We hear about evangelicals in the media, but who are they really?
Perhaps no group in North America is easier to dislike or harder to understand than evangelical Christians. This may be because of what we hear in the media about some fanatical groups.
Reactions to the term “evangelical” can be quite strong: “Don’t they hate women and gay people?” “Aren’t those the people who are afraid of science and societal advance?” “Don’t they always think their way is the only right way?”
Admittedly, some who wear the label “evangelical” often fit the negative stereotype that has come to be associated with the term. And too frequently, loud voices claiming to speak for all evangelicals spread a message that is less like Jesus Christ and more like a political agenda or cultural crusade. Such people understandably make some nervous or angry and leave many wondering exactly who evangelicals are.
In a 1987 interview, Reverend Billy Graham—arguably the most prominent evangelical preacher of the twentieth century—was asked what an evangelical was. “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody too,” Graham told religion reporter Terry Mattingly. “The lines [have] become blurred. . . . You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals, and somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”1
The Evangelical Movement
Evangelicalism began among Protestants in Great Britain in the 1730s. The movement spread as a result of a series of “Great Awakenings” during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A plethora of new Christian denominations and new branches within existing denominations sprang up in the wake of these religious movements, each emphasizing spreading the gospel. These denominations tended toward fundamentalism and shared what University of Stirling historian David W. Bebbington calls the “quadrilateral of priorities”—the basis of evangelicalism:2
- The need to be born again (a personal conversion)
- The supremacy of biblical authority
- Salvation through the death and resurrection of the Son of God
- Active sharing of the gospel through evangelism
Evangelical churches have historically tended to be Protestant, although evangelical movements occasionally spring up within Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism-Episcopalianism.
The Evangelical Goal
Though at times the efforts of some individuals have been misguided, evangelicals as a whole have sought ways to affect society positively through the tangible expression of their Christian faith. For example, a great number of American hospitals (such as Vanderbilt) and institutions of higher learning (such as Princeton and Brown Universities) were started by evangelicals.3 The men and women who founded these institutions applied the message of Jesus to the enlightenment mind-set that was prevalent at the time.
Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate.Henry Louis Mencken4
Evangelical thought has affected virtually every part of modern Western society. It was evangelical Christians who gave the world of art such notable painters and sculptors as Botticelli and Raphael. Western classical music continues to be informed and inspired by Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and Handel’s “Messiah.”
Sociologist Rodney Stark admits, “The modern world arose only in Christian societies . . .all the modernization that has since occurred outside Christendom was imported from the West, often brought by colonizers and missionaries.”5
Younger Evangelicals Today
Since the turn of this century, a rebellion has sprung up among young evangelicals against what author Roland D. McCune calls “the drastic innovations, self-esteem therapeutics, and crass commercialism of the boomer pragmatists.”6
Ritual and liturgy have traditionally held little place in most evangelical churches. However, young evangelicals have begun to embrace the church practices of the past, including ecumenical creeds, ancient liturgies, iconography, and symbols of the ancient church.
And though they retain the “quadrilateral of priorities,” the younger evangelicals often take a more liberal stance on social issues than previous generations.
Evangelicals and Politics
It is often thought that the evangelical community in the US is uniformly conservative, but this is not the case. Today politicians face an almost-futile task when trying to rally political support from evangelicals as a whole.
Ronald Reagan, perhaps the most successful politician of the age at rallying evangelicals behind his candidacy, never was able to engage a significant portion of the black evangelical churches, which—while arguably more politically and socially conservative than white evangelicals—always vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Evangelicals are not a homogeneous group politically, by any means. To truly understand what it means to be “evangelical,” one must unplug this term from its ties to American politics.
Evangelicals can be found in “red states” as well as “blue states.” All political parties include some devoted followers of Jesus. And all believe that the great unifier is not political affiliation, race, gender, or societal status, but the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
What Do Evangelicals Believe?
Throughout history, evangelicals have sought to improve and advance civilization through principles they believed were found within God’s revelation of himself in Scripture and in nature. That same spirit permeates the evangelical mind-set today.
These aspirations are motivated by the core beliefs of evangelical Christianity—belief in the Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the role of the church in society, and the urgency of global missions and humanitarian work. Most importantly, evangelical action is based on the conviction that God has fully and finally revealed himself to all humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
At heart, evangelicals are simply bearers of the good news of Jesus Christ. This news is that Jesus loved humanity enough to enter our world and do what was necessary to bring healing and understanding, and to offer the opportunity for a genuine relationship with him.
By no means do evangelicals always follow Jesus perfectly, but more than anything, their desire is that the world would see Jesus’ love through their words and actions.