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."

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

Complex realities behind that '81 percent of evangelicals love Trump' media myth

For millions of American evangelicals, a recent Oval Office photo-op was a perfect example of the political realities they face.

A day after his release from a Turkish prison, the Rev. Andrew Brunson knelt and prayed for the president who helped focus a global spotlight on efforts to free him. Brunson had been accused of backing critics of the Turkish regime.

The pastor asked God to give Donald Trump "perseverance, and endurance and courage to stand for truth. I ask that you to protect him from slander from enemies, from those who would undermine. … Fill him with your wisdom and strength and perseverance. And we bless him."

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to smile.

Trump, in jest, asked Brunson and his wife: "Who did you vote for?"

Millions of evangelicals, but not all, had to groan.

In the current news theory of everything, few numbers in American political life have received more attention than this one -- 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. Politicos have paid less attention to signs that many evangelicals cast those votes with reluctance, and some with a sense of dread.

"This was really a faith-based vote -- faith that Trump would operate as a conservative on the issues that mattered the most to evangelicals," said World Magazine editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky, a Christian conservative who, citing character flaws, openly opposed Trump getting the GOP nomination.

"I still don't like him at all, but I have to say that he's coming through. … It's a kind of politics by gesture, but he's pulling it off."

Praying with Brunson was "a perfect gesture," he added. But if Trump had "blown it on the Supreme Court, his support among evangelicals would have plummeted."

Before the election, World consulted 100 evangelical "leaders and insiders" and half of them said they wouldn't vote for Trump, "no matter what." The other half said they would watch for signals that Trump sent about the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Try to imagine the media storm if the following drama ever took place under the hot glare of television lights in a U.S. Senate hearing.

So a Muslim believer who has been nominated for a cabinet-level post is taking questions. A Bible Belt senator asks: "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Or perhaps a senator from a New England state -- say Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- asks the nominee: "Do you think Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity will be condemned because they reject the oneness of God?"

Ismail Royer knows what would happen if he faced those questions. He would defend one of Islam's core doctrines.

"I believe Jesus was a prophet of God, but not God himself," said Royer, who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. "I'd have to say that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism and is a rejection of the one God. There is no way that I could apologize for what I believe as a Muslim."

A purely hypothetical case? Not after a recent confrontation during a U.S. Senate budget committee hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders questioned a Vought article about a Wheaton College controversy, in which a professor made headlines with her claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a former Wheaton professor, Vought argued that salvation was found through Jesus -- period.

Thus, Sanders said: "You wrote, 'Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son and they stand condemned.' Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?"

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims "stand condemned."

Once again, Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"

Tesser well, Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle found it amusing that her critics kept missing the obvious in her fiction.

Consider the magical women in "A Wrinkle In Time" -- Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. It's true that they have strange wardrobes and unique ways of speaking. Mrs. Whatsit is chatty, for example, because she is so young -- a mere 2,379,152,497 years, eight months and three days old.

When the elder Mrs. Which arrives from another dimension, her colleagues begin giggling. Why? Since she is meeting three human children, Mrs. Which elects to appear as a "figure in a black robe and a black peaked hat, beady eyes, a beaked nose and long gray hair." She is holding a broomstick.

Get the joke? For decades, L'Engle's fiercest critics kept missing it. Thus, "A Wrinkle In Time" -- which won the 1963 Newbery Medal -- became one of America's most frequently banned children's books.

"If you read the book, there is no way that they are witches. They are guardian angels -- the book says so. You don't have to clarify what is already clear," L'Engle told me, in a lengthy 1989 interview.

"Don't they know how to spell? W-H-I-C-H is not W-I-T-C-H."

This interview came during a time when L'Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had increased her already busy lecture schedule after the death of her husband of 40 years, actor Hugh Franklin. But L'Engle kept writing and talking about the themes that dominated her life -- faith, family and creativity -- until her health failed. She wrote more than 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers during her life, which ended with her Sept. 6th death in Litchfield, Conn., at the age of 88.

