Ask Americans to rank the world's most influential evangelicals and the Rev. Billy Graham will lead the list.
So you might assume that the world's most famous evangelist has an easy answer for this tricky political question: “What does the word 'evangelical' mean?” If you assumed this, you would be wrong. In fact, Graham once bounced that question right back at me.
“Actually, that's a question I'd like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, North Carolina. This oft-abused term has “become blurred…. You go all the way from the extreme Fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the Evangelicals.”
Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn't know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man's “evangelical” is another's “fundamentalist.”
This was true in 1976 when a Southern Baptist named Jimmy Carter shocked the press by saying he was “born again.” It's just as true today, as Beltway insiders dissect those November 2 exit polls saying that 23 percent of the voters in the presidential election called themselves “Evangelicals” or “born-again Christians.”
Establishment pundits agree that armies of “evangelical” voters have returned an “evangelical” president to the White House to pursue an “evangelical” agenda — whatever that means.
Long ago, Graham stressed that this term must be understood in doctrinal terms, if it is to be understood at all. He finally defined an “Evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.
“I think there are Evangelicals in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox churches,” he said.
The journalism bible basically agrees. The Associated Press Stylebook notes that “evangelical” once served as an adjective. Today it is a noun, referring to a “category of doctrinally conservative Christians. They emphasize the need for a definite, adult commitment or conversion to faith in Christ. Evangelicals stress both doctrinal absolutes and vigorous efforts to win others to belief.”
The problem is trying to agree on the “doctrinal absolutes” that define Evangelicals. Yet journalists must wrestle with this issue in order to grasp what happened, and what did not happen, on November 2, according to pollster George Barna.
A new survey by the Barna Group claims that “born again Christians” — who cast 53 percent of the votes in this election — backed George W. Bush by a 62 to 38 percent margin. Meanwhile, “evangelical” voters backed Bush by an 85 to 15 percent margin.
What's the difference? In Barna's system, all “Evangelicals” are “born-again Christians,” but not vice versa. In his polls, true “Evangelicals” are a mere 7 percent of the voting population, while other “born-again Christians” make up an additional 31 percent.
The difference between these groups is crucial for those studying the politics of social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
For Barna, Evangelicals affirm that “faith is very important in their lives today; believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believe that Satan exists; believe that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today.”
“Born-again” Christians are those who believe they have “made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important” in their lives and that they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and “accepted Jesus Christ” as Savior.
Thus, “Evangelicals” are defined by specific doctrines. “Born-again” Christians are defined by personal, often vague, spiritual experiences and feelings.
This can affect what happens in voting booths.
“In my experience,” said Barna, “journalists use 'born again' and 'evangelical' interchangeably.… As for assigning conservative perspectives to either the born-again or evangelical segments, keep in mind that the born-again constituency is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and many of the social views of that group have more in common with atheists and agnostics than they do with the more conservative evangelical constituency.”
Terry Mattingly teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.