweeny highlights this tension in his book The American Evangelical Story. He writes:
Not only do evangelicals come in different shapes and sizes, but they also participate in hundreds of different denominations—some of which were founded in opposition to some of the others! The vast majority are Protestant, but even among the Protestants there are Lutheran, Reformed and Anabaptist evangelicals. There are Anglicans, Methodists, Holiness people and Pentecostals. There are Calvinists and Arminians. Some evangelicals go to churches that are overseen by bishops, others by presbyteries, while most prove fiercely independent. Some adhere to historic confessions drafted in Augsburg and Westminster. Still others oppose the use of confessions altogether.
There has never been—and there never will be—an evangelical denomination, despite the references one hears to the evangelical church.
At its best, evangelicalism still stands for the same thing: A group of Christians and churches who build their beliefs and work around the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But this makes the cable news version of evangelicalism all the more confusing.
A Political Demographic?
While certainly, evangelicals have exerted influence on whatever society they find themselves in (think Luther, William Wilberforce, etc.), the politicization of American evangelicalism seems to have formalized in the early 1980s with the founding of the political group “The Moral Majority.” The group’s purpose was to consolidate voters who share an ethical outlook similar to the judeo-Christian tradition in order to influence the moral direction of the U.S. through the political process. It’s tough to tell exactly when the term “evangelical” itself began melting, but this election season, it’s clear the the word means little more than a lazy demographic category for non-progressive people who aren’t atheists.
To their credit, some of these sources understand the nuance of evangelicalism and try to be fair. But even demographically, how you quantify evangelicals isn’t simple. For example, as this research gathered by NPR shows, Pew Research considers as evangelical anyone who self-identifies as one—leading them to say that 35 percent of the U.S. population is evangelical. Contrast that to Barna Research, which defines an evangelical based on answers to nine theological questions.
This disparity could easily explain some pundits’ confusion when “evangelicals” vote for a certain candidate with seemingly so little in common with them—all those voters may not even be evangelicals in the first place.
The idea that evangelicals would be a consistent voting bloc makes sense on the surface. Largely, Christians do tend to hold similar views on many moral issues. And there’s no denying that those denominations and groups that fit within evangelicalism tend toward one side of the political spectrum. But that shouldn’t mean the ongoing heritage of evangelicals can be reduced to a political subgroup.
Time to Reimagine ‘Evangelical’
Like Moore, many evangelical Christians are tired of this. In his Washington Post piece, he writes:
Look at the millennial pastors and church planters all over the country. Look at who is in evangelical seminaries, of every denomination. Look at who is flocking to evangelical conferences—from Urbana to Passion to Send North America to The Gospel Coalition. The future of evangelicalism is vibrant, prophetic, theologically-grounded, gospel-centered and unwilling to be anyone’s political mascot.
Evangelical is a magnificent word—a word that resonates with the gospel dissent of Martin Luther and the gospel crusades of Billy Graham. More than that, it is rooted in the New Testament itself that tells us that Jesus saves.
So it’s time redefine—or better, reimagine—what “evangelical” means. If the very heart of the evangelical movement is actively living out the Bible’s message that the world can have hope in the person of Jesus Christ, then nothing could be further from the heart of a true evangelical then siloing off from the rest of the world in order to advance a political agenda. True evangelicalism is not about maintaining a particular earthly kingdom, but about calling people into the kingdom of God.
Of course, there’s probably nothing we can do stop the talking heads and political commentary machine from sputtering the word “evangelical” to talk about any voter south of Washington D.C. But we can, like modern-day Montoyas, challenge the abused term—and then point not to a candidate but to the evangel itself.