Wherever L'Engle went, people kept asking her to explain her beliefs, from heaven to hell, from sex to salvation, from feminism to the arts. The writer did not hide her views, but rarely used the kind of language that so-called "Christian writers" were supposed to use.

Thus, her career was defined by a paradox: Many of her strongest admirers were evangelical Christians, as were most of her fiercest critics. Thus, it's symbolic that she donated her personal notes and papers to Wheaton College -- the Rev. Billy Graham's alma mater -- where they are part of a collection best known for its materials about the life of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

L'Engle was also candid about the role her faith played in her writing. She was, throughout her life, an Episcopalian's Episcopalian from New York City who was determined to keep describing the visions and voices that filled her soul. While her writing was often mysterious, she kept hiding the crucial clues right out in the open.

It's hard, for example, to miss the source of the climactic speech to Meg Murray, the heroine in the science fiction series that began with "A Wrinkle In Time."

"The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men," says Mrs. Who, who always speaks in quotations, such as this lengthy passage from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. "... God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty."

It's even clearer, in the next novel, that the children are backed by the powers of heaven. Meg finds herself face to face with a many-eyed creature with a 10-foot wingspan, a being with too many wings to count, wings that were in "constant motion, covering and uncovering the eyes." This is a biblical cherubim, yet another angelic vision. He stresses that he is not a singular cherub, and adds, "I am practically plural."

The goal, said L'Engle, was to create fiction that was unmistakably Christian, while writing to an audience that included all kinds of believers and unbelievers.

"I have been brought up to believe that the Gospel is to be spread, it is to be shared -- not kept for those who already have it," she said. "Well, 'Christian novels' reach Christians. They don't reach out. ... I am not a 'Christian writer.' I am a writer who is a Christian. I think that you have to be the best writer that you can be. Now, if I am truly a Christian, then that will show in my work."

Ruth Graham, the X-factor

There was a time just after the Watergate scandal when Billy Graham, stung by his ties to the fallen President Richard Nixon, tried to let his hair down a bit.

Graham began addressing a wide range of social issues, including nuclear arms control. He focused less attention to America and said that the church's future was in the Third World. Some long-time supporters began to grumble -- literally -- about his hair.

"People were worried that Billy was letting his hair get too long. We were getting telephone calls about it," said one insider at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, years later.

Eventually, Graham's wife heard about the mini-crisis and responded in her own way. Ruth Bell Graham quietly suggested that Billy should consider growing a mustache.

"That was," the insider said, "her way of saying, 'Leave my husband's hair alone. For that matter, leave my husband alone.' "

Anyone who has studied the career of the world's most famous evangelist knows that Ruth Graham was much more than his wife or even his "soul mate," the label many commentators adopted after her death on June 14, at the age of 87.

Historians will always ask how Graham evolved from a narrow Southern fundamentalist into the evangelical who preached to the world. Here's one obvious answer: "He married Ruth Bell." She was nothing less than the X-factor, the source of that sense of otherness that, when blended with her husband's essential humanity and North Carolina sense of grace, added a note of mystery to his career. His instinct was to try to get along with everyone. Her instinct was to resist the people who wanted to own him, body and soul.

Graham kept saying, in that "ah, shucks" way of his, that Ruth was smarter than he was. Still, it was hard to determine her precise role.

The basic facts were amazing enough. She was the daughter of missionaries in China and as a girl yearned to be a martyr. She never planned to marry, yet raised five children in their unique North Carolina home (she hired mountain men to combine several abandoned log cabins) that she defended like a lioness.

On one memorable occasion, she kicked her husband under the table when President Lyndon Baines Johnson tried to lure him into political talk. When asked if she had ever considered divorce, Ruth passed along this wisecrack to Barbara Bush: "Divorce? No. Murder? Yes."

It is no surprise that Ruth declined a thousand interview requests for every one she granted. When I left full-time reporting to start teaching, I included this item in my farewell Rocky Mountain News column: "Allowed to interview one living religious figure, I would choose Ruth Bell Graham, the media-shy Presbyterian poet who also happens to be married to the world's best-known Southern Baptist preacher."

