Know Your Christians

Know Your Christians

Know Your Christians

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 6 2000 10:22 PM

Know Your Christians

The Christian right is clearly going to be a presence, and an issue, in the presidential campaign. Here are some clarifying distinctions.

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Fundamentalist is a term used to describe American conservative Protestants, often Baptists. It is not pejorative. Fundamentalists have three defining attributes:

a. Belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. The Bible is literally true. If it states that God created the world in six days, a fundamentalist believes it was six 24-hour days.

b. Faith in charismatic leaders. A fundamentalist looks to charismatic preachers such as Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson to interpret the Scripture and provide guidance for the community. More mainstream Protestant denominations place less emphasis on the power of individual ministers.

c. The nation-state as a reflection of God. Fundamentalists are very concerned about civil society. They are encouraged to be politically active and work to improve the moral quality of the nation and its political leaders.

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The term fundamentalist is also used, confusingly, to describe non-Christian conservative religious movements in other parts of the world--the ayatollahs of Iran, for example--that have little or nothing in common with American Christian fundamentalists.

An Evangelical is an American Protestant who believes in using the teachings of the New Testament gospels to transform the world. It is not a pejorative term. Evangelical Christians will become missionaries, found schools, and perform other good works. Many people consider themselves both fundamentalists and evangelical Christians. Others (such as Lutherans) may call themselves evangelical Christians, but not fundamentalists. These people disagree with the first tenet of fundamentalism (inerrancy of the Bible).

Born Again (or "Saved"): Unlike a baptism, which is a formalistic ritual, the process of being "born again" is a deeply personal experience. In order to be born again, one must be open to the idea of dedicating one's life to Jesus and then accept Jesus as one's savior. Conservative Lutherans and Baptists believe in being born again, while adherents to more mainstream denominations such as Methodists and Presbyterians do not. The term Christian is sometimes used to mean only those who are born again.

The Moral Majority was founded by Jerry Falwell in 1980 to translate the fundamentalist goal of improving civil society into a nuts-and-bolts political operation. Falwell closed his organization in 1989, declaring it had accomplished its mission. The Christian Coalition was founded in 1989 by Pat Robertson with the same mission.

Explainer thanks Richard Hecht, Professor of Religious Studies at University of California at Santa Barbara, and Erin Roscoe and Jennifer Kimlaw of Florence, S.C.