What do evangelicals believe? | What is an evangelical and an evangelicalism?

So you want to know what an evangelical is.

Of course, when most people think of “evangelicals,” they probably have in mind those of a particular (usually far-right) political agenda. But this is not necessarily the case.

Essential to understanding “what is an evangelical?” and “What is evangelism?” is the fact that evangelicalism is neither a religion nor a denomination, but a religious movement.

Because it is a movement, it is not limited to a “theological” construction. As a result, Evangelicals find themselves across a broad spectrum of Christianity. In fact, there are evangelicals on both sides of the political aisle.

Evangelicals attend all kinds of churches: there are non-denominational evangelicals, mega-churches,[1] there are evangelical Baptists, evangelical Lutherans,[2] and evangelical Presbyterians.[3]

NB: I have a series of five posts on my site criticizing evangelism and the Bible. In the coming weeks I will have a series critiquing “evangelicalism and salvation”. Then, in the fall of 2022, I will begin a series of articles on far-right evangelicals and their embrace of America, American exceptionalism, and Christian nationalism.

What makes an evangelical an evangelical?

The word ‘evangelical’ simply indicates someone who believes in the ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’. Perhaps the central gospel belief that all people should have a personal encounter with Jesus is what gave rise to the label “gospel” – which comes from the Greek word “euangelion(“good news” or “gospel”).

One of the issues here, and one that evangelicals don’t take enough notice of, is the fact that all Christians believe the “good news” of Jesus. But not all Christians are evangelicals.

Perhaps the most widely recognized description of “evangelical” comes from historian David Bebbington.[4] According to Bebbington, there are four core beliefs that unite all evangelicals.

  • Biblicalism: a high esteem for the Bible and the conviction that it contains all the spiritual truths necessary for Christians.
  • Cross centered: a strong conviction of the Cross of Christ and its atoning significance for our salvation.
  • Conversion: Individuals need to have a personal trust in Christ for their salvation.
  • Activism: that all Christians are called to proclaim the gospel.

When did evangelism start?

Evangelicalism could only arise after the Protestant Reformation (1500s). After all, the exalted belief in the Bible as the sole basis of its beliefs and practices, which is a central pillar in the formation of Protestantism, only made sense after the development of the printing press in the 15e century and the rise of Protestantism and its desire to translate the Bible into the languages ​​of the people.

The rise of modern evangelicalism is largely due to the influence of Billy Graham.[5] The publication Christianity today, which was formed by Graham in 1956, served as the media arm of his burgeoning movement. Academic institutions such as Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary served as training grounds for new evangelicals.

Evangelicals and Political Activism

Of course, when many people think of evangelism, their first inclination is to associate it with partisan politics, especially far-right partisan politics. If we were to push further and ask “what is the defining question of evangelism?” I suspect most would answer “abortion.”

But, did you know that in the 60s and 70s?[6] wasn’t abortion the defining issue of far-right evangelicalism?[7] In fact, many of those who became leading voices for conservative evangelicals supported Roe v Wade (see my recent article here for a more in-depth discussion of evangelicals and their early support for abortion)

Unbeknownst to many, grassroots “evangelicalism,” known today for its embrace of the far-right political agenda, has coalesced around the issue of segregation[8] (see my previous post in which I give much more detail on this point).

After the famous Brown v Board of Education and the demand for desegregation of schools, some white parents feared the prospect that if their white daughters attended the same schools as black boys, they might eventually grow up, fall in love, and have “brown babies.”

So the nascent new movement known as “evangelicalism” responded to government demands to integrate schools by creating “segregation academies” where children of color could not afford to attend.

Yes, one of the main catalysts for the rise of private Christian schools has been racism.

Rise of the moral majority

In the 1980s-90s, evangelicalism coalesced even more around politics with moral majority formation.

The fear among conservative evangelicals was that liberalism was encroaching on America and they had to fight back.

Under the leadership of Jerry Falwell, the founding pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, the new evangelical right became a driving force in American politics.

Their new champion Ronald Reagan emerged soon after. The bride had found a groom and the movement was gaining momentum.

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[1] A chart of 40 “evangelical” churches and their interrelationships is available on the National Association of Evangelicals website https://v2ieg1eiji227cna43m44rey-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/NAE-Denominational -Network -Schema.pdf. There are “evangelical” churches that are not included in this chart, but it nevertheless gives a good representation of the diversity and distinctiveness of evangelicalism.

[2] There is “the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”.

[3] There are the relatively newly formed ECO Presbyterian churches which are evangelical.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_W._Bebbington

[5] I am not interested in presenting a complete history of evangelism. Many claim it officially emerged in the early 1900s after some began to break away from the fundamentalist movement.

[6] See Daniel Williams, Unborn Child Advocates, Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (December 4, 2015).

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/evangelical-history/christian-right-discovered-abortion-rights-transformed-culture-wars/. Last access on 9-7-20.

[7] Abortion did not become the defining issue for American Evangelicals until 1980. Prior to the 1980s, abortion was considered by many Evangelicals to be a “Catholic” issue. Because evangelicals were often anti-Catholic, this meant that most evangelicals before 1980 were pro-abortion.

[8] See https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2018/02/05/race-not-abortion-was-founding-issue-religious-right/A5rnmClvuAU7EaThaNLAnK/story.html. Last access on 9-7-20. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133. Last access on 9-7-20.


Barry F. Howard