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« Out-of-this-world expectations surpassed | Main | Salutes in order »

Another good label lost

Thirty years ago, most Baptists who would today be labeled as "moderates" considered themselves to be conservative in most matters. They tried to follow the teachings of Christ, believed the Bible was inspired by God, gladly shared their faith, and held very few hermeneutically radical ideas.

In the late 1970s, however, as the winds of change struck the Southern Baptist Convention, vocabulary was one of the prizes up for grabs. The mainstream Baptists who had led the convention for many years labeled the ideological uprising that reshaped the convention "the fundamentalist takeover." Leaders of the movement, who made biblical inerrancy their watchword, insisted that they were not fundamentalists, but conservatives. Today, their standard term for the power shift is "the conservative resurgence."

While the struggle continued, there were intense debates about what labels were appropriate. Fundamentalists cried foul when they were called by that name, which they considered pejorative, and insisted that they be called "conservatives." Middle-of-the-road Baptists who had always considered themselves to be conservative complained that fundamentalists had usurped the adjective and redefined "conservative" much more narrowly. Only begrudgingly did they begin to use the anemic-sounding term "moderate," and then only for lack of a better alternative. They didn't want to accept the fundamentalists' charge that they were liberals, but couldn't come up with a better term than "moderate" to describe "non-fundamentalists who aren't liberal."

For a while, Baptists media tried using the combination monikers "conservative-fundamentalists" and "conservative-moderates," but they were too ungainly to be very useful and too hard to fit in a single column of newsprint.

Ultimately, those who could accurately be called fundamentalists won the battle along with the SBC's public relations machinery, and became sole owners of the "conservative" brand. Non-fundamentalists who didn't want to be called "liberals" were then stuck with the name "moderate," which inaccurately implied a lack of passion.

For a while, however, moderates could still safely consider themselves to be "evangelicals," thinking that the term meant what it said -- that they believed Christians should lead an evangelistic lifestyle that encourages others to follow Christ.

Over the past few years, however, the term "evangelical" has also been co-opted and used as a descriptor for the politically conservative religious right, or as another euphemism for "fundamentalist."

We see this in a quantifiable way in the terminology used by popular pollster George Barna. In a recent survey that showed sharp differences in the primary concerns voiced by various segments of society, Barna showed that Americans in general considered poverty (78 percent), personal debt (78 percent), and HIV/AIDS (76 percent) to be their three greatest concerns among ten domestic or social issues presented to them (concern about the war in Iraq was not an option).

Respondents that Barna calls "born again" (defined as people who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and believe they will go to heaven when they die)
were right on track with the general population, listing the same three concerns and comparable percentages.

Those labeled as "evangelicals," however, chose decidedly different options. Their top three concerns were abortion (94 percent), personal debt (81 percent), and the content of television and movies (79 percent) -- closely followed by concern about homosexual activists (75 percent), and gay and lesbian lifestyles (75 percent).

This becomes more understandable when one checks out the criteria Barna uses to consider someone an "evangelical." In addition to meeting the characteristics of being "born again," evangelicals must also meet seven other criteria: "Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today."

Thus, by Barna's definition, one must meet nine specific criteria to be an evangelical. About one-fifth of all "born again" Christians qualify, Barna says.

The pollster carefully notes that respondents are not asked to self-identify themselves as "born again" or "evangelical," and whether they actually go to church has nothing to do with it. The labels are applied on the basis of responses to survey questions about personal beliefs.

The end result is that "evangelical," at least in Barna's useage, has now gone the way of "conservative." While both terms once described Christians who trust God, trust the Bible, and believe in the importance of sharing their faith, they are now applied to a very narrow band of believers who could accurately be called "fundamentalists" -- but don't want to be.

Reader Comments (8)

Thanks for clarifying the muddy waters, especially in this election year when "evangelical" is being used heavily. A recent variation I've seen and like is "progressive evangelical," further adding to the mix of confusion yet showing a desire to distance from the fundamentalist-leaning end of "evangelical."

Jan 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjchensonsr

Thanks for your post. Language is so very important here, and those who control the terms are usually those who have the power to do so. The only recourse is to dissent and refuse to given into the definitions of the dominant group. This does muddy the waters, but it does provoke in some hearers a moment of confusion that often leads to reflection.

The co-opting of language is witnessed each day in the mainstream press. I must confess a revulsion when I hear conservative Christians who identify themselves as Republicans refered to as "values" voters, as if more progressive Christians who may vote democratic are not motivated by "values". I can understand why Fox News would use this language, but must the New York Times, CBS, NPR, and CNN? I say that we should be a bit more descriptive of the actual values individuals hold.

As to the word "evangelicals", has anyone asked the ELCA (Lutherans) how they feel about the narrow use of the term?

Jan 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterScott

Two brief comments since I went on a little on the Salute Blog.
1)As you know Bob Jones a couple years ago became a "Preservationist".
2) There was a telling and fascinating exchange in 1990 at one of James Dunn's BJC events in DC where Reinhold Niebuhr's great nephew Gus educated the Bircher Albert Lee Smith at a microphone.
Niebuhr explained as graciously as he could to SMith that words had meaning, and he Smith was a fundamentalist.

Jan 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterfoxofbama

I wonder how some of the "original" evangelicals (16th-17th century followers of Calvin were referred to and referred to themselves using the term "evangelical") would feel about all of this?

Jan 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew T

I don't know, Andrew, but it occurs to me that it takes only five points to be a full-fledged Calvinist, but nine to be a Barna evangelical!

Jan 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTony W. Cartledge

One more thing:

I am convinced all discussion on Calvinism is moot at this point, unless everyone including me and Bill Leonard and Tony Cartledge, the detractors and the proponents develop a working conversation of Marilyn Robinson's take on Calvin in her collection of The Death of Adam.
Two: I would like for Glenn Jonas and Cartledge to see There Will Be Blood, consider my allegory at and do a blog.
I think I am on to something, as weighty as Calvinism in the SBC.

Stephen fox

Jan 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous


"Only begrudgingly did they begin to use the anemic-sounding term 'moderate,' and then only for lack of a better alternative. They didn't want to accept the fundamentalists' charge that they were liberals, but couldn't come up with a better term than 'moderate' to describe 'non-fundamentalists who aren't liberal.'"

And so some of those "moderates", having had their fingers pried off the Southern Baptist pie, went out and form the Alliance of Baptists which openly, proudly, and impenitently affirms, supports and condones the crime of homosexuality. Thus they proved that at least some of the "conservatives" who came to be knowns as "moderates" were, in reality, what they were accused fof being - bug-eyed liberals with no regard whatsoever for the Word of God!

All this duplicity might be down right humorous were it not so deathly serious and monumentally filthy.

Mark Osgatharp
Wynne, Arkansas

Jan 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMark Osgatharp

Great tony. Ya'll need to read Tony Campolo's book "Letters to a young evangelical" in which he uses a chapter to describe the paradox of the terms you've described. The term he ultimately has come to use to describe himself and fellow evangelicals who are NOT politically co-opted is "Red Letter Christians," as in those Christians who ascribe to the biblical words in red letters...the words of Jesus. That term, is in fact, the name of Campolo's latest book, "Red Letter Christians."

Feb 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNorman

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