Evangelicals have been in the news a lot lately — from Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who plays and prays football with scriptures stenciled to his face, to the Texas pastor and his wife, who spent 24 hours in bed preaching the virtues of sex in Christian marriages.
Add to that the Tennessee couple who run "Evangelicals for Mitt," Catholic Rick Santorum snagging the "evangelical vote" at a Texas meeting of more than 100 Christian pastors, and Romney’s South Carolina defeat, partly due to opposition from evangelical voters.
So who are these Christians? What do they have in common and how are they different from other believers?
Even famed preacher Billy Graham wasn’t sure when asked that in 1987 by religion reporter Terry Mattingly.
"Actually, that’s a question, I’d like to ask somebody, too," Graham said. "The lines [have] become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals."
So here’s a primer about these religious types, their history, faith and politics:
Who is an evangelical?
Technically, all Christians are, according to the Religion Newswriters’ Stylebook. The word comes from the Greek "evangelion," the book says, which means "good news" or "gospel." And all who claim to follow Jesus Christ feel obligated to share his gospel.
But the term "evangelical" has come to refer mostly to a type of Protestant, explains Pastor Corey Hodges of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Kearns and a part-time Salt Lake Tribune columnist. Evangelicals believe in the Trinity; that the Bible alone is the word of God; and that it is inerrant and infallible; that salvation is by grace alone through faith and not accomplished by human effort or achievement; and that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh and his death and resurrection were the payment for human sin.
Notre Dame historian Mark Noll, author of Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction, recommends a wider description, one penned by British historian David Bebbington. Bebbington identified a couple of additional or key ingredients of evangelicalism, including an emphasis on the "new birth" as a life-changing experience of God and a concern for sharing the faith.
The trouble, Noll notes, is that "these evangelical traits have never by themselves yielded cohesive, institutionally compact, or clearly demarcated groups of Christians, but [rather] ... identify a large family of churches and religious enterprises."
In other words, "evangelical" is not the name of a single church.
Indeed, says John Morehead, director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies in Salt Lake City, "evangelicalism is a movement that encompasses a variety of denominations and independent traditions."
Terry Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, expands the definition further, saying "evangelicals have always been a cultural niche/commercial product kind of thing. No set doctrines."
What sets evangelicals apart from fundamentalists?
Noll: The serious answer is the ‘eye of the beholder.’
For instance, I believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ, which makes me a fundamentalist in the eyes of some people, but I take an occasional glass of wine and don’t worry about evolution, which means that, for many people, I can’t be a fundamentalist.
Hodges: Fundamentalists practice an extreme religion that is against the culture, while liberal Christians do not believe that the entire Bible is the word of God. This would be a social distinction. Fundamentalists generally believe that culture is evil and corrosive. Their views usually result in isolation from the culture and/or bigotry. Evangelicals believe the culture is redeemable and can and should be impacted by Christians.
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