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Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term. No, honest. You can look it up in history books

For a half-century or more, there has been no question about whose name would top any list of the "Most Influential Evangelicals in America."

Conservatives at Newsmax have produced just such a list for 2017 and, sure enough, the Rev. Billy Graham was No. 1. At 99 years of age, he remains the patriarch of conservative Protestantism, even while living quietly in the family's log-home in the North Carolina mountains. For many, the world's most famous evangelist is the living definition of the word "evangelical."

However, the 100-person Newsmax list also demonstrates that no one really knows what the word "evangelical" means, these days. Should it be defined in terms of political clout, religious doctrines or mass-media popularity?

The rest of the Top 10, for example, includes Graham's son Franklin, prosperity gospel superstar Joel Osteen, talk-show politico Mike Huckabee, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Rick "Purpose Driven Life" Warren, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., TV host Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, religious entertainment mavens in Hollywood.

Disputes about the meaning of "evangelical" are so sharp that "several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are 'Christians,' let alone 'evangelicals' as defined by any set of core doctrines," said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.

Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to "some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both," as opposed to "leading successful churches or Christian organizations. … I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that's about it."

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

Trumpian synergy: What happens when a Fox News superstar visits First Baptist in Dallas?

With an Oval Office-endorsed pastor chatting with a Fox News star, no wonder the evangelical scribes at The Babylon Bee saw last week's rites at First Baptist Church in Dallas as must-see television for Donald Trump supporters.

The Bee headline proclaimed: "Sean Hannity Leads First Baptist Dallas In Sincere Prayer To Donald Trump."

The satire website pretended that Hannity prayed: "We just ask, Father Trump, that you would just, just use this place to advance the good news of right-wing politics, that you would spread your message far and wide. … Amen!"

That's fake news, of course.

The reality was more complex than that. While there were Trumpian overtones, this Sunday service demonstrated how many evangelicals have fused talk-show media, faith and politics to create a unique American niche culture, said a conservative church-state scholar at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas.

"It struck me how different this kind of evangelicalism is, compared with what we've known in the past," said Francis Beckwith, after watching the "America At The Crossroads" event online.

"Evangelicals have always tried to reach out to unbelievers, trying to win them over. … But no outsider is ever going to be persuaded by this. The whole purpose was to rally their base, the people they already have. … Maybe they realize that there's no persuading going on in America, right now. People are just preaching to their choirs."

Faith and Tony Snow's grace

Few things in life cause more shame than encounters with con artists, those old-fashioned predators who know how to massage egos while selling snake oil by the barrel.

But painful experiences can lead to big questions and critical insights into the state of one's soul, said White House spokesman Tony Snow, giving the commencement address at the Catholic University of America in 2007. The key is to take a long look in the mirror, to stop making excuses and then to move forward with wide-open eyes.

"Once you've gotten past the mirror phase, then things begin to get really interesting," said Snow, in a speech that focused on faith more than news and politics. "You begin to confront the truly overwhelming question: Why am I here? And that begins to open up the whole universe, because it impels you to think like the child staring out at the starry night: Who put the lights in the sky? Who put me here? Why?"

And one more thing. It's hard to ask ultimate, eternal, life-and-death questions without thinking about God, he said. That scares some people, but they need to lose that hang up.

"Don't shrink from pondering God's role in the universe or Christ's," said Snow. "You see, it's trendy to reject religious reflection as a grave offense against decency. That's not only cowardly. That's false. Faith and reason are knitted together in the human soul. So don't leave home without either one."

It was easy for Snow's audience to read between the lines on that graduation day.

The witty commentator's 17-month tenure as President Bush's spokesman had been shaped by a series of battles in his war against colon cancer that, eventually, spread to his liver. Snow was urging his listeners to ask, "Why am I here?" But in his own life, he had long ago decided not to be crushed by the unanswerable question, "Why do I have to leave?"

The former newspaper columnist and Fox News superstar kept growing thinner and his hair greyer, even though his one-liners remained sharp as he handled the kinds of tough media questions haunt a president with declining approval ratings. Then he walked away from the White House pressroom last fall, saying that he needed a higher salary -- working for CNN -- to provide for his wife and three children.

Snow's quiet death at age 53 sent new shock waves through the clannish community of politicos and pundits at the heart of life in Washington, D.C., especially since it came so soon after the shocking heart attack that claimed NBC's Tim Russert. Both were dedicated family men and devout Catholics. Both were known for their ability to be friendly and fair, while mixing with activists in both political parties.

The key was that Snow shunned the kind of gloomy pessimism that haunts many conservatives, argued Jewish conservative William Kristol in the New York Times. Instead, his "deep Christian faith combined with his natural exuberance to give him an upbeat world view. ... I came to wonder: Could it be that a stance of faith-grounded optimism is in fact superior to one of worldly pessimism or sophisticated fatalism?"

In his Catholic University speech, Snow urged the graduates to take risks and to always strive to serve others -- confident that they would learn from their mistakes and keep growing. Religious faith, he insisted, was "not an opiate" that helped people avoid hard questions and big challenges. Instead, the ups and downs that accompany the life of faith should be seen as part of "the ultimate extreme sport."

In his case, Snow argued that his calling to live life to the fullest included the challenge to fight cancer. He learned his optimism the hard way.

"I don't know why I have cancer, and I don't much care," wrote Snow, in a Christianity Today essay entitled "Cancer's Unexpected Blessings."

"Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out. But despite this -- because of it -- God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don't know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face."