Aiming to clarify the meaning of a loaded word

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."

What really happened in the 1960s was that Hugh Hefner and the "Playboy philosophy" came along, as well as the birth control pill. Suddenly there was this emphasis on sexual freedom, and many evangelicals got very worried about the rise of pornography, the gay rights movement and sex education. It was this that got a lot of evangelical involvement in politics going.

Ten years ago Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell may have set the agenda for evangelicals. But today, I think it's Rick Warren and Bill Hybels who are more visible in setting the agenda for the evangelicals.

Warren is senior pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, and Hybels senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. What are they doing that's so new?

Rick Warren is very concerned about the AIDS crisis. He has been willing to speak about torture and on global warming. And Bill Hybels is very concerned about urban injustice and race relations.

So, we're beginning to see a shift not away from those important moral and social concerns, but also a broadening out of the agenda.

More recently, this has something to do with a growing disillusionment with the Bush administration because of the Iraq war. Evangelicals -- some of the leaders at least -- are beginning to say maybe we've had too narrow an agenda, and we have to address issues like global warming, torture, Darfur, the AIDS crisis in Africa, maybe even speak out on behalf of immigrants and the rights of immigrants -- many of whom are our kind of Christians.

What are the important issues for evangelicals to be arguing about today?

Who is Jesus Christ and how do we understand the Bible's authority? These are the two basic questions.

For some of us -- because we are committed to women in ministry and we're committed to staying in a serious dialogue with the larger culture -- we don't want to get bogged down in arguing about whether women can be pastors or elders. We don't want to get bogged down in a very narrow view of the literal six days [of creation] and that kind of thing.

The real issue is how does a human being get right with God? Who is Jesus? Can we trust biblical authority, or do we look to the culture to tell us what to believe?

Is it time to get a new label for evangelicals?

It's an important label. I am not ready to give it up.

The mainline denominations these days are dominated by liberalism. Even if people don't like it very much, we need some kind of a label that points to an alternative theological and ethical agenda.

Within mainline denominations there are evangelical groups. I do think we have a special obligation to explain what the word means and why some of us think it's such an important label.

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