I hoped to interview her in 1987, when I spent a day with Graham before a Denver crusade. But the timing was ironic. He was at home, while his wife was away -- visiting a clinic due to her already fragile health. Graham offered a tour, but admitted that he was not the best guide.

"My wife runs all of this, to tell you the truth," said Graham, mystified by a leather-bound copy of "History of the Reformation in Scotland" on a den table. Ruth, he stressed, was the theologian in the family, the one who could dig into Greek texts.

"She's way over my head when it comes to the books. ... She knows everything about everything in this house. She's collected and read a lot of wonderful things and they're all here somewhere," said Graham, before settling into one of their twin rocking chairs on the back porch, facing the mountains.

"I just wish she were here."

There were, of course, far more days when Ruth missed her globetrotting husband. She poured her emotions into poetry, offering glimpses into a private life behind the very public ministry. Here is one of her poems.


in the morning

I make our bed,

pulling his sheets

and covers tight,

I know the tears

I shouldn't shed

will fall unbidden

as the rain:

and I would kneel,

praying again

words I mean

but cannot feel,


not my will

but Thine

be done."

The doubts dissolving

one by one.

For I realize,

as I pray,

that's why it happened

and this way.

Memory eternal, Robert E. Webber

During one of his early visits to London, Billy Graham was confronted by an Anglican leader who causally dismissed the entire crusade effort.

"Young man," said the priest, "I do not approve of your style of evangelism."

"I'm sure that what I'm doing isn't perfect," replied Graham. "But I like the evangelism that I'm doing better than the evangelism that you're not doing."

Robert E. Webber knew that collision of styles inside out.

The theologian spent most of his career working with people on both sides of the cultural divide captured in that familiar anecdote about the world's most famous evangelist. It helped that Webber -- who died April 27, after an eight-month struggle with cancer -- had lived and worshipped in both camps.

As a graduate of the proudly fundamentalist Bob Jones University, Webber knew all about the style of evangelism that many believers can condense into a single blunt question: "If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?" Yet, as a convert to the Episcopal Church, he also knew how to talk to those who are offended by any discussion of evangelism or, as unsophisticated folks call it, "saving souls."

"The problem with evangelism is that churches either do it or they don't," Webber told me, before a Denver speaking engagement in the mid-1980s. This was about the time that he began to emerge as an influence on progressive evangelicals, in large part because of his strategic years teaching at Wheaton College, home of the Billy Graham Center.

"I think every church that is alive has within it people who are gifted at evangelism," he added. "If a church doesn't have these people, then there are some tough questions that have to be asked. ... You may be dealing with a dead church."

Media tributes to Webber this past week have focused on his trailblazing work encouraging evangelicals -- through his writings, both popular and academic -- to begin weaving strands of ancient rites and prayers into the fabric of contemporary Protestant worship. An ecumenical document rooted in his work, entitled "A Call to An Ancient Evangelical Future" (aefcall.org), challenged its readers to "strengthen their witness through a recovery of the faith articulated by the consensus of the ancient Church and its guardians in the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation and the Evangelical awakenings."

Webber's convictions can also be seen in the titles of his books, such as "Worship Is a Verb," "Ancient-Future Faith," "Worship Old and New" and the once-scandalous " Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail." In 1998, he founded the Institute for Worship Studies (now known as the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies), a high-tech global graduate school based at Grace Episcopal Church of Orange Park, Fla.

This liturgical approach was a hard sell, especially in the age of media-driven megachurches offering services tuned to fit the fast-paced lifestyles of suburbia.

"The truth is that we Americans are a-historical," wrote Webber, in "The New Worship Awakening," a book rereleased several times during the past dozen years. "Most of us know very little about history and probably care even less. What we are interested in is the now, the moment, the existential experience. Unfortunately, most churches in this country have the same mentality."

However, there was a flip side to his tough message targeting evangelicals.

