What Is An Evangelical?

That’s the question that Sojourners magazine has been asking its readers lately. It’s a tough one to answer well, given the diversity within the movement. But it’s also a good question to ask for that exact reason.

Here’s Sojourners contributor Cathleen Falsani’s take:

Most of my friends knew evangelicalism only through the big, bellicose voices of TV preachers and religio-political activists such as Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. Not surprisingly, my friends hadn’t experienced an evangelicalism that sounded particularly loving, accepting or open-minded.

After eschewing the descriptor because I hadn’t wanted to be associated with a faith tradition known more for harsh judgmentalism and fearmongering than the revolutionary love and freedom that Jesus taught, I began publicly referring to myself again as an evangelical. By speaking up, I hoped I might help reclaim “evangelical” for what it is supposed to mean.

This site collects all of the work Sojourners has been doing in recent months to aggregate a definition for this slippery term. I’m particularly fond of historian Randall Balmer’s answer — not just because I’m a fan of his work, but because he’s willing to challenge prevailing stereotypes about evangelicals. Here’s a taste:

Nothing better symbolizes the current confusion over the nature and character of evangelicalism than the subtitle to an article in the current issue of Christianity Today, the magazine considered by its editors the flagship publication of evangelicalism.

The article, written by Aaron B. Franzen, a graduate student in sociology at Baylor University, summarized his research findings among evangelicals who read the Bible for themselves, absent the biases of evangelical leaders.

Franzen discovered that “unlike some other religious practices, reading the Bible more often has some liberalizing effects — or at least makes the reader more prone to agree with liberals on certain issues.”

The puzzle here is not that readers of the Bible would tilt toward the political left. That, for me, as well as for thousands of other American evangelicals, is self-evident. Jesus, after all, summoned his followers to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to welcome the stranger and to care for “the least of these.” He also expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow, a sentiment that should find some resonance in our environmental policies.

No, the real conundrum lies in the subtitle the editors of Christianity Today assigned to Franzen’s article, which was titled, “A Left-Leaning Text.” Adjacent to a picture of a Bible tilted about 45 degrees to the left, the editors added the subtitle: “Survey Surprise: Frequent Bible reading can turn you liberal (in some ways).”

The fact that anyone should register surprise that the Bible points toward the left should be the biggest surprise of all.

I also like Greg Fromholz’s answer, delivered from a unique (and metaphorically significant) location:

Readers: How would you define “evangelical” in a way that allows for the breadth and depth of this expansive movement?


About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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2 Responses to What Is An Evangelical?

  1. Homeless Henry Hatfield says:

    There is another way to look at the evangelical should be left leaning. I am “evangelical” I guess? I believe in Jesus if that’s what that means. On the surface it would seem christ taught us to be liberal and Christians should be liberal. But the problem I have is the government forcing us to be liberal. If another man feels like he shouldn’t be generous then that’s his business. The government is not supposed to dictate to me what people it decides gets charity and which don’t. Besides everyone Republican or Democrat knows that the government programs make slaves to the state. I love my brother and the last thing I want for anyone is to be a slave to the US government. Teach a man to fish.

  2. I wish I had wise and learned input to offer. Maybe it’s a questioning kind of day – for the sake of discussions happening in my mind, how firmly can (or should) we align ourselves as evangelicals if the definition is a moving target? I wonder if most evangelicals agree on the parameters, or do we/they pick and choose which aspects we like? Is it a helpful tool, so others will better know who or what we are? Like Anabaptism, Pietism, Wesleyanism, labels can be helpful, incomplete or restrictive. Sadly, like the word “Christian” today, is the definition in the eye of the beholder? (Pay me no mind brother, I’m just ponderin’.)

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