Evangelicals ≠ Fundamentalists

UPDATE: I thought a poll would help us get a sense of what readers of Targuman think about the Barna Group definition of “evangelical.”

At least in my view, but not in Barna’s or Jim West’s. In Jim’s post he cites the Barna survey that found that evangelicals are more concerned with abortion, and homosexual activity that with poverty or HIV/AIDS, at least compared with “the general population.” Jim then considers Tony Cartledge’s objections to the study:

As Tony Cartledge astutely observes,

Over the past few years, however, the term “evangelical” has also been co-opted and used as a descriptor for the politically conservative religious right, or as another euphemism for “fundamentalist.”

And he concludes

The end result is that “evangelical,” at least in Barna’s useage, has now gone the way of “conservative.” While both terms once described Christians who trust God, trust the Bible, and believe in the importance of sharing their faith, they are now applied to a very narrow band of believers who could accurately be called “fundamentalists” — but don’t want to be.

They might not want to be- but they are.

And thus ends Jim’s post. Here is where I want to pick up my comments (which were going to be posted on his site, but as I wrote I realized it merited a full post).
Jim’s final “They might not want to be- but they are” is a non sequitur. It does not follow because Barna defines what an evangelical is rather than people who identify themselves as evangelicals defining the term.

Note that Barna surveys do not classify a person based upon a respondent’s use of the terms “born again” or “evangelical,” instead basing the classification on what a person believes about spiritual matters.

There are many, many who would define themselves as evangelicals who do not fit Barna’s definition. By defining the term and then saying, “here is what evangelicals believe” Barna is engaging in circular reasoning.
To offer it in full, here is Barna’s definition of an evangelical.

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

It is not a bad definition per se, although I still think the procedure of defining individuals for themselves is suspect, but it contains a variety of elements that I certainly wouldn’t think is necessary for one to consider oneself as an evangelical. (Here’s a test, would Jim Wallis see himself in the definition above?) Two criteria that I, as one who would or at least used to describe myself as an evangelical, would not consider relevant to such a definition.

  • The emphasis upon grace and omission of works. “Faith without works is deed” and brings in doubt one’s faith. This is a dichotomy that doesn’t exits for many self-declared evangelicals, especially those in main line denominations. (And yes, there are many of us in such denominations and churches.)
  • “The Bible is accurate in all that it teaches.” We had a good go round about that last month. Again, this is a point at which I would want to clarify my position and would fall “out” of his category of evangelical, while I would see it as a criteria designed to conflate evangelical with fundamentalist.
  • So far from evangelicals being fundamentalists all that this shows it that surveys are of necessity incomplete at portraying beliefs (other than the beliefs of the surveyor, in which case they are often quite revelatory). A far better and more useful survey, at least in terms of understanding what evangelicals believe, would be to survey self-defined evangelicals. But that would hardly bolster preconceived conceptions and is unlikely to happen.

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