Webber was convinced that far too many liturgical Christians -- Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and the Orthodox -- have abandoned the task of evangelizing nonbelievers and those estranged from the faith. In their rush to reject what Webber called a "Lone Ranger," "hit-and-run" style of evangelism, the leaders of these flocks have veered into apathy and silence.

There is also a chance that many of them no longer want to discuss sin, evil, repentance, grace, death and, horror of horrors, heaven and hell. These eternal concerns are not going to fade away, said Webber.

"What lies behind the views of people who see these doctrines as negative, as subjects to be avoided, is probably an embarrassment about the historic Christian faith," he explained. "Until a church is ready to reckon with historic Christianity, it is not going to be interested in evangelism. ... So I am probably not even talking to what you could call the average, mainline, liberal church."

Shadows of THE wardrobe

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The tall wardrobe in the office of the Westmont College English department isn't much to look at, but visitors from near and far keep visiting to peek inside.

A previous owner described this piece of oak furniture as a "perfectly ordinary wardrobe," a big one of the "sort that has a looking glass in the door." It was big enough to hold "a second row of coats hanging up behind the first one," yet the threshold was low enough that a small child -- perhaps a girl playing hide and seek -- could step into it.

It helps to know that this previous owner was a scholar named C.S. Lewis and that he wrote this precise description of this wardrobe, or an imaginary armoire just like it, in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." This was the first book published in his classic fantasy series "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Naturally, legions of Lewis lovers want to see and touch the wardrobe.

"Day after day you see people coming through to pay homage," said Paul J. Willis, whose office is next to this doorway into the land of Aslan, the Christ figure in Narnia. "There is that part of me that wants to say to each and every one of them, 'Hey! It's just a wardrobe!' ... Yet part of me also thinks that it's funny, and significant, that we are so serious about our literary relics. Why is that?"

There is no sign of declining interest in the life and work of Lewis and this is especially true of the Narnia novels, with more than 100 million copies sold over the past half a century. Meanwhile, the film version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" grossed $745 million worldwide and the first sequel, "Prince Caspian," is slated for a May 2008 release.

Willis has a unique perspective on this phenomenon and not just because he teaches at Westmont, a liberal arts college on the coast north of Los Angeles. The professor and novelist is also a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, which includes the Wade Center, a famous center for Lewis studies. This collection includes his desk, 2,400 books from his personal library, 2,300 of his letters and an ornate, double-door oak wardrobe handmade by Lewis' grandfather in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Wheaton obtained this item in 1973 and researchers stress that, according to the famous author's older brother Warren, this spectacular wardrobe was in their family home during the years that shaped their imaginations and childhood games.

Willis remembers the emotions stirred by the arrival of this wardrobe on campus. Some people seemed to think it was an object worthy of worship, because of its connection to the "unofficial patron saint of Wheaton College." Willis even wrote an editorial in the student newspaper, jokingly suggesting that administrators could cut slivers out of the back and sell them as relics.

It's crucial to remember that the Narnia wardrobe is the "threshold to fantasy," wrote Willis, in a 2005 book of essays entitled "Bright Shoots of Everlastingness." For many readers devoted to the novels, this physical wardrobe had become "a sacrament of the literary imagination. It was the closest thing we had to Narnia."

And then there were two, when Westmont obtained its wardrobe in 1975.

This was the last piece of furniture left in The Kilns, the house near Oxford in which the Lewis brothers lived while the Oxford don wrote his Narnia novels and many other books. This wardrobe was about to be destroyed because it was too big to be removed through a narrow doorway created by renovations Lewis had made to his bedroom.

Thus, Wheaton has a beautiful wardrobe linked to the childhood of Lewis, the time when he began telling his first tales about magic lands full of talking animals.

Westmont, meanwhile, has a Lewis wardrobe that fits the description of the one that the adult writer inserted into his most famous fantasy. It is an ordinary, everyday wardrobe like thousands of others in homes throughout England.

"Lewis, of course, would say that neither of these wardrobes are the real thing," said Willis. "They are merely copies. They are what Lewis would call shadows of the wardrobe. What really matters is the wardrobe in the story, because that is the doorway into the land beyond our own -- the true land of Aslan."