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Aiming to clarify the meaning of a loaded word

A theologian champions the oft-maligned term `evangelical,' explaining its history and why he still finds it to be an important label.

December 02, 2006|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

To Christians, the coming of God as a baby in a Bethlehem manger, and the promised Second Coming to establish his kingdom, are evangel -- the Gospel, or good news.

From "evangel" comes the word "evangelist," as in evangelist Billy Graham. Evangelists proclaim the good news. That promise of salvation is at the heart of Advent, the holy season of reflection that starts Sunday and leads up to Christmas.

From "evangel" also comes the often misunderstood and much-maligned "evangelical." Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and one of the nation's leading evangelicals, believes that many people don't know what the word really means.

During a national conference at the venerable Chautauqua Institution in New York last summer, he shared a forum with Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders on how the three great Abrahamic faiths coexist with American pluralism. "Typically, 'evangelical' was used as a 'scare word,' " he recalled, "as though evangelicals want to impose their theocracy and have a right-wing agenda."

Mouw belongs to the 2.3-million member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) He has conservative leanings on such issues as abortion but is a social activist from the 1960s. He is committed to eradicating poverty and injustice, stopping genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and solving the AIDS crisis and global warming.

During a recent interview, Mouw reflected on a "wonderful word" that has become "tied up with culture wars."

What is an evangelical? What does it mean to be an evangelical Christian?

To be an evangelical is to take seriously the cross of Jesus Christ as the only solution to the fundamental issues of the human life. We are sinners who need to come to the cross in order to get right with God. That's what it means to be an evangelical.

Four criteria, enunciated by British evangelical historian David Bebbington, are widely accepted as necessary to be an evangelical:

* Conversion -- the belief that lives need to be transformed through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

* Belief in the Bible as the supreme authority.

* Cruci-centricism -- the emphasis on the Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross.

* Activism -- living out one's faith through witnessing to others, social action such as serving the poor and disenfranchised, and developing a holy life.

Whenever I have used the criteria in secular and [nonevangelical settings], there'll always be somebody who stands up and says: "I am an Episcopalian and I believe all those things, but I don't consider myself an evangelical."

The point about evangelicals is that we highlight the criteria, and we're willing to argue about them a lot. At the heart of it is the combination of biblical authority and that sense of having a personal relationship with Christ and the atoning work of Christ.

What are the origins and historical significance of the evangelical movement in this country?

The movement in North America can trace its roots to times after the Protestant Reformation, when preaching and worship became much too formal and highly intellectual.

Movements in favor of a more warm-hearted embrace of the Gospel -- and a strong sense of experiencing the grace of God in one's personal life -- came to be known as pietism in Germany, the Netherlands and in Scandinavian countries and as Puritanism in the British Isles. They very much fed the evangelical movement as we see it today in North America.

In the 19th century, evangelicals were social activists. They considered their faith as very much tied to concerns with antislavery, poverty, women's rights. But that changed in the 20th century, with the rise of secularism. Evangelicals became disillusioned with American culture.

"You can't rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic," was the talk. When evangelicals lost the evolution debate, it was, "Well, it's all over. We no longer control the culture. Our main job then is to get as many individuals saved as possible -- get them ready for heaven."

The focus was on going to heaven -- getting saved in order to go to heaven rather than dealing with the basic issues in our culture. They withdrew from society and concentrated on saving souls. This is what Timothy Smith, a famous evangelical historian, calls the "great reversal."

Why has the term "evangelical" become so unflattering in the popular culture?

Since about 1980, with the emergence of the Moral Majority and the new religious right, people have seen evangelicals as a group to be afraid of -- that we're trying to do something bad. Prior to that, for most of the 20th century, evangelicals were pretty withdrawn from American life.

But in the 1980s, it took a very political form and especially a very conservative, moral right-wing kind. Much of that came into being because of the sexual revolution. A lot of people have this image that around 1980 evangelicals said, "Let's get involved with politics and try to impose our view on everybody."

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