Thirty years ago, most Baptists who would today be labeled as “moderates” considered themselves to be conservative in most matters. They tried to follow the teachings of Christ, believed the Bible was inspired by God, gladly shared their faith, and held very few hermeneutically radical ideas.
In the late 1970s, however, as the winds of change struck the Southern Baptist Convention, vocabulary was one of the prizes up for grabs. The mainstream Baptists who had led the convention for many years labeled the ideological uprising that reshaped the convention “the fundamentalist takeover.” Leaders of the movement, who made biblical inerrancy their watchword, insisted that they were not fundamentalists, but conservatives. Today, their standard term for the power shift is “the conservative resurgence.”
While the struggle continued, there were intense debates about what labels were appropriate. Fundamentalists cried foul when they were called by that name, which they considered pejorative, and insisted that they be called “conservatives.” Middle-of-the-road Baptists who had always considered themselves to be conservative complained that fundamentalists had usurped the adjective and redefined “conservative” much more narrowly. Only begrudgingly did they begin to use the anemic-sounding term “moderate,” and then only for lack of a better alternative. They didn’t want to accept the fundamentalists’ charge that they were liberals, but couldn’t come up with a better term than “moderate” to describe “non-fundamentalists who aren’t liberal.”
For a while, Baptists media tried using the combination monikers “conservative-fundamentalists” and “conservative-moderates,” but they were too ungainly to be very useful and too hard to fit in a single column of newsprint.
Ultimately, those who could accurately be called fundamentalists won the battle along with the SBC’s public relations machinery, and became sole owners of the “conservative” brand. Non-fundamentalists who didn’t want to be called “liberals” were then stuck with the name “moderate,” which inaccurately implied a lack of passion.
For a while, however, moderates could still safely consider themselves to be “evangelicals,” thinking that the term meant what it said — that they believed Christians should lead an evangelistic lifestyle that encourages others to follow Christ.
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.”
We see this in a quantifiable way in the terminology used by popular pollster George Barna. In a recent survey that showed sharp differences in the primary concerns voiced by various segments of society, Barna showed that Americans in general considered poverty (78 percent), personal debt (78 percent), and HIV/AIDS (76 percent) to be their three greatest concerns among ten domestic or social issues presented to them (concern about the war in Iraq was not an option).
Respondents that Barna calls “born again” (defined as people who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and believe they will go to heaven when they die)
were right on track with the general population, listing the same three concerns and comparable percentages.
Those labeled as “evangelicals,” however, chose decidedly different options. Their top three concerns were abortion (94 percent), personal debt (81 percent), and the content of television and movies (79 percent) — closely followed by concern about homosexual activists (75 percent), and gay and lesbian lifestyles (75 percent).
This becomes more understandable when one checks out the criteria Barna uses to consider someone an “evangelical.” In addition to meeting the characteristics of being “born again,” evangelicals must also meet seven other criteria: “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.”
Thus, by Barna’s definition, one must meet nine specific criteria to be an evangelical. About one-fifth of all “born again” Christians qualify, Barna says.
The pollster carefully notes that respondents are not asked to self-identify themselves as “born again” or “evangelical,” and whether they actually go to church has nothing to do with it. The labels are applied on the basis of responses to survey questions about personal beliefs.
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.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.