This essay will focus on the evangelical movement in the United States and its growing ties with politics, both nationally and globally.
The term “evangelical” is derived from the Greek word evangelion, meaning “the good news” (Larry Eskridge, April 2005)) It describes a diverse number of Protestant groups and was begun in the 1700’s.
Today, many confuse the term “evangelicalism” with “fundamentalism.” They are two very different terms, and a search of a broad number of websites uncovered that the two terms have been used (wrongly) synonymously.
The evangelist seeks to study the bible and emphasize a relationship with Christ. The fundamentalist is an opponent of intellectualism, modernism and liberalism. Part of the confusion seems to be the rise of a coalition of evangelists that rose up during WWII in protest to the fundamentalist movement of the 1920’2 and 30’s (Eskridge).
The recent rise in evangelicalism is largely due to two core members: Billy Graham and Harold John Ockenga. Along with the growth of responsible institutions that study evangelical teachings, methodology, history and doctrine, evangelicalism has gained ground in recent years in terms of being a viable ecumenical community.
In the late 1980’s a “Code of Ethics for Christian Witness” was forged by a professional task force of Jews, Roman Catholics, denominational chaplains, evangelicals and agnostics (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, 1989). This code of ethics is apparently a bit malleable, as the general code of ethics has been slightly altered by each group for a better style and fit.
According to Larry Eskridge and others, the evangelicals were reticent to enter politics, focusing instead on sharing the faith and keeping up with missions and nurturing the faithful. In the 1970’s, that changed with the rise of Jimmy Carter to the presidency. Carter, a self-proclaimed “born again Christian,” inadvertently spawned what is now called the “Religious Right,” which began to flourish under his administration.
As the “moral majority” and the “religious right” grew in numbers, status and power, its influence on politics began to pick up speed and the media recorded this growth, perhaps even giving it more might and strength than it could have had on its own.
By the 1980’s, television was booming with evangelical debacles such as the Bakkers, Swaggart and Falwell. These personalities tainted the movement and the world watched as evangelicalism gained a new place in entertainment television as viewers saw the tears of Jimmy Swaggart at her admitted sinning, the arrest of Jimmy Bakker and his overly made-up wife Tammy, and the Falwell spectacle. These big personalities who had brought down the evangelical house with them turned evangelicals’ attention even more to the media, since ever more attention was now on the movement and the analysis of the big personalities that had preached both sides of the fence.
The advent of talk radio in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s spawned yet another problem, and that was competing air-time and what was allowable to say and what was not. Both the fundamentalists and evangelists competed for the bulk of listeners, but they had to be careful how they solicited funds. The liberal Protestants eventually moved aside from radio and television and the evangelicals moved in, from the 1970’s onward. From that was the emergence of the National Religious Broadcasters, which is privately funded through membership, donations and subscription. The NRB has gained enormous ground in the field of electronic media and has 1400 members worldwide (NRB.org, 2005).
The Internet now offers innumerable sites from which to draw information and the evangelists are a hot topic. Here is where mixed messages thrive as one goes from one site to another, attempting to gain an understanding of this movement and whether it is still maintaining its commitment to its code of ethics or becoming a real ‘mover and shaker” in the global political arena. It is shrouded in controversy, as the evidence will show.
Nearly all of the websites explored give attention to the growing evangelical power in Third World Countries, where less rigorous Catholicism with liberal overtones have caused a schism amongst the faithful. Also, a lot of attention has been given to the battle to keep church and state separate, and some attention has been given to religion in the work place.
We will look at the religion in the work place issue: MSNBC’s web site ran a story about evangelism in the workplace, since the 9/11/Enron/Dot Com bust rocked businesses. Apparently there is evidence that shaken corporations who were unsure of business ethics opened the way for evangelism to enter the workplace. The problem with what is legal or not is clear; it is admitted that the law does not adequately cover the practice of religion in the work place, but it is acknowledged that if it is not voluntary, it is unethical to proselytize.
Stronger and more frequent web sites argue that evangelicals believe that non-believers will go to hell after death; that includes Jews, Darwinists, Spiritualists, and any other non-Christians including Islamists, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. This is where sponsored web sites show up aplenty.
The sponsors for webmags are wide and varied, but they do have a common theme of sponsors selling patriotic items, printer ink and discounted vacations. Patriotism seems to be the common theme amongst the sponsors of webmags that argue on the “pro” side of evangelicalism.
Sites that simply analyze the arguments and offer the conclusion of the debate to the reader more often have an e-store and a “donations” icon.
Other sites such as Blble.com have auto insurance sponsors. This site boasts the power that evangelicals have gained in the 1990’s, which formed the International Freedom Of Religion act, passed in 1998.
The Internet sites viewed show several groupings regarding the evangelical movement: it’s growing power and involvement in politics, definitions of the mission of the movement, commentaries and debates.
