My Times column on Saturday was about conservative Christian colleges that pass leadership from father to son (that’s Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, above). But what may be of more interest to my dear readers is the interesting exchange I had afterward with a reader who sent a gently chastizing note arguing that I had mistaken fundamentalists for evangelicals. He wanted me to call Falwell, Bob Jones, and Oral Roberts (three men of very different theologies themselves) “fundamentalists,” not “evangelicals.”
My position has always been that “evangelical” is the broader, more inclusive term, referring to any Protestant who believes it is incumbent on him or her to evangelize, spread the good news, do mission work — you get the idea. Thus Southern Baptists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Pentecostals, some Episcopalians (especially “low-church” Episcopalians), some Methodists but not all, most black Baptists, independent “Bible church” Christians, fundamentalists of a Bob Jones University stripe, etc. — but not, by and large, members of the United Church of Christ, or more liberal Lutherans, or American Baptist Convention members (I am speaking in general, throughout), etc.
By this understanding, all fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. This, to me, is just linguistic sanity. Fundamentalists are evangelicals who, historically speaking, happen to subscribe to the precepts laid out in an early-20th-century set of pamphlets (the Wikipedia entry on this looks pretty good) ... but for our purposes, they are more likely to be total biblical inerrantists and literalists, and they have a separatist strain when it comes to the culture at large that many non-fundamentalist evangelicals don’t.
The problem is that many evangelicals want the media to call the far-right fundamentalists evangelicals “fundamentalists,” to separate them from more moderate evangelicals. Yet many of those fundamentalists think the term “fundamentalist” is derogatory. They may just want to be called evangelicals — or just “Christians.” So it’s a very loaded topic.
For a useful analogy: Modern Orthodox Jews would like the more separatist and more hostile-to-modernity Jews to be called “ultra-Orthodox” or haredi (Hebrew for “trembling”), to emphasize the modernists’ relative modernity, hipness, sanity (they might say). But ultra-Orthodox Jews, like many other Jews, would often like to be called just Jews, or maybe Orthodox Jews, or “Torah Jews.”
Anyway, here is my reader’s and my email thread, edited for easier consumption: He began:
Dear Mr. Oppenheimer,Although you call them "evangelical schools," Liberty University, Oral Roberts University, and Bob Jones University are all fundamentalist rather than evangelical institutions.Why do you suppose it is that even an informed author such as yourself tends to confuse evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant Christianity so easily? Perhaps you could write a future column about that.
I wrote back:
Fundamentalism is a subset of evangelicalism.
I can see why you would think so. After all, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity are both theologically conservative. Still, I believe you are not correct, and that evangelicalism and fundamentalism are separate and distinct.Evangelicalism arose in the 1940s, in reaction to what some conservative Christian theologians believed to be a lack of social action on the part of fundamentalist Christianity (cf. publication of Carl F. H. Henry’s landmark The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism in 1947).Another major difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists is that the former tend to be less literal in their interpretation of Scripture. For example, fundamentalists believe that God created the world in six literal days, i.e. 24-hour periods. Evangelicals tend to think of the seven-day creation framework in Genesis as a literary construct that should not be taken strictly as a single calendar week.
And I wrote:
Don't get me wrong: you are absolutely correct that, sociologically speaking, "fundamentalist" is often used to refer to the subset you are talking about, and other "evangelicals" are often seen as a contrast. But "evangelical" is the broader term ... and if one is referring to conservative Christians who take spreading the gospel seriously (as many mainline churches no longer do), "evangelical" is a very safe term for them all. It's true that, say, Wheaton grads must hate being grouped in the same word as Bob Jones grads, but that doesn't mean there isn't a broad word that applies to them both. (Indeed, some of these groups often resent sharing "Christian" with them.)
These terms are fuzzy, claimed by some groups but not by others, or by some groups some of the time, or by observers not in these groups.
But look, we could do an experiment: call some people at Bob Jones or Liberty and ask if they are evangelical Christians! And let me know what they say...
I’ll let you know if he takes me up on that. Meanwhile, what do you think?