Just the other day, I heard somebody talking politics and contrasted the Roman Catholic church's political influence with "the Evangelical vote". In this sense, as is often done in US media, the word seem to be used as a synonym of 'Protestant'.

However I get the feeling there is another layer to this. Where did the term 'Evangelical' come from and how is it distinct from 'Protestant'. Used properly, what group(s) is it generally understood to include or what world view does it describe?


"Evangelical" is certainly difficult to pin down! The Encyclopedia of Christianity says

[In America] it covers a wide range of not completely harmonious uses, from the Pentecostal churches to the peace churches, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Southern Baptist Convention, Holiness movement (eg Church of the Nazarene), charismatic groups (including Roman Catholics), and evangelicals in the mainline denominations. 1

and there seems to be a flourishing cottage industry of evangelicals writing books and articles worrying about how to define themselves.


John Stott emphasized that evangelicalism does not see itself as an innovation or deviation from orthodox Christianity. Doctrinally speaking, evangelicals are able to find many precursors - for example, Stott identifies Augustine as a "proto-evangelical", on the basis of his view of grace. 2

The term "evangelical", which derives from the Greek evangelion (gospel, good news), does not seem to have been used to describe a distinct group within the church until roughly the Reformation era. Martin Luther picked it up, and today the German word Evangelisch is not really distinguishable from Protestantisch - unlike in the English-speaking world.

Stott and others have identified several related movements that have identified themselves as evangelical. The following listing is from John Hitchen, who argues that evangelicalism has tended to define itself in opposition to tendencies in the church, or society, at large.

  • The Reformers - against medieval Catholicism.
  • The First Evangelical awakening - against the 'deadness' of the contemporary church.
  • The Second Evangelical awakening - against the Deism, laxity and Unitarianism in the early 18th century church.
  • The Clapham Sect and early 19th Century evangelicals - against lack of 'seriousness' and nominalism in the established church(es).
  • The 'Fundamentalists' of the early 20th century - against proponents of the Social Gospel and Higher Criticism.
  • The mid 20th century evangelicalism - against Liberal theology and Neo-orthodoxy.3

Other modern listings might include subgroups emphasizing social justice, the gifts of the Spirit, or ecumenism, although the boundaries here may not be very sharp 2.

Defining attitudes

In all of these cases, the groups involved did share some common doctrines or positions - in particular, they were trying to preserve or restore 'essential' or 'original' Christian practice and belief. They also share a desire for conversion of the world - in this regard, Stott contrasts it on either side with the fundamentalist position (stand aloof from the world) and the liberal position (adapt to the world) 2.

David Bebbington identified four ideas that form a 'common core', or 'quadrilateral of priorities':

conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed;
activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;
biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called
crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.4

This is a more 'sociological' classification of evangelicals, in terms of their prevailing attitudes rather than any particular point of doctrine. Evangelicals may be strict about doctrine, but the actual content of doctrine isn't tremendously distinctive from 'ordinary' Protestant beliefs, with the exceptions of (1) a stronger view of Biblical authority than many others have, and (2) a related commitment to 'pure' or 'mere' Christianity 5. The Bebbington scheme has gained some currency, though Stott for one was uncomfortable with all the -isms, and the low profile of God. He preferred this formulation of evangelical priorities:

The revealing initiative of God the Father, the redeeming work of God the Son, and the transforming ministry of God the Holy Spirit. 2


In terms of American politics, I don't think it's straightforward to predict where evangelicals will end up. Moreover, the media tend to use the classification fairly carelessly, as a synonym for 'conservative Christian' or 'Republican churchgoer'. In fact, I think there is a great diversity of political beliefs among evangelicals (though the two-party system suppresses that diversity at the polls). Part of this is generational or age-based, but I also have a sense that some political points spring fairly naturally from the evangelical worldview.

For example, the evangelical environmental movement makes perfect sense within the context of the history above. It's a matter of engaging with the world in a positive way, in order to take care of it (and it can be seen as oppositional, like in the Hitchen list above). Equally, many evangelicals care about social and economic injustice in a manner that doesn't match the stereotype that evangelicals ipso facto have right-wing views. This is not to say that evangelicals are automatically left-wing or liberal either! Probably, most evangelicals would be considered socially conservative, and may even regard such issues as overriding priorities when choosing candidates. For what it's worth, I don't think that an evangelical's 'ideal' US political party would greatly resemble either the Republicans or the Democrats, but they do seem to be the only games in town.

