George Bush

Define 'evangelical' -- please

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, N.C. 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 Nov. 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 Nov. 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 addition 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."

W. Bush -- theological Rorschach test

In Iowa, some United Methodists want the president and vice president tossed out of their church for "chargeable offenses" against its doctrines on justice and peace.

"Our hope is that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney will recognize the sinfulness of their actions, sincerely repent for what they have done and move on to change their ways," say leaders of the liberal TheyMustRepent.com network. "Although we recognize the improbability of that outcome, we believe that with God all things are possible."

Meet President Bush -- theological Rorschach test.

Throughout this campaign, Catholics have debated Sen. John Kerry's claim to his place at the Communion rail. The Democrat has drawn both criticism and applause in pulpits and pews while wrestling with the specifics of his Catholic heritage.

Bush has been caught in a different vise. If he affirms specific beliefs, secularists and liberal believers call him a fundamentalist. If he declines to be specific, critics ask what he is hiding. Is he a fundamentalist, a born-again Christian, an ordinary megachurch evangelical or some other brand of believer?

The New York Times Magazine says the president's faith is irrational and dangerously simplistic. That's the word from journalist Ron Suskind, whose acidic Oct. 17 profile ignited fresh debates about religion and the White House. According to critics in this camp, Bush thinks he's on a mission from God and, thus, has the same black-and-white moral worldview as al Qaeda. The result is an American version of the conflict "raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion."

Not all progressives agree.

Jeff Sharlet, co-author of "Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible," says it's nonsense to call Bush a fundamentalist. The president rarely digs into biblical details, at least not publicly, and lacks the rigid literalism at the heart of true fundamentalism. Instead, he talks about following his "instincts," his "gut" and his "heart" when he makes big decisions.

"Believing, it seems, is more important to the president than the substance of his belief," argues Sharlet, in an essay called "Our magical president" at TheRevealer.org.

The key to Bush is his belief that "if you believe you can do something, you can," he said. This "gentle disdain for perceived reality" is a kind of faith in faith itself. What many critics miss and what most of "Bush's more orthodox Christian supporters seem to dodge, is that this is not Christian doctrine by any definition. It is, in fact, a key element of the broad, heterodox movement known as New Age religion."

Meanwhile, one of America's top evangelical historians has decided he cannot step into a voting booth and endorse either candidate. This is news in some circles because Mark Noll teaches at Wheaton College, Billy Graham's alma mater.

"Seven issues seem to me to be paramount at the national level: race, the value of life, taxes, trade, medicine, religious freedom and the international rule of law," said Noll, writing in the Christian Century.

"Each of these issues has a strong moral dimension. My position on each is related to how I understand the traditional Christian faith. ... Yet neither of the major parties is making a serious effort to consider this particular combination of concerns or even anything remotely resembling it."

Another evangelical says Bush deserves special attention because he has gone out of his way to find favor with religious conservatives. Whatever Bush has said about the conversion experience that saved him from his wicked, alcoholic past, the available evidence about the rest of his life "raises questions about whether Bush is really a Christian at all," according to Ayelish McGarvey, in the American Prospect.

The president rarely goes to church, has little interest in evangelism, has a history of nasty campaign tactics, flip-flopped on the tough issue of embryonic stem-cell research, lacks humility about his mistakes and has edited the Bible down to a convenient set of commandments she calls "evangelical agitprop."

"I'm no Kerry fan. I mean, I don't think he's a very good Catholic," said McGarvey. "But if Catholics can dissect Kerry, point by point, then I think it's more than appropriate for evangelicals to do the same for Bush. What does it say about us if we're afraid to do that?"