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GOTT-October 19, 2006

The F-Word — and the E-Bomb?

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford UP, 2000), pp. 244-245

I can remember when people could proudly call themselves Christian ‘fundamentalists’.  I guess that’s still so in some places, but it seems to be getting fairly rare.  What Plantinga calls “the most common contemporary academic use of the term” – or at least something like the use he (jokingly) describes above — seems to be pretty common all around.  What I have in mind are uses in which the term has some kind of badness built right into its very meaning.  That could be because it has some term of abuse as part of its meaning, as Plantinga jokes above.  Or, more seriously, it could be because, instead of the indexical element of meaning Plantinga postulates — ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends’ — it instead carries this closely related element of meaning: ‘(way) too far to the right’.

It’s a very subtle but important change when a term like the f-word shifts from designating a certain range of things, which many critics consider to be too-something, to actually meaning that the thing being described is too-something. Before the shift, one can reasonably say, “Yeah, that’s me.  My views are in that range.  I know many think views in that range are too-whatever, but they seem just right to me.”  Afterward, well, it’s hard to reasonably say, “Yeah, my views are too-whatever.”  The shift may be so subtle that it’s unclear or perhaps even indeterminate when it’s occurred.  But perhaps something like that has happened to ‘fundamentalist’.

So, many are now ‘evangelicals’.  That’s still a label many proudly own.  In fact, it sometimes marks out a certain club that one might want to be a member of — and have one’s credentials for membership be challenged.  “You’re no evangelical!” a critic might charge, while, say, making the case to get you kicked out of the Evangelical Theological Society, or whatever.  (How often these days do we hear the likes of “You’re no fundamentalist!” as an accusation?)

But what is an ‘evangelical’?  And (since this all about me, after all!): Am I an evangelical?  I have difficulties with those questions.  And, apparently, I’m not alone in that regard here at GOTT; In the comment thread to this post, James K.A. Smith writes:

The skittishness I expressed about “emergent” is, I think, a subset of frustrations I have with “evangelicalism”–and even knowing what that is. (I confess I have a hard time knowing what it would mean to be described as an “evangelical” theologian–though I often am, and I don’t even necessarily reject the label. I’m just not sure what it means.)

In the comments to this post, there was some discussion of whether I am an evangelical.  I opined that it’s probably more accurate to say I am one than to deny that I am, but, like Jamie, I feel quite certain about that matter, and what ‘evangelical’ means.

So, unable to give much of an account, I’ll settle for scattering a few quick observations / unsubstantiated opinions.

1. As I’ve already observed, ‘evangelical’ still has positive connotations for many.

2. Perhaps some use it in such a way that the term has some sort of goodness (or at least non-badness) built right into its very meaning – in much the same way that I said that ‘fundamentalist’ may have badness built into its very meaning.  Perhaps it then has something like this as an element of its meaning: having theological views not too far to the left.

3.  It’s probably best to avoid using either the f- or the e- word in such a way that it has either goodness or badness built into its very meaning.  If you use them, just use them descriptively, to describe a certain ranges of positions.  You may think that the views so designated are good or bad, but don’t make it analytic that f or e views are good or bad.

4.  Those who are pickiest in what they’ll count as ‘evangelical’ come pretty close to requiring for evangelicalism that one hold views that would make one count as a “fundamentalist” by the lights of the more liberal (!) users of ‘evangelical’.

5. Despite the fact that the picky users of ‘evangelical’ that I have in mind think of the term positively, there is a danger, given 4 (i.e., given how far to the right one must be to count as an ‘evangelical’ on their picky use) and some other considerations, that ‘evangelical’ may soon go the way of ‘fundamentalist’, and come to be as negative a term as ‘fundamentalist’ now is.  Then what will we do?  Invent still another term that means pretty much what ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ mean, except that this new term, at least temporarily, is supposed to be positive rather than negative?

Posted by Keith DeRose in Evangelicalism | Permalink


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Interesting discussion! It’s an important one for me, since I am seeking ordination in the ELCA – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. For a “mainline” denomination that could be seen as distinctly different than “the evangelicals,” as the term is too often disparagingly used, we need to come to terms (no pun intended) with what it means to be an Evangelical church – evangelical as committed to the good news of Christ. I think that there is certainly a new and unfortunate stigma being attached to the word evangelical that has nothing to do with the meaning of the word itself. As I explore my call further and in my position as a future pastor, it is important to me that I understand that word for what it means, and not for the associations that the media or even mainline denominations would what to burden it with.

Posted by: melissa | October 20, 2006 at 12:52 AM


In July of 2004, just prior to the US elections, Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis debated in about a 12 minute segment on Tavis Smiley’s show on NPR. In that debate Falwell called Wallis “as about Evangelical as an oak tree!”

Now, this is a bit funny considering 25 years ago Falwell would have described himself as a fundamentalist. But his shift, of course, just wasn’t utilitarian: existing fundamentalists disclaimed him because his political organization, the Moral Majority, included Catholics and other religious conservatives who weren’t even necessarily Christian (these were similar to reasons they disassociated from Graham, but I digress).

