The changing meaning of the word “evangelical”

Ryan Lovell
Mar 26 · 2 min read

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The word “evangelical” has many meanings and it can vary depending on who is asked; but if it has changed, why?

The word “evangelical” refers to anyone or anything that is committed to spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, ranging from people to organizations such as the Billie Graham Evangelistic Association. But the word truly originated in its Grecian root word in the New Testament describing those involved in the movement spreading the good news, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the violent Romans who also spread “good news” about their militaristic victories.

Zac Langer, pastor of Taylorville United Methodist Church, described how the transformational aspect of evangelicals is one reason why they have the name they have now.

“When you look back at church history, what you find is that evangelical traditionally just means groups that place a strong emphasis on having an experiential faith,” Langer said. “That was the defining characteristic of evangelical Christians as opposed to sort of Christians who were brought up in state religions and you know, Lutheranism, or the Church of England or those kinds of things.”

The term evangelical has seemingly changed over time, but why and what has caused it?

In the 1980s, what is described by a New York Times article, as “a new movement of white evangelicalism awakened during [President Carter’s] presidency.” The movement being very anti-Carter and may have been a result of him losing his re-election bid to socially conservative Republican Ronald Reagan.

But, the term has seemingly altered to a more political meaning, alongside with its original meaning taking a backslide.

Billy Austin, the director of the Tuscaloosa County Baptist Association, stated that the term has seemingly been recently associated with right-wing ideology in the political realm and provided some insight into how some evangelicals engage in discourse with other non-evangelicals.

“The term has been viewed by some as more closely tied with a right-wing ideology in politics, this is unfortunate as it places evangelicals in the position of opposing those who espouse non-evangelical views,” Austin said. “In actuality, evangelicals do not oppose, but rather engage non-evangelicals in open and free dialogue in an effort to arrive at a common ground of truth and mutual edification.”

While the term “evangelical” still pertains to its original definition, it has evolved into a term describing anyone associated with the right-wing and Republican ideology. More specifically, the term has made a rise back into the spotlight with President Trump’s 2016 campaign and subsequent election.

Ryan Lovell

Written by

University of Alabama student, journalist, first of his name. Writer of politics, movies, video games, and religion.

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