1. Encyclopedia of Christianity (Wm. Eerdmans, 2001) under "Evangelical Movement"
2. Evangelical truth: a personal plea for unity, integrity and faithfulness, John Stott (InterVarsity Press, 2005)
3. What it means to be an evangelical today, John M. Hitchen, Evangelical Quarterly 76(1):47-64, 2004.
4. Evangelicalism in modern Britain: a history from the 1730s to the 1980s, D. W. Bebbington (Unwin Hyman, 1989).
5. The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem, J. L. Packer (Latimer House, 1978).

  • "for example, Stott identifies Augustine as a "proto-evangelical", on the basis of his view of grace". For the life of me, I can't see the logic in referencing a Catholic Bishop's view on grace (which included no less than that the sacraments confer grace!) when he is otherwise a Catholic bishop constitutes proto-Protestant anything; or why he would be quoted in support of a position (why else would he be referenced at all except to prove some kind of ancientness or orthodoxy of theology?) – Sola Gratia Aug 16 '17 at 19:03

For purposes of this question, protestants can be divided up into three main political camps:

  1. Those that align closely with Catholics, such as Anglicans, older Lutheran groups, and other highly-centralized and liturgical groups. This category tends to either vote exactly as the denomination suggests, or will discount religion in their voting patterns entirely. These denominations are currently more likely to be conservative, but have been liberal as well in the not-to-distant past. Because of the tendency to keep politics and religion separate and the relative small size (compared to Catholics), they don't get a lot of political attention.
  2. Fundamentalist purist groups. These are "back to the bible" or "sola scriptura" groups that see themselves as separate from the rest of the culture. As a result of this separation, they have low voter turn-out and may not vote based on their religious views. These groups tend to be conservative and were very large 50 years ago. However, the fundamental purists are shrinking as a demographic, and again combined with their weaker voter solidarity don't get as much political attention any more.
  3. Evangelicals. Evangelicals are fundamentalists... just a more recent (and large, growing) adaption. Many that would have formerly been purist fundamentals are now aligned with this movement. Evangelicals are distinct from purists in that they also want to engage the larger culture. They have two goals in mind with this effort: make it easier to reach out (evangelize) Christ to others, and to make it easier and more socially acceptable to live a complete Christian lifestyle. The process of engaging the larger culture means that Evangelicals are much more likely to turn out to vote, and when they vote it's also more likely to be based on their religious viewpoints. This has resulted in a lot of attention from political circles.

As a fairly new movement historically, Evangelicals will often have a progressive or liberal mindset rooted in compassion and sensitive to social justice issues, but tend to vote conservative in spite of this because of a perceived anti-religion and sometimes openly-atheistic stance from other forces in the liberal camp, as well as the liberal position on certain issues (such as abortion) that is abhorrent to many Evangelicals.

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    Fundamentalism is clearly dated to between 1878 and 1910. Evangelicals such as Edwards, Whitfield and Wesley were around in the 18th century. So why do you call Evangelicalism a newer movement? Rather than Evangelicalism being a subset of Fundamentalism, I think it is the other way round. – curiousdannii May 19 '14 at 4:15

The RCC has many teachings that are consistent and coherent. They are buried deep in the vastness of the body of works produced by the copious number of academics the RCC had at its disposal. They also had a headstart. Most of this doctrinal development is lost to the Reformed Church. Luther was quite happy to be Roman Catholic and fully expected to be reinstated after being acquitted for raising what he felt was justified objection to the blatant malpractice prevailing in the church. That's not how hierarchies work, as he found to his chagrin.

The first reformers, or the group who had the French label "Protestant" applied to them, had a very narrow agenda, list of objections . However, the list grew as the movement grew.

Evangelicals today would be considered a subset of the Protestants, a subset that not only reject the traditions of the Catholic Church, both the Roman and the Eastern, but also those of the Anglican and Lutheran. Most Evangelicals feel Luther didn't go far enough in the Reformation, in limiting the role of church in the dispensation of grace.

They believe God's grace is solely administered through His Word. All the sacraments are memorial, a figurative depiction of the content of Scripture.

I think sola scriptura is an appropriate shibboleth to filter Evangelical from non Evangelical.

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    But what about the many Evangelical Anglicans and Lutherans? – curiousdannii May 19 '14 at 4:11

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