List America's prominent evangelicals and the Rev. Rick Warren remains near the top, right up there with the Rev. Brian McLaren, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Jim Wallis, the Rev. Tim Keller and others.
Evangelicals, of course, have been known to argue about who belongs on that list. In recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that the experts are struggling to decide who is and who is not an evangelical in the first place.
"I know what the word 'evangelical' is supposed to mean," said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branches and ministries. "I mean, I know what the word 'evangelical' used to mean."
The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link "evangelical" with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelizing the lost, defending biblical authority, helping the needy and proclaiming that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word "evangelical" -- a church-history term -- "got co-opted into being a political term," said Warren, in a recent telephone interview.
Debates about this vague word are not new. During a 1987 interview with the Rev. Billy Graham, I asked him point blank, "What does the word 'evangelical' mean?"
The world's most famous evangelist responded, "Actually, that's a question I'd like to ask somebody, too. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals." Ultimately, Graham said "evangelicals" preach salvation through faith in Jesus and believe all the doctrines in the Nicene Creed -- especially in the resurrection.
Warren said he would certainly agree with Graham's bottom line, which is that "evangelical" must be defined in doctrinal terms. The problem is that this isn't how the term is being used in public life, especially by the news media.
During the George W. Bush administration, he said, most journalists "seemed to think that 'evangelical' meant that you backed the Iraq war, for some reason or another. ... But right now, I don't think there is any question that most people think that evangelicals are people who oppose gay rights -- period. Unfortunately, that's all the word means."
Warren based this judgment, in part, on his experiences during 22 recent interviews with major newspapers, magazines and television networks -- a blitz marking the release of an expanded, 10th anniversary edition of his book "The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?" The book has sold more than 32 million copies around the world, with translations in 50 languages.
By the end of that media storm, Warren said members of his team were starting to place bets before each interview on whether the perfunctory gay-marriage question would be the first, or the second, question asked.
On CNN, interviewer Piers Morgan noted that the U.S. Constitution and the Bible are "well-intentioned" but "inherently flawed." Morgan continued: "My point to you about gay rights for example -- it's time for an amendment to the Bible."
Warren, of course, disagreed: "I do not believe the Bible is flawed, and I willingly admit ... that I base my worldview on the Bible, which I believe is true, and truth. ... It was true 1,000 years ago, it'll be true 1,000 years from today."
Time after time, said Warren, interviewers assumed that his beliefs on moral and cultural issues -- from salvation to sexual ethics -- were based on mere politics, rather than on convictions about the Bible and centuries of doctrine.
"I've decided that when people don't have faith, politics is their religion," he said. "Politics is the only thing that is really real to many people in our world today. ... So if politics isn't at the center of your life, then many people just can't understand what you're saying."
In the end, said Warren, it may be time for various brands of conservative Protestants -- Baptists, charismatics, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Calvinists and others -- to stop trying to crowd under a common "evangelical" umbrella. They need to start talking more about the specific traditions that shape their lives.
"Maybe 'evangelical' will be like the word 'liberal,'" he said. "When that word turned into a negative, everybody on the left just turned into 'progressives' and they moved right on. ... Maybe it's time to give the word 'evangelical' a rest."
(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
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