For a half-century or more, there has been no question about whose name would top any list of the “Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”
Conservatives at Newsmax have produced just such a list for 2017 and, sure enough, the Rev. Billy Graham was No. 1. At 99 years of age, he remains the patriarch of conservative Protestantism, even while living quietly in the family’s log home in the North Carolina mountains. For many, the world’s most famous evangelist is the living definition of the word “evangelical.”
However, the 100-person Newsmax list also demonstrates that no one really knows what the word “evangelical” means, these days. Should it be defined in terms of political clout, religious doctrines or mass-media popularity?
The rest of the Top 10, for example, includes Graham’s son Franklin, prosperity gospel superstar Joel Osteen, talk-show politico Mike Huckabee, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, Rick “Purpose Driven Life” Warren, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., TV host Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, religious entertainment mavens in Hollywood.
Disputes about the meaning of “evangelical” are so sharp that “several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals’ as defined by any set of core doctrines,” said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.
Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to “some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both,” as opposed to “leading successful churches or Christian organizations. ... I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that’s about it.”
Even the list’s few pastors and church leaders -- such as Tim Keller of New York City or Max Lucado of San Antonio -- are best known as popular authors. It’s rather surprising, noted Kidd, that Calvinist scholar John Piper was ranked No. 22 and historian Mark Noll hit No. 37.
“I mean,” quipped Kidd, “would Fox News even know who John Piper is?”
All of this confusion wouldn’t surprise Billy Graham.
During a 1987 interview, I asked him to define “evangelical.” Graham said he wasn’t sure what the word means, since it has “become blurred. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.” In the end, he added, one man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.”
Based on his experiences with Christians around the world, Graham said it was important to keep trying to link this term with doctrinal orthodoxy. Thus, he defined an “evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Apostles Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.
It would be hard, during these bitterly politicized times, to convince pollsters, journalists and political activists to embrace that kind of definition, said David French, a Harvard Law School graduate known for his National Review columns on politics and religious liberty.
In the public square, everyone thinks they know what “evangelical” means.
“The easy answer, which also has the virtue of being true, is that ‘evangelical’ has become the tribal marker used to describe white Christians who vote Republican,” said French, who was an internet lightning rod during 2016 because of his opposition to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
At some point, “orthodox” Protestants are going to have to find a way to define themselves in terms of faith, worship and ministry, as well as their convictions in public life, he said. This may require new language.
“Liberals used to be called ‘liberals,’ but then that became a negative word so they turned into ‘progressives,’“ noted French.
“There was a time when ‘evangelical’ was a positive word, when compared with ‘fundamentalist.’“ But those days are gone, he added, because far too many Americans now assume the word “evangelical” “simply means both -- ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘evangelical.’ Both terms are equally bad.
“We are going to have to find a way to talk about our faith that doesn’t sound like we are alienated, alone, isolated and angry.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)