What’s an evangelical, anyway?

Roger Olson

Time declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” Before that most Americans had little idea what an “evangelical” was.

During the 1976 presidential election, candidate and then president-elect Jimmy Carter publicly identified himself as an “evangelical.” That “flavor” of Protestant Christianity, according to evangelical historian David Bebbington, has four distinct ingredients “on top” of orthodox Protestant Christianity: belief in the Bible as God’s inspired word (biblicism); belief in the experience of conversion, popularly known as being “born again”; belief in the cross of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation (crucicentrism); and belief in the importance of evangelism and social activism.

Let’s call this “the evangelical ethos.” It has existed at least since the spiritual awakenings and revivals that swept Great Britain and Europe in the early 1700s (the Great Awakening) and early 1800s (the Second Great Awakening). Its roots lie in what is called Pietism — a European and American movement of spiritual devotion that began in the late 1600s in Germany. Most evangelicals have always looked even further back to Martin Luther as the person who rediscovered the New Testament gospel.

We must distinguish between this evangelical ethos and any evangelical movement. Scholars report that British and American evangelicalism was largely politically progressive during the 19th century. During the first half of the 20th century evangelicalism was mostly nonpolitical. Many, but not all, American evangelicals awakened to political activism with Carter’s campaign and election. However, throughout the 1980s many American evangelicals began to support conservative politicians and their platforms.

But evangelicalism as a spiritual-theological ethos is not political. In any given time period the majority of evangelicals may align themselves with a particular political party or ideology, but evangelical Christianity itself is not ideological.

When I call myself “evangelical” I am not saying anything about my political preferences, although I do not divorce my spirituality and theology entirely from my political views. I do not identify my evangelical beliefs and spirituality with any political ideology; I accept as fellow evangelicals all who share with me the evangelical ethos.

I tend to take the long view when examining the meaning of “evangelicalism.” That means I am not inclined to surrender the label just because over the last few decades the American media have tended to identify it with politics. That identification is mostly a creation of the American popular media. Most American evangelicals are not strongly political and do not think of their evangelical faith as tied to any political party or ideology.

On the other hand, polls indicate that many Americans who call themselves evangelical or “born again” do identify with a particular political ideology — a very conservative one. Many strongly politically conservative Americans have heard from the media that evangelicalism is “the Republican Party at prayer.”

So, whether they are really evangelical in the spiritual-theological sense or not, when asked for their religious affiliation they respond “born again” or “evangelical.”

Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics in the George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. This has been adapted from InsideSources.