Columnists
Our best media are not 'fake', but our press sometimes re-imagines concepts such as 'evangelical' in order to oversimplify reporting
By Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Faculty in Humanities, Austin College
Sep 25, 2018
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The use and abuse of the word “evangelical” in US media depends on the writer’s understanding of religion, or whether the topic is about religion’s influence on politics or vice versa.

In the history of religion, “evangelical” translates from the Greek as “good message or good news.” In Old English, “good news” was conflated into the word “gospel.” Many major languages such as French, Spanish, German, use the word for evangelical in their language to mean “Protestant” as distinct from “Roman Catholic,” even though the Gospel is key to Roman Catholic theology before and after the Reformation in the 1500s.

Even within the context of Protestant history in the USA, the word “evangelical” can be in a denomination’s name, but has little to do with what the word has come to mean in our media. One example is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which is more “mainline” than the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and other Lutheran branches. The ELCA is active in the World Council of Churches and is in “full communion” with most of the USA’s “mainline denominations,” all of which are evangelical in their theology.

What is “evangelical” about a nationally-known “televangelist” proclaiming that hurricane Katrina damaged New Orleans to punish this city of sin? The same question could be asked about “evangelical” responses to other national tragedies such as September 11, 2001. Some media suggest that “evangelicals” deny science , as did most of Christendom in the Middle Ages.

When politics is brought into the discussion, the media has developed the idea that “evangelicals” tend to vote more Republican than they do Democrat in recent elections. The press may be trying to avoid using the word “fundamentalist,” which is associated more with a literal interpretation of the Bible. Some would define being “born again” as playing a role in defining “evangelical.” Many in our media use “Evangelicals” to mean a voting bloc, mega-churches, or the Republican base, depending on the context; and racism creeps in since most African-US-American churches are Evangelical and vote Democrat. Some reporters now use “white evangelicals” when speaking of politics, or the “Christian right.” An ever better term would be the “religious right.” A new group that is aiming to restore evangelical values is the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

Throughout the scriptural literature of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, “messengers of God” or “angels” have played a key role. Gabriel was the messenger that brought the “good news” to Mary. Gabriel is also named in the Qur’an as the messenger who recited the verses of the Qur’an over time to the Prophet Mohammad. In more recent times, Abraham Lincoln used the phrase “…touched by the better angels of our nature.” Was it Alexander Pope who said “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread?” The very word “evangelical,” in itself, is “an angel in disguise”—the obvious disguise being the prefix “ev” and the suffix “ical.”

Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Ph.D.

Associate Professor Emeritus of Humanities