(RNS) A week or two after the 2004 election, I was dining with some friends in New York when the conversation turned to religion and politics—the two things that you’re never supposed to discuss in polite company.
George W. Bush had just been re-elected with the help of what was described in the media as “evangelical voters.” And knowing that I am an evangelical Christian, my friends were terribly curious.

“What, exactly, is an evangelical?” one gentleman asked, as if he were inquiring about my time living among the lowland gorillas of Cameroon. I suddenly found myself as cultural translator for the evangelical mind.

“As I understand it,” I began, “what `evangelical’ really means is that a person believes in Jesus Christ, has a personal relationship with him and because of that relationship feels compelled to share their experience of God’s love with other people.

“How they choose to share that `good news’ with others is entirely up to the individual. Beyond that, the rest is details and style.”

Most of my friends knew evangelicalism only through the big, bellicose voices of TV preachers and religio-political activists such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Chuck Colson. Not surprisingly, my friends hadn’t experienced an evangelicalism that sounded particularly loving, accepting or open-minded.

After eschewing the descriptor because I hadn’t wanted to be associated with a faith tradition known more for harsh judgmentalism and fearmongering than the revolutionary love and freedom that Jesus taught, I began publicly referring to myself again as an evangelical. By speaking up, I hoped I might help reclaim “evangelical” for what it is supposed to mean.

With the 2012 presidential race upon us, the “evangelical” question is once again front and center, chiefly with the campaign of Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party darling who proudly wears the evangelical label.

As I read the recent profile of Bachmann in The New Yorker, it was painfully clear that the what-is-an-evangelical question remains largely unanswered for many who live outside the born-again bubble.

The piece, titled “Leap of Faith,” delved into Bachmann’s rise to public and political prominence, focusing particularly on her religious and philosophical beliefs. The story was well-researched and eloquently written, but I was struck by the author’s use of the terms “evangelical,” “born-again” and “fundamentalist.”

It seemed they were employed interchangeably, as if their definitions were synonymous. In popular culture, those terms are shorthand for “staunchly conservative,” “small-minded,” and “mean-spirited.” It’s a matter of semantics, but it is spiritually significant.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek “evangelion,” meaning “the good news” or “the gospel.” During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther adopted the word to describe his breakaway church; for hundreds of years thereafter, “evangelical” meant, simply, “Protestant.”

Today, in American society the term is used in three ways, according to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College:

—Theologically, it is an umbrella term for Christians who believe in the need for conversion, the command to spread the gospel, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the primacy of Jesus Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

—Stylistically, “evangelical” also describes a kind of religious practice as much as a set of doctrines. This is where you really see the diversity of evangelicalism: Mennonites, African-American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Catholic charismatics and Dutch Reformed all fall under the “evangelical-as-a-style” umbrella.

—Politically, “evangelical” describes a coalition of Protestants (including evangelist Billy Graham) who used the term in an attempt to distance themselves from the “Christian fundamentalist” movements of the 1920s and `30s. Fundamentalism’s hallmarks were (and to a certain extent remain) anti-intellectualism, anti-modernity and a belief that the church should not engage with culture. Mainstream evangelicals, by contrast, sought to actively be a part of culture in order to transform it.

“Evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are not one in the same. They are in many ways opposites. In fact, Christian fundamentalists have more in common with fundamentalists from other religions than they do with other Christians: a siege mentality and distrust of the “other,” topped with a liberal dose of ardent legalism.

“Born-again,” meanwhile, is a colloquialism derived from Jesus’ own words in the New Testament, that describes a conversion experience where a person encounters God and is spiritually transformed. Not all evangelicals and fundamentalists use those words to describe themselves, but many in each group do.

The Bachmann profile describes the late evangelist and thinker Francis Schaeffer, a figure nearly as legendary in evangelical circles as Graham, as one of the “exotic” influences on the congresswoman’s worldview, which has been “shaped by institutions and people unfamiliar to most Americans.”

Pollsters and scholars estimate that evangelicals comprise roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. A minority to be sure, but hardly an obscure one.

If the New Yorker piece is any indication, apparently we evangelicals remain an elusive, vastly misunderstood lot—30 years after evangelicals became a potent political force. In the popular imagination at least, evangelicalism is an ideological monolith.

Those of us in the media would do well to treat evangelicals as neither homogenous nor uncommon, and choose our words more carefully.

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