Even famed preacher Billy Graham wasn't sure when asked that in 1987 by religion reporter Terry Mattingly.
"Actually, that's a question, I'd like to ask somebody, too," Graham said. "The lines [have] become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals."
So here's a primer about these religious types, their history, faith and politics:
Who is an evangelical?
Technically, all Christians are, according to the Religion Newswriters' Stylebook. The word comes from the Greek "evangelion," the book says, which means "good news" or "gospel." And all who claim to follow Jesus Christ feel obligated to share his gospel.
But the term "evangelical" has come to refer mostly to a type of Protestant, explains Pastor Corey Hodges of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Kearns and a part-time Salt Lake Tribune columnist. Evangelicals believe in the Trinity; that the Bible alone is the word of God; and that it is inerrant and infallible; that salvation is by grace alone through faith and not accomplished by human effort or achievement; and that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh and his death and resurrection were the payment for human sin.
Notre Dame historian Mark Noll, author of Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction, recommends a wider description, one penned by British historian David Bebbington. Bebbington identified a couple of additional or key ingredients of evangelicalism, including an emphasis on the "new birth" as a life-changing experience of God and a concern for sharing the faith.
The trouble, Noll notes, is that "these evangelical traits have never by themselves yielded cohesive, institutionally compact, or clearly demarcated groups of Christians, but [rather] ... identify a large family of churches and religious enterprises."
In other words, "evangelical" is not the name of a single church.
Indeed, says John Morehead, director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies in Salt Lake City, "evangelicalism is a movement that encompasses a variety of denominations and independent traditions."
Terry Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, expands the definition further, saying "evangelicals have always been a cultural niche/commercial product kind of thing. No set doctrines."
What sets evangelicals apart from fundamentalists?
Noll: The serious answer is the 'eye of the beholder.'
For instance, I believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ, which makes me a fundamentalist in the eyes of some people, but I take an occasional glass of wine and don't worry about evolution, which means that, for many people, I can't be a fundamentalist.
Hodges: Fundamentalists practice an extreme religion that is against the culture, while liberal Christians do not believe that the entire Bible is the word of God. This would be a social distinction. Fundamentalists generally believe that culture is evil and corrosive. Their views usually result in isolation from the culture and/or bigotry. Evangelicals believe the culture is redeemable and can and should be impacted by Christians.
Who came first, evangelicals or fundamentalists?
The 1910 Presbyterian General Assembly declared that all ministerial candidates had to subscribe "to five fundamental doctrines," according to a recent article in Christian History Magazine, "the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historicity of the biblical miracles."
For the next decades, the magazine said, a battle ensued in nearly every mainline Protestant body between fundamentalists and "those who wanted to remain 'tolerant' and 'open-minded' in response to modern learning." Fundamentalists lost.
Eventually, a new group emerged, calling themselves "the New Evangelicals," the article said, hoping "to distance themselves from the anti-intellectual, militant, culture-shunning traits that had begun to characterize much of fundamentalism."
It was seen as a "kind of reform movement within fundamentalism." Today, the two share many beliefs but are separated by their approach to culture.
How are evangelicals different from Pentecostals?
Pentecostals are a particular subgroup of evangelicals, who believe in the same basic doctrines but emphasize "the work of the Holy Spirit," including healing, speaking in tongues,and prophesy.
Hodges: They tend to focus more on existential and experiential faith. Pentecostal theology generally emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit, while other evangelicals focus more on the work of Christ.
Morehead: Pentecostalism and its related cousin, the charismatic movement emphasizes the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the present age (and not only in the New Testament).
Why don't some evangelicals think Mormons are Christian?
It stems, mainly, from the LDS view of God and Jesus and the Mormon belief in extra scriptures, which are essentially the same objections that Catholic, Orthodox and liberal Protestants have.
Evangelicals and traditional Christians believe in the Trinity, that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one substance. Mormons believe God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are separate beings. Evangelicals also heed the Bible as the sole word of God, while Latter-day Saints believe in the Bible and other scriptures, including the faith's signature Book of Mormon.
Noll: I'm not sure all evangelicals would say categorically that all Mormons are not Christians. But the prominence given to revelation through Joseph Smith (and not just the Bible), doctrines like the materiality of God, rites that seem strange and un-biblical (temple rites and early day polygamy), and (sociologically speaking) the separated nature of Mormon religious life are all issues for evangelicals.
Morehead: Mormons and evangelicals approach the definition of Christian very differently. Evangelicals, with their emphasis on correct doctrine as developed within the history of the church and its various creeds, see Mormonism as presenting something quite different, and at odds, with the historic creedal statements of Christendom. For many Mormons, a Christian is simply someone who follows Christ. By that simple definition, evangelicals might agree that Mormons [and others] who follow some concept of Christ would also be Christian. We might also keep in mind that many Mormons are hesitant to grant the label Christian to evangelicals due to the alleged corruption of the gospel after the apostles.
Can Catholics be evangelicals?
Hodges: No. The Protestant and, ultimately, the evangelical movement arose from frustration with the Catholic Church's theology. Some of Catholic theology runs contrary to that of evangelicals. For instance, Catholics have the additional books of the Bible known as the Apocrypha, which they consider to be the word of God. Also, confession of sins to the priest runs contrary to the evangelical belief of the priesthood of all believers.
Mattingly: Using the word accurately, no. It is a Protestant term. Catholics can, of course, be evangelists.
Morehead: Typically Catholics are not evangelical in that they not only accept the authority of the Bible, but also give a prominent place to the authority of the church, the pope, and church tradition. Today, most Protestants would recognize Catholicism as one of the historic branches of Christendom (including Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy), but distinguish this from evangelicalism.
Noll: Yes, maybe. John Allen Jr., who writes for the National Catholic Reporter recently published a book titled The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church. He calls his first or second main trend 'Evangelical Catholicism.' He points to tens of millions of Catholics, especially in Latin America and Africa, but some in the U.S. and Canada, too, who, more or less, exhibit David Bebbington's traits and yet who are loyal and faithful Catholics. Fifty years ago 'evangelical Protestant' and 'Roman Catholic' were mutually exclusive, but now there is considerably more overlap. Now, many traditional evangelicals would continue to insist that a Catholic simply cannot be an evangelical. But there are others, even quite conservative, who would say otherwise.
Has the term "evangelical" become politicized?
Hodges: It has, to some degree. It is used to describe a voting-bloc subculture. In my opinion, evangelicals have assisted the media and the general public in politicizing it because we want to distinguish ourselves from right-wing fundamentalists and left-wing liberals, neither of whom fit into the mainstream of the populous. It is no secret that the Republican Party has the advantage when it comes to evangelical loyalty in our two-party system.
Noll: Yes, but much more in the U.S. than elsewhere. There are some (not many, but a few) self-identified evangelicals in Canada's socialist New Democratic Party, quite a few in Britain's Labor and Scottish Nationalist parties. In Brazil, there are a few political parties organized by Pentecostal-evangelicals, but they have worked with a wide variety of other political parties. The American mania for reporting political races has rightly discovered that a very high percentage of white evangelicals support the Republican Party, but a substantial minority do not and quite a few evangelicals remain in principle uninvolved in active politics. One intriguing item: Black Protestants in the U.S. share most of the standard evangelical traits; many share all of them. But we rarely hear of 'evangelical African Americans for Obama,' probably because it would force people to think self-consciously about what 'evangelical' means and also it would distort the standard story line for political reporting that gets used so often.
Mattingly: Totally. Many journalists now argue that Santorum is an evangelical because he votes like one, whatever that means.