Understanding the religious landscape, however, requires discerning differences between the smaller, let’s call it “big-E Evangelicalism,” which gets much media attention, and a much larger, little-e evangelicalism, which does not. The larger, lower-case evangelicalism is defined not by a political party, whether conservative, liberal, or populist, but by theological beliefs. This non-political definition of evangelicalism has been presented in many places. The most well known is by the historian David Bebbington, whose “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s” has become standard. He distinguishes evangelicals from other religions and Christians by a core set of beliefs. Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete, according to Bebbington. They also see it as the ultimate authority, unlike Catholics, who make church tradition equal to it. In addition, the ancient creedal formulations of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as others, are taken at face value, without reservation. And, again, unlike many in mainline Protestantism, evangelicals believe that Jesus truly did exist as the divine Son before he was born, that he actually was born of a virgin, and that he really was raised bodily from the dead.
Under Bebbington’s formulation, another defining evangelical quality is the belief in the necessity of conversion, the conviction that everyone needs a profound, life-changing encounter with God. This conversion, however, comes not merely through church attendance or general morality, but only through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death for sin. A lyric from Charles Wesley’s famous hymn captures the evangelical experience of conversion through saving faith in Christ alone: “My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” Finally, contemporary evangelicals feel bound by both desire and duty to share their faith with others in both word and deeds of service. In this, they seek to resemble, as well as to obey, their Lord, Jesus, who is described as mighty in word and deed.
Do the self-identified white “big-E Evangelicals” of the pollsters hold to these beliefs? Recent studies indicate that many do not. In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity. So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically. And, because of the enormous amount of attention the media pays to the Evangelical vote, the term now has a decisively political meaning in popular usage.
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I will take comments on this submitted by email only to KSHarmon[at]mindspring[dot]com.