The deep irony is that as people like Falwell sought to claim the center of Evangelicalism, a group of Evangelicals met in the spring of ’06 to talk about what name they should call themselves because Evangelical was becoming to much of a liability. (Sorry I don’t have the reference; it was in the NYT). They thought the label “Orthodox Christians” was a better fit.

So how does a term like “fundamentalist” or “evangelical” come to mean something? And why the competition?

I wrote a paper on this using sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital and looking through the lens of that NPR debate if anyone is interested. Just shoot me an email.

Good discussion and insight.

Posted by: Matt Westbrook | October 20, 2006 at 09:00 AM

I’d recommend D. G. Hart’s book Deconstructing Evangelicalism in this regard. Hart, an historian and a Presbyterian, demonstrates well the fairly innocuous nature of the term “evangelical. He advocates that the term be dropped, at least in scholarly contexts, in favor of more nuanced descriptors. Of course, this vision is unrealistic on a culture-wide scale, but Hart does much to clarify the murky meaning of “evangelical”.

Posted by: W. M. Clifton | October 20, 2006 at 11:44 AM

This is a very significant topic in light of all forms of rampant fundamentalism across the globe now. It’s time the evangelicals (whoever they may be) start to make some distinctions.

Evangelical is also a bit of a squeeze-box accordion term. Within Christianity it may have some generally accepted associations, or even beliefs. But do a search for “evangelical” on the New York Times and read the context of each article, and one will see quickly that “evangelical” and “Christian fundamentalist” are synonymous.

Posted by: Matt Cromwell | October 22, 2006 at 05:03 PM

Here’s a simple definition of evangelicalism as I’ve observed its unifying characteristics:

Belief in salvation through Jesus’ dying for sins and physically resurrecting + belief in some form of biblical inerrancy/infallability.


Posted by: Jemila Monroe | October 22, 2006 at 09:00 PM

“Belief in salvation through Jesus’ dying for sins and physically resurrecting + belief in some form of biblical inerrancy/infallability.”

This does not exclude Catholics. The Vatican II document on divine revelation, “Dei Verbum,” asserts that the Catholic Church affirms the inerrancy of the Bible in the following form: “The books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” That is clearly a doctrine of biblical inerrancy in some form.

But even if Vatican II allows for looser form of inerrancy that most evangelicals (say, members of ETS) would reject, there are still lots of conservative Catholics who do hold views of inerrancy that could make them members in good standing of ETS and perfectly at home there on that point.

Historically, those groups designated “evangelical” have been Protestants, so any definition of evangelical will have to be something that explicitly distinguishes them as such.

Posted by: Michael Farley | October 22, 2006 at 10:52 PM

Not so fast, Michael and Jemilia,

First, I would like to point out the irony that on a website called “Generous Orthodoxy” there are those who insist on doing the intellectual labor required to distinguish themselves theologically from Catholic brothers and sisters who agree on some pretty basic tenets of faith. To what end do such distinctions serve?

Secondly, specifically excluding Catholics is only necessary if one is using a normative (theological) definition of Evangelicalism. Scholars, and I am one (who is also a Protestant Evangelical), have little problem with including some Catholics who share significant common traits. Some scholars (again, I am one) even go so far in their non-normative definitions to include ANYONE who calls themselves “evangelical.”

Make no mistake: normative definitions of such things as identity labels serve one main purpose, crudely put: divide and conquer. They otherwise tend to occlude more than they reveal, at least in research but I suspect also in catholicity.

Posted by: Matt Westbrook | October 23, 2006 at 08:43 AM


While I share the concerns you express about developing a normative definition of evangelicalism, it is still important to have an understanding of the key traits shared by those who call themselves evangelicals. A lack of such a clear definition leads to the gross stereotyping of evangelicalism that we see in popular media and culture, where people who wouldn’t know an evangelical from a fundamentalist from a old-school Pentecostal are quick to load the label “evangelical” with burdensome associations that few people who use the label of themselves would ever mean by the term. It’s important to know who should and who should not bear that label, if for no other reason than to protect the reputations of those who call themselves evangelicals against negative association with those who stand outside the mainstream of evangelical thought.

Posted by: Nathaniel Wood | October 23, 2006 at 02:13 PM

Catholics should be able to be called evangelical as well, especially as far as evangelical as an adjective is concerned. The problem does arise when the adjective turns to a Noun (e.g. Evangelicals). This “noun-creating” does exclude because it points out specific people groups or institutions, rather than describing the kind of Christian one is (which is infintely more important).

Therefore being an evangelical catholic Christian just means being a Christian in the Catholic Church who believes in the central tenets of evangelicalism.

Keeping the “e-word” as a describing process rather than a defining one will bear much more fruit for those who call themselves evangelical Christians as well as help in the constant unifying of the body of Christ.

Posted by: Matt Cromwell | October 24, 2006 at 12:15 PM

Matt, you may be surprised to learn that I am not an evangelical according to my own definition. I do not subscribe to biblical inerrancy/infallability. My understanding of inspiration is evolving and dynamic and I do not ground my theology on presuppositions about biblical authority. As the original post pointed out, the issue is not defining evangelicalism as good or bad, but rather describing a certain set of common traits and beliefs. This process can be constructive if it avoids fruitless arguments by helping us understand where another Christian is coming from, but we need to take the next step and say, “based on what we know about our differences and commonalities, where can we come together as one body?

