What's an evangelical?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 9 2006 7:14 PM

Mommy, What's an Evangelical?

There could be more than 100 million of them in America.

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The Democrats managed to win big in Tuesday's election despite a strong showing from the Republicans' evangelical Christian base. Exit polls show that the evangelical turnout matched that from the 2004 election, when they helped George W. Bush win a second term. But those numbers haven't stopped Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson from declaring that the GOP has abandoned evangelicals. What exactly is an evangelical?

It's hard to say for sure. Evangelicalism has no unified church of its own, and it cuts across the various Protestant denominations. The evangelicals might include Pentecostals who speak in tongues and believe in faith-healing, for example, as well as Methodists or Baptists who do no such thing. Even so, these disparate groups share certain basic attitudes toward God and the Bible.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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Evangelicals believe in a strong personal relationship with Jesus, and most make an active conversion to their faith at a discrete moment in their lives. (Those who grow up evangelical are often "born again" as children, or in their teenage years.) They also tend to be very active in their churches. They are apt to form organizations to help needy people and to proselytize nonbelievers. They place enormous faith in the Bible and treat its specific teachings with gravity, and they emphasize the notion that Christ died on the cross for our sins.

Some evangelicals identify as such. Their churches might even belong to an organization like the National Association of Evangelicals, recently in the news because of a scandal involving its now ex-president Ted Haggard. Other groups participate in the culture of the evangelical movement without officially taking the name. In 2005, Gallup reported that 30 percent of white, non-Catholic Christians referred to themselves as "evangelical or born again."

Modern evangelicalism emerged from an early-20th-century conflict between Protestant liberals and fundamentalists. The fundamentalists felt that the liberals had strayed too far from the teachings of the Bible and urged a return to the most orthodox teachings. The evangelicals staked out a middle ground—more conservative than the liberals but not quite as old-fashioned as the fundamentalists. The evangelicals and fundamentalists remain two distinct groups, though they share a belief in the importance of a personal relationship with God and the Bible. In general, the fundamentalists tend to be stricter and more isolated from mainstream culture. An evangelical parent might encourage his kids to listen to Christian rock, for example, while a fundamentalist parent would object to all music of that kind.

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Explainer thanks Michael Cromartie of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Larry Eskridge of Wheaton College.

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