They are not Synonyms

Arrrgh. A textbook author hit my pedant button, hard enough that I snarled out loud. Fortunately, it was during my work period, so there were no witnesses.

Evangelical and fundamentalist are not synonyms. No, no, they are not, no, stop that, N. O. Evangelical Christians can follow the ideas put forth in The Fundamentals, but they don’t have to. And those who agree with the aforementioned ideas do not have to belong to the Protestant denominations frequently lumped as “Evangelical.”

Some background might be in order. When I was in grad school, I took a required class on religion in the United States. It was . . . Well, it was valuable, but not a good class for reasons I’d prefer not to get into. But one thing the professor hammered into us was that you cannot call anyone who practiced the Christian (or other) religions prior to the 1920s “fundamentalist.” When you “do” religious history, Fundamentalist means a Protestant Christian who subscribes to the ideas and teachings put forth in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth originally published as nine essays between 1910 and 1915, then collected in one volume and reissued in 1917. This became the touchstone, along with the Bible, for a certain group of Protestants.

The goal of The Fundamentals was to provide educated laymen, ministers, and theology instructors with the material needed to refute the new text-critical analysis of the Bible that began in Germany. At the time, several tensions were pulling at the Protestant denominations in the US (and elsewhere), and the text-critical/ source-critical approach to theology was only one of them. Today, most Protestants accept some source-critical study and acknowledge that in some ways, the Scriptures are part of the culture of their time, while they also contain eternal truths and teachings of great moral and spiritual value.

When The Fundamentals were compiled, however, Spencerian Darwinism (along with other mis-understandings of Darwin), the Social Gospel, “muscular Christianity,” source-critical theology, and other movements seemed to be threatening the foundations of Protestantism. Thus The Fundamentals. Whether or not you accepted their arguments determined if you were a Fundamentalist.

So, what about “Evangelicals?” Once you get past “mostly Protestant, Christian,” it is about as easy to define as it is to nail Jello™ to a tree. Technically, any Christian who tells other people (or better yet, shows them) about the teachings of the Gospels is an Evangelical. No, that’s not how the media and pundits define it. The media often include political activism, in the sense that “Evangelicals” tend to vote certain ways on certain issues. If a denomination, say, supports gay-marriage, abortion on demand, and open-borders, they are not by media definitions “Evangelical.” Even if they have a very active mission program and social outreach.

Depending on who you are describing, Evangelicals as understood in the popular sense include socially conservative Protestant denominations such as: Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, African Methodist Episcopal and AME of Zion (AMEZ), Free Baptists, Disciples of Christ, most Pentecostal denominations, possibly the Presbyterian Church of America (PC-A), Cumberland Presbyterian churches, and some Methodist Churches. Generally, Presbyterian-USA, Episcopalian, United Methodist, and Congregationalists are not “Evangelical.” What about the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints? *wags hand* Popular usage keeps them apart from all other Protestant denominations for cultural and theological reasons. If you lean on the literal definition of “evangelical,” however, they are more Evangelical than pretty much everyone else.

Note that most, probably all of the above aside from some Southern Baptist, Church of Christ, and Baptist-based sub-groups, would disagree with at least parts of The Fundamentals, and in some cases with the majority of it.

So Fundamentalists can certainly be Evangelicals. Most “Evangelicals,” however, are not Fundamentalists.


14 thoughts on “They are not Synonyms

  1. I’ve never understood the distinctions between the Christian creeds. I get Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant/Mormon, but anything beyond those major divisions just eludes my understanding.

    • The easiest way is to go back to the roots: who founded the denominational branch? Luther, Calvin, Menno Simons, or Henry VIII? And is it bottom up organization (Calvin, Simons) or top down (Luther, Henry VIII)? After that it gets complicated, especially once you get to the US.

  2. The blurring is for the convenience of all stripes of media and ‘modern’ entertainment, and their masters: “Fundamentally, you’re all alike and all dumb and stupid hicks!!!” This, from the tellers of Great Lies and promoters of ugliness.

    McChuck, the Venn diagrams of what’s included and what’s not turn into a Rorschach blot test, after about four iterations. I tried once, and it gave me a headache. Enough to drive a Southern Baptist to the liquor store to buy whiskey.

