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Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have asked variations on the following question many times: What does the word "evangelical" mean?

Faithful readers will recall that, in 1987, I had a chance to ask the Rev. Billy Graham that question and, basically, he said that he no longer felt confident that he knew the answer. He then proceeded to frame "evangelical" in terms of ancient Christian doctrines, saying that he defined an "evangelical" as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene or the Apostles creeds. Graham stressed the centrality of belief in the resurrection and that salvation is through Jesus, alone.

However, if you follow the news, you know that most pollsters, politicos and journalists no longer believe that "evangelical" is primarily a religious word. During this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I discussed this puzzle as we tried to make sense out of a recent "Newsmax's 100 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" list.

Take a second and scan that list, if you will. Note that, after the predictable Billy Graham nod at No. 1, the next nine are Graham’s son Franklin, Joel Osteen, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell Jr., Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the married Hollywood duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

In my new "On Religion" column on this topic, historian Thomas Kidd made the following observation about the Newsmax list:

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.”

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When searching for 'evangelical' voters, maybe journalists should start with folks in pews?

When searching for 'evangelical' voters, maybe journalists should start with folks in pews?

Anyone who has lived in Texas knows that, in some communities, it seems like there are more Baptists than there are people. For every 100 folks who say they are Baptists, about 20-30 are going to be seen in a pew on a regular basis.

Anyone who has lived in, oh, Maryland knows that the state has a rich Catholic heritage. But what is the percentage of "Catholics" in the state who actually attend Mass on a regular basis, let alone practice the teachings of the faith?

Anyone who has lived in New York knows there is a wide gap between the people who are identified as Jews (the Bernie Sanders non-Jewish Jews niche is in here) and the number of people who practice any version of the Jewish faith, either on the doctrinal left or right.

Let's do one more. Anyone who has lived in or near Utah knows that when people talk about the Mormon population, that includes many "Jack Mormons" who are part of this flock on the cultural level, sort of, but are not active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What's my point? If you ask Americans if they are "born-again Christians," you are going to get totals that are way, way higher than the number of people who frequent church pews.

Clearly, if journalists (and pollsters) are actually interested in what is happening in this year's bizarre Republican race for the White House, someone is going to have to come up with questions that probe the gap between people who self-identify as "evangelicals" (or who say they are part of evangelical churches) and those whose beliefs and lifestyles have anything to do with mainstream evangelicalism.

The bottom line: What does it mean to say that Citizen Donald Trump is winning the "evangelical" vote with 30-plus percent of that vague, undefined total?

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