On the one side we see defense of the movement and an explanation of the way it works, with attempts to diffuse myths and misinterpretations; on the other side we see attacks and accusations of the movement having its own agenda and straying from its simple mission, instead increasing its power to swell its ranks in order to have more control.
Although many of the pro-evangelism websites have sponsors that emphasize patriotism, a few of the analysis sites do as well; one such site called TPM Café has a sponsor called Whiskey and Gunpowder, which is invested in protecting people’s freedom, especially of religious expression.
The political overtones of the websites examined for the most part acknowledge that the evangelical movement has gained its strength through having a Republican administration and therefore more access to the media; however, websites that protest the evangelical movement are more aimed at attacking the media than evangelism itself. Most of the sites that are against the “religious right” tend to emphasize that both the evangelical movement and the media use fear as the motivator for action. It is generally agreed that the key to the evangelical movement’s success is good organization and a strong sense of focus, which the liberals currently lack.
There is surprising little rage one way or the other on the Internet, other than a few blasting arguments and accusations from individuals wanting a voice and posting pages that are linked to other, bigger sites with no sponsors or requests for donations.
In general, the flavor of the evangelical movement on the Internet is one of history, definition and explanation. Some pages offer links to anti-religious right sites that carry stronger attitudes of protest and accusation.
We will now look at the two extremes of the spectrum: groups that blanket the Religious Right as hate mongers who engage in violent activity, racism, homophobia, fear tactics and damnation for non-Christians as well as the groups that view liberals as amoral people whose purpose in life seems to be to spread Satan’s work through the fabric of society while using the First Amendment as an excuse to attack Christians.
The Southern Poverty Law Center web site has no sponsors but does solicit donations in the form of membership (a monthly pledge program), a one-time donation or a donation “in honor or in memory of.” This site offers legal action as well as “intelligence reports” regarding the KKK and the Neo-Nazis. The focus is on the intense activities of these groups that fall under the blanket of the evangelical or “religious right” definitions; a minority of the evangelists, granted, yet ones who gain a tremendous amount of media attention.
Other sites under the anti-religious right category are public watchdog groups who report on the religious right’s activities blocking the access to contraception, abortion (even in circumstances of rape or incest). Abortion and homosexuality are the two main targets of the religious right (which is now synonymous with evangelical groups).
Sites that analyze the religious right’s success unanimously argue that the liberal groups lack the organization or assertiveness to ask fundamental questions and recruit members in the way that the religious right does. In general, the consensus seems to be, again, fear as the main selling point of the evangelical movement. It is said that capitalizing on fear and an incredible insight into human fear of death and the afterlife has been behind the success of the religious right’s movement in the past thirty years.
It is also noted that 9/11 galvanized the religious right, being such a horrific and fearful event that offered fresh fodder for the religious right to scoop up more members under the guise of patriotism and protection in numbers.
An interesting thing happened when looking at sites that offer links encouraging fighting the religious right; the pages have been removed. On one page, five out of seven links returned “page not found” errors.
Another sore point amongst liberals is the censorship of the arts and other forms of impediments to freedom of speech. While this largely takes place in real life situations, it doesn’t seem to affect television or radio advertising, nor does it even touch the music video or porn industry.
It seems that the failure of liberals is in trying to prevent offending people (hence the switch from “Merry Christmas to “Happy Holidays”) and the lack of a single intent other than activism, which puts the religious right in the position of damning activists as terrorists.
Liberals include Christians who are not evangelicals or fundamentalists; these voices are represented on the Internet as watchdog groups who feel that the religious right gives Christianity a bad name. In general, their point is that political involvement, hate crimes, white supremacy (none of these being typical evangelical activities but associated with them nonetheless) and restricting women’s rights has nothing to do with the message of Christ and call for the cessation of the extremist activities assaulting the airwaves. Again, the media is taken to task for giving these groups so much attention.
In conclusion and in general, the subject of the evangelical movement is teeming with opinions, arguments, analyses, commentaries and calls to action on both sides. For the most part, it is acknowledged that the fuel for this movement and its political power is a sympathetic administration.
The majority of evangelists advocate religious tolerance and the nurturance of The Message, and the majority of liberals are attempting to remind people of the First Amendment, which dovetails with the true evangelist statements. The majority of liberals and evangelists want to get along and tackle the major issues in the world such as poverty and the ruination of the environment and corruption of corporations and governments and even religious institutions.
Eskridge, Eric. “Defining Evangelism.” Institute For the Study Of American Evangelicals. Wheaton College. April 2005, 8 December 2005. http://www.wheaton.edu/isae/defining_evangelicalism.html
“Evangelism Code Of Ethics.” InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. 1989, 8 December 2005. http://www.intervarsity.org/evangelism/article_item.php?article_id=1503
“Who Are We?” National Religious Broadcasters. 2005, 9 December 2005. http://www.nrb.org/whoweare