  3. I’ll skip the rant (former Lutheran here), but the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America doesn’t seem to be evangelical, at least not in the sense of Christianity. OTOH, I’ve met evangelical atheists, among the most tiresome people one can encounter.

  4. See, this is the kind of stuff some of us never learned, growing up in the Coastal Bubble.
    Encountering outside-the-bubble information via the ‘Net makes Those People much less scary. (Better still is getting out and actually meeting some of those churchgoing inland types, who seem much better adjusted than the Enlightened Ones of the big cities.)

  5. Oooh, that’s interesting— and it makes a lot more sense than the “Fundamentalists are anybody who is trying to go by a literal translation of the Bible” type explanations I’ve gotten before.

    Echoes the “no, ebil Catholics, you can’t call yourself Catholic, we are the universal church!” type guys.

    • May just be me, but I use “Biblical literalist” to refer to individuals or denominations that go for the literal interpretation of the Bible.

  6. Then you get the “Fundamentalists means intolerant religious fanatics” nonsense. 😡

  7. The blog “Get Religion” freuently hammers on this. It’s a media blog looking at how religious stories get reported, or how stories that ought to involve religion get reported while leaving rather large holes for those who are aware of the unreported angle. Journalists just don’t notice it, and don’t care about the specifics. They use, as Paul (Drak Bibliophile says, ‘fundementalist’ to tar any version of Christianity with the intolerant label.

  8. My understanding is that “Evangelical” is pretty much the same as “Bible Christian” — ie, not necessarily literalist, but directed by the the particular group interprets it. This would necessarily include evangelization, but just evangelizing does not make an Evangelical.

    There are a fair number of Catholics who call themselves Evangelical Catholics for fun, or to denote their general orientation.

    Mike Pence also calls himself an Evangelical Catholic; but he’s not a practicing Catholic anymore, by my understanding, so I have no idea what he means by it. (Have you noticed how weird politician religious practice is, nowadays? I mean, it follows general U.S. trends, but it is confusing. Trump is the normal one for being just mediocre Episcopalian.)

  9. Thank you Txred. Fundamentalist has moved from having a specific meaning to generally just being an epithet the left tosses at anyone who actually believes basic religious tenets be they Christian, Islamic or whatever making it a synonym in mainstream media for idiot or gullible fool. My understanding is that the modern evangelical movement (sometimes referred to as Neo Evangelical) is a response to the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th Century. Harold Ockenga and Bill Graham (yes him) are some of the initial proponents of that movement. Places related to it include(but are not limited to) Fuller Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Park Street Church (Boston). To my taste the Neo-Evangelicals have 2 main differences from Fundamentalism
    1) Scriptural interpretation (exegesis). Although holding scripture as the primary source of divine revelation the evangelicals tend to interpret according to its type of literature (History, law, poetry, wisdom etc). They also hold that the scriptures are divinely inspired in the original manuscripts. They acknowledge that we do NOT have the original manuscripts (MSS) but copies which disagree in some ways some minor ( e.g. often seen is Jesus Christ Vs just Jesus in some MSS likely addition or omission by scribes along the way), some far more extensive (e.g. Most of John 8 the Pericope of the Adulteress is NOT found in earlier MSS of the gospel, many modern translations (NIV, ESV, NET) note this in some fashion)
    2) Cultural engagement. The Fundamentalists were for extracting themselves from the world and being separate from others who did not believe as they did. The Evangelicals viewed this as ignoring the call to be salt and light in Jesus’ parables and failing to follow the Great Comission (MT 298-16-20). They also feared that this was a digression to early heresies where Greek Philosophical influence said that the physical was bad or tainted compared to the Spiritual. That contradicts much of the Creation stories in Genesis where upon completing each physical thing G*d declares it good.

    • That matches most of what I’ve understood, Tregonsee. A lot of the last third of the class was about church vs. civil religion vs. society (in all senses of “versus”), so the professor eased around a lot of the 1940s-50s and jumped to the peace movements of the 1960s and forward. Given what I sussed out about the prof’s personal background, that sort of fit.

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