11/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Fundamentalists Became Evangelicals

John McCain and Barack Obama are the nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties for president of the United States. One has publicly acknowledged Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.

The one who has is not John McCain.

But if you watched the mid-August forum at Saddleback Church in Orange County when McCain and Obama appeared separately with Pastor Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life", a run-away best-seller (as in 25 million copies sold), you could be forgiven for thinking it was McCain not Obama who had declared Jesus as Lord. In fact, there is no public record of McCain making that claim. He has never said, as Obama has, he's "born again."

One of the extraordinary occurrences within the Christian church is how fundamentalism became evangelicalism.

The cause is twofold:

First, the word "fundamentalism", ever since 9/11 and the rise of Muslim extremism, carries a hugely negative association, one that most people, understandably, have no wish to be identified with.

American Christian "fundamentalism", which dates, in part, to the great Fundamentalist-Modernist debate of the 1920s and 30s, is still with us - in greater numbers than before. Fundamentalism, at its core argues the Bible is inerrant, that scripture is literally true, without error - every word and every verse of every chapter in every book of the Old andNew Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.

It might astonish you how many people believe the verbal inspiration of scripture, that the books of the Bible, in both Testaments, were written by men as God dictated to them to write. Hence, by that act of composition, the Bible is faultless. Those who hold this view are fundamentalists.

Secondly, there is another community of Christians, however, who hold to a different view. That community believes in the plenary inspiration of scripture. They hold scripture to be inspired but not infallible. Many who hold this view are evangelicals.

To a non-Christian, a non-faith, non-religious person, why should that matter? Verbal inspiration, plenary inspiration, fundamentalist, evangelical, who cares?

On the night of the nationally televised appearances by McCain and Obama, Rick Warren asked the two candidates when life begins? Obama gave a highly nuanced answer, saying, among other things, it's "above my pay grade." McCain, conversely, answered directly and dramatically, "At conception." Obama's answer received polite applause. McCain's answer received loud and sustained applause. The notable difference in reactions was no surprise; those in attendance were members of Saddleback, a Southern Baptist church.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is America's largest Protestant church - and a Fundamentalist denomination; one that rejects modernity (the SBC, for instances, does not ordain women). Warren and his church have achieved remarkable success, and they do good charitable works, but the church's connection to the SBC has been minimized. You cannot find it referenced on the church's Web site (thus avoiding the embarrassing fundamentalist connection).

Should that matter? Yes, because we're in the midst of the most important presidential campaign in our history and the religious right, i.e., fundamentalists, will be a significant factor election day.

Having realized the serious public relations downside of being thought "fundamentalist", those who embrace its doctrine have stopped using the term and have adopted evangelical, which is culturally less threatening and socially more acceptable.

However, while all fundamentalists may be evangelicals in asserting that Jesus Christ is Lord, not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists are pro-life, not all evangelicals are. Fundamentalists oppose gay marriages, not all evangelicals do. Fundamentalists believe in creationism, most evangelicals accept Darwin and keep an open mind. Because fundamentalists oppose abortion and gay rights, the two issues that dominate their political agenda, they vote overwhelmingly Republican (or did you think John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin was an accident?).

The chance for Obama/Biden to win votes among fundamentalist Christians is nil. That vote goes to McCain/Palin. Obama/Biden's chances to win votes among evangelicals, however, is dramatically higher. Non-fundamentalist evangelicals have broader political concerns - the Iraq War, global warming, health care, the economy, Wall Street greed, the plight of the poor, etc.

The conundrum of fundamentalist/evangelical is heightened by media ignorance. The media, not understanding the differences between the two, unwilling to do the hard work necessary to separate one from the other, have chosen to identify them as one - "evangelical." And by that failure, confusion is rampant on what issues divide these two differing bodies of Christian believers - politically and theologically.

Fundamentalists and evangelicals share a common faith in the person of Jesus Christ, but it isn't that which separates them - it's everything else.

John McCain will get the fundamentalist vote November 4. But the real question is how many evangelicals will vote for Barack Obama - the one presidential candidate to confess Jesus as Lord.

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