There’s evangelicals, and there’s Evangelicals.

EVANGELICAL i.væn'ʤɛl.ə.kəl adjective. Has to do with the evangel, i.e. the gospel.
2. [capitalized] Holds to the Protestant tradition of individual conversion to Christianity (i.e. being born again). Plus Jesus’s atonement, the bible’s authority, and an active Christian lifestyle.
[Evangelicalism i.væn'ʤɛl.ə.kəl.ɪz.əm noun.]

I once heard a pagan define Evangelical as “somebody who actually believes in all that [synonym for doo-doo].”

I like it, but technically that’s not quite it. She was confusing the lowercase-E with the uppercase-E: She got her evangelicals and Evangelicals mixed up.

Every Christian is the lowercase kind of evangelical. We all believe in this [dooky]. We may not agree about miracles, worship styles, how to interpret the bible, and whether electric guitars are of God (and I say they totally are). But we all agree Jesus is God the Son, our Lord, conceived by the Spirit, born of Mary, suffered under Pilate, crucified, died, buried, resurrected, ascended, coming back to judge and rule the world. Those who don’t believe the gospel are, by definition, not Christian. They might go through the motions because they like the trappings. But they’re closer to those girls who wear yoga pants yet never do yoga—much less practice Hinduism.

The uppercase Evangelical is a whole different animal. This term refers to a Protestant movement which emphasizes individual conversion. In other words, you aren’t Christian because you were born one—born into a Christian family or country, baptized as a baby, assimilated into your predominantly Christian culture. You’re Christian because you came to Christ, on your own. You confessed him as Lord, of your own free will. You’re responsible for being in this religion. It might’ve been dropped on you, but you took ownership of it.

Ironically the movement was started by John Calvin. I say “ironically” because Calvin and the Calvinists are determinists, who believe God’s in such control of the cosmos that we’re not responsible for being in this religion: God put us here. We only think we chose him with our free will, but only because he’s been working us without our knowledge. There are many moral problems mixed into their idea; I won’t go there today. I’ll just say they’re right about how our salvation isn’t up to our community or state. My parents can’t do it for me. Nor my government. Each of us has to decide for Jesus for ourselves.

Why people think we are born into it.

Thing is, most people are born into their religion. I was. I was born Catholic.

’Cause my grandparents were Catholic, so Mom was Catholic, so I was Catholic. Wasn’t up to me. Before I learned to speak, I got baptized. As far as the grandparents were concerned, that was that. I was in the church and going to heaven.

No that’s not at all what the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches. But that’s what cultural Catholics (i.e. the Catholic version of Christianism) believe and teach: If you’re baptized Catholic, you’re Catholic. Even if you never confirm your baptism, never go to mass, don’t even believe in God. Everyone in your family, everyone in your neighborhood, everyone in your country, is in the religion—and so are you.

Happens in Christian countries, in Muslim countries, in Hindu countries, in Buddhist countries. You don’t have a say. Try to switch religions, and in medieval Europe you could be prosecuted and killed for it. In some Muslim countries you still can.

See, in medieval Europe the kings were—so they claimed—Christian. The world’s suckiest Christians, but they figured God forgives all gross violations of everything Jesus teaches, ’cause grace. And if they were Christian, the least they could do for Jesus (sometimes the only thing they did “for Jesus”) was “evangelize” everyone in the nation and build ’em churches. The laziest way was by outlawing every other religion: Pagans and heretics were prosecuted. Subjects were required to participate in church functions. Taxes paid for church administration. The kingdoms, it was figured, and taught, were outposts of God’s kingdom. Their subjects were born into God’s kingdom, born Christian just like an American is born American (even if some folks insist you’re nothing more than an anchor baby). True, many Christians-by-birth likewise sucked as Christians. But there’s grace, remember?—so it didn’t really matter if they neither knew nor followed God: They lived in his kingdom. Right?

Then Calvin began to teach Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the whole world—scripture notwithstanding. 1Jn 2.2 Just the elect. Just the real Christians. And not everyone in a Christian country is automatically Christian. How d’you know whether you’re a real Christian? Well, there are a few ways, but individual conversion is a pretty good sign: You willingly follow Christ. You choose to. (Calvin would have a giant problem with saying it that way, and much preferred to emphasize God choosing us.) Your rulers don’t just declare the entire nation Christian. They can’t.

Spreading the kingdom.

There are two ways Christians try to get the people around them to follow Jesus. The most popular method, the easiest, yet the one least likely to work, is free beer. But that’s more a Lutheran thing. (KIDDING. Lutherans will totally laugh at that one.)

Seriously, the most popular method (and still least likely to work) is enforced national piety. Pass a bunch of Christian-looking laws, shun and drive out anyone and anything which isn’t religious enough, and people will naturally fall into Christianity. Or they’ll fake it, be hypocrites in public, be pagans in private. Eighty percent of ’em will claim to be Christian, but less than 20 percent of ’em will actually go to church, and only 20 percent of that group will bother to contribute to their churches. Sound familiar?