Clearly a distinction needs to be made between a theological definition of an evangelical and a historical description of the main groups who fit this category. I agree that what is most important is finding common ground, but someti

Posted by: Jemila Monroe | October 25, 2006 at 11:09 AM


Sometimes we first need to come to understand and come to terms with our differences. True ecumenism does not reduced life to the lowest common denominator.

Posted by: Jemila Monroe | October 25, 2006 at 11:28 AM

No worries, Jemila, I could have easily said the last line of your [continued] post myself. I certainly am not trying to put forward that kind of ecuminism.

There is a simple sociological reason that a definition of evangelical is not readily available: there is no evangelical hierarchy, no evangelical “denomination” or superstructure. Evangelical is a diffuse and amorphous term, as I think our discussion belies, because it belongs to everyone and no one at once. Turn to scholars like Bebbington or Noll or Marsden and you get different definitions of an evangelical than perhaps other scholars who study the movement and, of course, than non-scholars (like the NYT). So what to do?

It would be easier to define Catholic for the opposite reasons. A Catholic is a Catholic because the super-structure of the Catholic church defines it in a specific way according to belief and practices. Or is it really that simple? 60% of US Catholics disagree with the Vatican’s stance on birth control. Are they still Catholics if they define such an important belief/doctrine differently than their church?

My point is that people seek to define evangelical for two reasons: to say that a certain group of people are them and therefore I get to argue, push out, publish creatively “against them” or argue, push out, publish creatively “for them.” Either way people who consider themselves Evangelicals are going to be excluded and the symbolic market forces that give meaning to the term will take a dive or a climb based on such a move.

From this I want to ask who benefits and why? And does this [the “ends” question] matter to the “means” question? Can we just seek to define what we are for rather than a hard definition of evangelical that will inherently and undoubtedly define what evangelicals are against?

Sorry to put my stick in these waters, but I felt they needed to be muddied a bit.

Posted by: Matt Westbrook | October 25, 2006 at 11:45 AM

For the record, I sometimes find myself using ‘evangelical’ to refer to someone not too far to the right! I use it often as a contrast between people I want to identify with and people who are more extreme. I can understand why in this forum people more often focus on the line between evangelicals and those to the left of evangelicals, but someone defending mainstream evangelical views (as I often do) has to distinguish them from more extreme views of what most evangelicals would call fundamentalism.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | October 25, 2006 at 12:58 PM

Jeremy brings up an interestingly different use. Not too long ago, I joined an discussion on Jeremy’s blog where he & some others were using ‘fundamentalist’ in such a way that it was opposed to ‘evangelical’. I said that I had always supposed that ‘fundamentalists’ were a sub-category of ‘evangelicals’ — way toward the conservative end of the ‘evangelical’ spectrum. That f is a sub-cat of e is, for instance, assumed in George Marsden’s famous defininition of a ‘fundamentalist’ as ‘an evangelical who is angry about something’. I’ve always taken that definition to be intended as a joke, but that f is a sub-type of e as being serious. Anyway, Jeremy was certainly not alone in his use.

Perhaps the ‘not too far to the left’ element of meaning I postulated and Jeremy’s ‘not too far to the right’ can be — and maybe sometimes are — conjoined to yield a ‘just right’ (or ‘Goldilocks’) reading of ‘evangelical’?

Posted by: Keith | October 25, 2006 at 02:18 PM

That’s a nice topic. I think the replacement of “fundamentalist” with “evangelical” is analogous to the replacement of “liberal” with “progressive.” In both cases, the original term developed negative associations in most of society which motivated those in that particular group to come up with a new term which does not yet have negative associations. The terms were meant to denote views as opposed to behavior. At least in the case of fundamentalists, I think the behavior of some who claimed the term created the negative association. The replacement terms are less descriptive of the views, but sound nicer. “Fundamentalist” indicated someone who held to that which they considered the fundamentals of the Christian faith. It made reference to their beliefs. “Evangelical” is meant to represent a certain class of beliefs as well, but the word seems to have less obviously to do with that class of beliefs. One who doesn’t know about the designated meaning might assume it had to do with a fondness for proclaiming one’s faith to unbelievers or just a particular love for the gospel.

This kind of thing is often done when a word acquires a negative association. My favorite example has to do with that place we go to urinate or defecate. I think “commode” was originally a euphemism for the thing that the commode contained (was there ever a word just for that thing we sit upon when we do that thing we all must do?). Then “toilet” became the word to use in polite company, but that was even further removed from the true item of interest. Then we started asking for the location of the “bathroom” as if we were going to take a bath in there. Now it seems that “restroom” is preferred, but rest is not even associated with that room. “Restroom” should indicate our bedroom, if anything. I don’t remember the specific Dr. Seuss story, but in one of them the characters were calling the place we go to “relieve ourselves” the “euphemism.” That sounds perfect.

Language does evolve.

Posted by: Ed Smith | March 29, 2007 at 05:18 PM

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