Now even the USA Today wonders what “evangelical” means. Fortunately, they’ve played right into my hands by providing yet another opportunity to paralell blues and religion:
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.”
The angle here is the role of the marketplace in producing the word.
First we’ll look at the blues angle. Early blues masters like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and others from the Delta Blues tradition are sometimes seen as almost pathologically “blue.” They had deep blues, and reverberated the sufferings of an entire race. Well, there’s an element of truth to that, but we can’t be oblivious to the impact of record companies on how we perceive their tradition. See, record companies specifically decided to market blues. But when Johnson and Patton weren’t recording, they were first and foremost entertainers who played what the folks wanted to hear, and a lot of it wasn’t the least bit melancholy. So commercialization gives us the appearance of much more musical uniformity than was actually practiced.
Likewise commercialization has an interest in defining evangelicalism. The word “evangelical” is a powerful marketing tool to reach a niche that is ready to spend money within its religious comfort zone. Think of Contemporary Christian Music, book publishers, various parachurch organizations, conferences, and blogs. They need a market in which to thrive, and the market of a single denomination just isn’t going to be adequate. So the word “evangelical” is as good as inspection by the FDA – it’s a safe product. Seeing the blessing of the adjective, people from various denominations purchase the products, and we get the appearance of a high degree of uniformity that doesn’t reflect the doctrinal diversity of the consumers.
I’ll draw your attention to just two more observations. First, did you know the Face of Evangelicalism wasn’t sure what he was the face of?
Even famed preacher Billy Graham wasn’t sure of the answer. “Actually, that’s a question, I’d like to ask somebody, too,” Graham told religion reporter Terry Mattingly in a 1987 interview. “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.”
Finally, Mark Noll notes the diversity hiding behind the term:
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.”
So, if you want to identify yourself as part of a commercial niche or enterprise it’s a free country, but surely there are better ways of religious identification.