Then there’s evangelism. That’s where we share the gospel with people, invite ’em to make individual decisions for Jesus, and find them fellow Christians who can instruct ’em to live like Jesus wants. It’s way harder than enforced national piety. ’Cause we have to provide these newbies with good examples… which means we need to be legitimately religious. Can’t get away with faking it. (Not that many of us don’t try, but God keeps exposing our hypocrisy in embarrassing public ways. It’s like he hates it or something.)

It’s not easy to evangelize a nation which practices enforced national piety. It tends to get you prosecuted. In the 1630s Roger Williams, the guy who later founded Providence Plantation (now Rhode Island), tried it in the Seperatist-dominated colony of Plymouth. Of course they banished him; legalists hate competition. Evangelism is best practiced in a nation which permits a degree of religious freedom—where people can either join your group, or ignore you. Not banish or kill you. But in most of human history, there were no such nations.

The first group to really emphasize evangelism was the Methodists, founded in England in the 1730s by John and Charles Wesley. They helped spur the Great Awakening, an Evangelical revival which took off in North America in the 1730s and ’40s. The Wesleys—plus Puritan revivalists Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield and others—began to proclaim Jesus to the American colonists, warning them their ancestors’ Christianity won’t save them. They individually had to choose Jesus: He couldn’t just be everybody’s generic Lord and Master, but their own personal Jesus; someone to hear their prayers, someone who cares. You know the song.

The Great Awakening helped spread Williams’s idea of separation of church and state: Enforced national piety saves no one, and what business does our government have in bossing the church around? Sad to say many Baptists, who consider Williams one of their forefathers, prefer to fight this separation. Enforced piety is such a tempting shortcut.

From North America, Evangelicalism spread back to Europe, then the rest of the world. The old medieval tactic of converting the king, then using the king to forcibly convert his kingdom, was out. Christian missionaries called individuals to a relationship with Christ, regardless of what their culture taught or government mandated. Sometimes this produced persecution and underground churches. But it also produced national revivals, as pagan countries embraced Christ. And it makes no difference what their governments believe, for Christ didn’t come into the world to save corporations, but humans.

In the U.S. today.

Both pagans and Christians don’t know the history of Evangelicalism—where it came from, or even what it is. As usual, people don’t know their own history, and went with word of mouth instead of looking these things up on their own.

Many assume Evangelicalism and conservative Christianity are the same thing. Particularly conservatives: They can’t fathom that churches in the Christian Left are still Evangelical. Or they assume Evangelicalism started in the early 1900s, to battle modernism—but they’re confusing it with the Fundamentalist movement. Or they think it started in the 1940s with the National Association of Evangelicals; that what makes your church “evangelical” is membership in the NAE.

In the United States it’s been a while since we last had Plymouth-style enforced piety. (Well, for some places it’s been a while. I’m not so sure about some places in the Bible Belt.) Hence many conservative Christians, who don’t realize all the problems it creates, want to give it another shot. They want to turn biblical commands into law, officially discourage paganism and other religions, and “return us to our Christian roots” and “the faith of our founding fathers.”

Well not exactly the faith of our founding fathers. ’Cause slavery. And racism and sexism. (Well, depending on your conservatives.) Most of those founder-invoking conservatives really just mean their values, which they assume the founders shared. Like I said, they don’t know history.

Then there’s the “post-Evangelical” movement. In a nutshell, everything they currently find wrong with popular Protestant Christianity, they blanketly call ”Evangelical”—and they’re not that.

  • “Evangelicals” prefer theologically weak pop songs, whereas they sing old-timey, theologically deep hymns.
  • “Evangelicals” ditch the old liturgical traditions to stay contemporary, whereas they embrace these traditions ’cause they’re tried and true, and better represent how we need to change our lives to suit God, not vice-versa.
  • “Evangelicals” are into money and growth and charismatic fads; they aren’t.
  • “Evangelicals” have sold out to the Republican party; they’re still willing to question the Republican party. (If not leave it outright. Not that they’re joining the Democrats.)
  • “Evangelicals” are shallow and hypocritical and legalist and… and all the things they were back when they were Evangelical.

And so on. They believe they’ve rejected popular Christianism in favor of authentic Christianity.

I say good for them… provided they aren’t just replacing popular Christianity with nostalgic Christianity. Old-time religion is only any good when it actually draws us closer to Jesus. Otherwise it’s just as dead and empty as the new stuff can be.

But really they’re as Evangelical as anyone: They fervently believe in a personal relationship with Jesus—and his atonement, his scriptures, and the active Christian lifestyle. That’s what defines the movement. Certainly not the politics.