Thomas Kidd

Define 'evangelical,' please (2019 edition)

Define 'evangelical,' please (2019 edition)

There is no record that political pollsters in ancient Rome even knew that Jesus of Nazareth told a Jewish leader named Nicodemus that he needed to be "born again" in order see the Kingdom of God.

Germans in the Protestant Reformation embraced that "born again" image and called themselves the "evangelisch." Then in 1807, English poet Robert Southey was one of the first writers to turn the adjective "evangelical" -- think "evangelical" preaching -- into a plural noun "evangelicals." There was no earthquake in European politics.

But America changed forever when Bible Belt Democrat Jimmy Carter shocked journalists by saying that he had been "born again." That firestorm led Newsweek editors to grab a phrase from pollster George Gallup and proclaim 1976 the "Year of the Evangelical." Lots of politicos noticed, including a rising Republican star named Ronald Reagan.

The rest is a long story. 

"The news media and polling agencies realized that the 'born again' vote was a seminal political factor," noted historian Thomas Kidd, in a recent address at Wheaton College, the alma mater of the late evangelist Billy Graham.

"The Gallup organization," he added, "began asking people whether they had been 'born again.' The emergence of EVANGELICAL as a common term in news coverage of politics was a major landmark in the development of the contemporary evangelical crisis. … The media's frequent use of 'born again' and 'evangelical' connected those terms to political behavior."

More some evangelical insiders relished this attention, while denominational leaders and other mainstream evangelicals failed to realize that "they were losing control of the public's perception of their movement," said the scholar from Baylor University.

But one thing would become crystal clear, according to Kidd's new book, "Who is An Evangelical?" His bottom line: "The gospel did not make news. But politics did."

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."