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Phil Vischer: What Is an Evangelical, Really?

Falwell decided to engage with American politics after a few key events. One was the passing of Roe vs. Wade. But even more significant in Vischer’s view was the IRS’s decision to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University for remaining segregated and therefore violating the Civil Rights Act. What’s more, the IRS also threatened litigation against segregation academies if they continued to refuse to integrate. “Falwell was furious,” said Vischer.

So Jerry Falwell Sr. and others like him decided to start participating in American politics, seeking to engage “born again” Christians in support of conservative values. These circumstances coincided with the election of “born again Sunday school teacher” President Jimmy Carter in 1976, and said Vischer, “the media needed a handle for all these conservative white Christians who were suddenly shaping national politics.” They landed on “evangelical.” So now, said Vischer, “If you’re a white Christian and not a modernist or a Catholic, you’re an evangelical—which has left the term more or less meaningless.”

What Is an Evangelical, According to Vischer?

“So what is evangelicalism in America today?” asked Vischer. “It’s a hot mess. What started out as a high regard for the Bible and personal conversion has devolved into a catch-all category for white Christians engaged in conservative politics.” 

This does not mean, however, that the negatives of fundamentalism have vanished from American culture. Said Vischer, “Today, old currents of fundamentalism are resurgent: the desire to declare war on our enemies, the rejection of mainstream science, the belief that the world is out ot get us, the longing for an idealized past, while downplaying or entirely ignoring racial injustice.” 

Given this history, it is easy to see why some people, even if they still hold Christian beliefs, are no longer comfortable with the label “evangelical.” When considering the question, “What is an evangelical?” Vischer’s podcast co-host Skye Jethani thinks that the term has become so corrupt we should abandon it altogether. 

But this is not Vischer’s view. Rather than rejecting the term “evangelical,” he would rather “remind us what the movement was all about and what, hopefully, it can be about again.”