Leader Resource 1: Evangelical Christianity Background
Evangelical Christianity is not a religion, nor an official denomination. It is a faith movement that has become especially significant in the United States over the past 50 years, in two ways:
1. Evangelical Christianity is popular, and growing. A Pew Forum survey (2007) reported that 78.4 % of American adults identify as Christian, and about one third of these say they are Evangelical. Each Evangelical "megachurch" serves 2,000-plus Sunday worshippers at a time. A Forbes magazine article reported that the number of U.S. megachurches grew from 50 in 1970 to more than 1,300 in 2009.
2. The voice of Evangelical Christianity is prominent in American politics and culture. Evangelicals are the "base" for the politically and socially conservative Christian Right. Evangelicals often speak out, asking society to control personal behaviors they consider sinful according to the Bible. Evangelicals typically oppose equal marriage (marriage equality for same-sex couples), public school sexuality education, reproductive choice, and the teaching of human evolution in public school without offering the Bible's description of God's creation of the world as an alternate explanation.
Some Protestant denominations are Evangelical—for example, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church. The Christian Evangelical movement also includes large megachurches attended by thousands; "virtual" ministries that occur online or on television; many independent, local churches; and many individual Christians who do not regularly attend a particular church.
Today's Evangelicalism evolved out of the Christian Fundamentalist movement that began in the U.S. about 100 years ago. At the turn of the 20th century, new, modern ideas challenged traditional, core, Christian beliefs and brought conflict to Protestant churches, particularly Baptist and Methodist churches. Which ideas? Ideas like Darwin's scientific theory that humans evolved over billions of years, from and alongside other life forms. Changing ideas about the Bible's origins, in light of archeological evidence. Ideas from philosophy and history that we might examine scripture critically, as a work written by people, and not by God.
According to William O. Beeman in "Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival," in Anthropology for the Real World, edited by J. MacClancy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001):
...[T]he movement took its name from a compendium of twelve volumes published between 1910 and 1915 by a group of Protestant laymen entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth. These volumes were circulated in the millions and served as the concretization of a cross-denominational set of traditions with roots in previous centuries. It owes its existence particularly to the same evangelical revivalist tradition that inspired the Great Awakening of the early 19th Century and a variety of early millenarian movements. Spurred on by reactions to Darwin's theory of evolution, the original Fundamentalist Movement was seen as a religious revival. It came to embody both principles of absolute religious orthodoxy and evangelical practice which called for believers to extended action beyond religion into political and social life.
In other words, as a reaction to progressive ideas, The Fundamentalist Movement urged a return to orthodoxy, the spread of orthodox values to public life, and the preservation of "fundamental" truths of Christianity, most importantly:
- The Bible's inerrant truth, especially with regard to God's creation of humankind and Jesus Christ's literal resurrection after death.
- The belief that every human is born a sinner, and can find salvation only through acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's personal savior.
Today, the term "fundamentalist" is a label for various faiths' resurgent movements for religious orthodoxy—for example, militant Islamists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Buddhist resistance fighters. Most often, fundamentalism is associated with social conservativism.
The Appeal of Evangelical Christianity
Like the early Fundamentalist movement, today's Evangelicalism attracts Christians who want a faith community with which to resist the loosening of social rules in a modernizing, culturally diverse society. Evangelicalism offers absolute, definitions of sinful behavior, and the simplicity of a single path to salvation: accepting Jesus. For an Evangelical, the Bible is the guide for life. It is a God-inspired document, infallible in its intent and literal in its description of human history. Many Evangelicals believe that human beings were created by God—first a man, then a woman—about 10,000 years ago; that Jesus physically died and then was resurrected; that Satan is a real being; that Heaven is a real place where a "saved" soul will go after death to dwell with God. Clear, uncomplicated answers to many of life's Big Questions offer Evangelical Christians a sense of certainty.
Followers are attracted to the Evangelical worship atmosphere. From the small, non-denominational church to the "megachurch" where thousands pray together, Evangelicals are typically led in worship by a charismatic preacher. Whether a worship community is primarily African American; primarily Latino/Latina; an ethnic faith community such as Korean, Chinese, or Haitian; primarily white; or intentionally multicultural, an Evangelical service is likely to have an expressive, vibrant atmosphere, including rousing music. In many Evangelical communities, worshippers are encouraged to have a bodily experience of Jesus' presence; some may shout out or move physically, sometimes embracing one another. Sometimes while praying, people will "speak in tongues"— unintelligible, expressive vocalizations. This faith expression has roots in both the white and black Southern Pentecostal movements. Evangelicalism attracts Christians who seek a personal, emotional experience of God.
Salvation Beliefs and a Calling to "Save" Others
The crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a central image in Christianity. Evangelical Christians believe that Jesus suffered and died on our behalf; by accepting Jesus and his sacrifice for us, we save our souls—that is, we go to Heaven after we die. Those of us who do not personally accept Jesus are excluded from salvation—that is, we are eternally damned. An Evangelical Christian is someone who has had, or is seeking, an experience of being "born again" through surrendering to Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
The word "evangelicalism" refers to the belief that one must spread one's faith to others. Some Unitarian Universalists who feel called to publicly express and act on UU Principles consider themselves "evangelical UUs." An Evangelical Christian is called to bring others into personal relationship with Jesus—that is, to convert others to Christianity—so that they, too, might be "saved." Evangelical Christians are called to publicly express Christian beliefs, particularly the beliefs that the Bible is inerrant, and that we are all born sinners who can achieve salvation only through Jesus Christ.
Evangelical Christians are called to act publicly on their beliefs and may fulfill this call in diverse ways. Some focus on serving others in love and compassion, following the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. "Shouting it out"—proclaiming one's belief aloud—is seen as an expression of faith; some Evangelicals share their faith with "non-believers" through prosthelytizing. Some feel called to share their religious beliefs with society at large, Christians and non-Christians alike.
Extreme Fundamentalist Evangelicals, following their call, have promoted these ideas for which they find basis in the Bible:
- All gay people are going to Hell; the HIV/AIDS epidemic which began to spread among gay men in the 1980s was God's punishment for their sin.
- God punishes our nation with disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, because of our secular (non-religious) lifestyles; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were a punishment from God.
Beliefs such as these have fueled extremist Evangelicals in hate speech and physical violence against gay and lesbian people, gender variant people, women seeking reproductive health services and the professionals who want to help them, educators who refuse to teach biblical creation as science, and others whose behaviors offend fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
Most contemporary fundamentalist Christians would probably consider themselves also evangelical. However, Evangelical Christians sometimes reject the label "fundamentalist," because of its association with the conservative political activism of the Christian Right and the violent speech and actions of some extreme Christian fundamentalists. Many Evangelicals adamantly oppose the hate speech and physical violence that some fundamentalist Christians have used.
A Christian who is both fundamentalist and evangelical most likely believes in:
- Conversion experience—being born again
- Only way to be saved is to accept Jesus as your personal savior
- Called to express the Gospel through actions—e.g., by spreading the faith, actively promoting fundamentalist Christian beliefs; serving people in need
- The Bible is God's word, literally and absolutely true, and the only guide needed for life.
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