Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | May 2, 2003

A few fundamental terms

The opinion page hullabaloo about South Valley Community Church’s “Got Purpose?” campaign inspired me take a stab at explaining the two opposing camps – evangelical and non-evangelical – to one another.

That term, evangelical, is often used interchangeably with another term, fundamentalist. That’s a mistake. Fundamentalists – whether they’re Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, Mormons or Jews – require the strict and literal interpretation of their religion’s holy texts. Evangelicals try to convert nonbelievers to their particular religion – usually because they hold that nonbelievers will experience punishment in the afterlife.

Frequently fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not always.

Lest anyone doubt my qualifications to pontificate on this subject, I’ll present my fundamentalist and evangelical credentials. I was born in the campus hospital of the infamous Bob Jones University. I grew up hearing the story of Bob Jones Sr., who was a patient at the same time, holding me as a newborn. Jones Sr., the college’s founder, charmed my mother by telling her I made a better hospital souvenir than his surgical scar.

I attended fundamentalist, evangelical Christian schools from kindergarten through grade 12 and fundamentalist, evangelical churches – usually of the Grace Brethren variety. The Grace Brethren denomination, which is not as prominent here as it is in the Midwest, is similar to Southern Baptist in doctrine.

It’s fair to say that I know a thing or two about fundamental, evangelical Christianity. It’s also true that I no longer espouse fundamentalism or evangelicalism. I think that makes me adept at seeing both groups’ points of view.

Based on my years in an evangelical world, I have no doubt that evangelicals proselytize with the sincerest of motives. Most evangelicals truly have what they judge to be the best interests of those they are trying to convert at heart.

Witness Betty McCarn’s recent letter to the editor: “Our church … is not trying to steal members from other churches. Our church is doing what is commanded by Jesus … ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’”

If non-evangelicals grasp that evangelicals sincerely think nonbelievers are speeding along the highway to hell, and are thus compelled to entice nonbelievers to their particular straight-and-narrow path to heaven, perhaps they’ll be less insulted by their proselytization.

That said, it really shouldn’t mystify evangelicals when their well-intentioned proselytization is labeled arrogant and pushy by non-evangelicals. All too often, evangelicals refuse to concede that non-evangelicals are genuinely offended by their attempts to “steal” people from other religions.

A case in point is the uproar following Franklin Graham’s announcement of his plans to send Christian missionaries to postwar Iraq bearing humanitarian aid and a zeal to convert Muslims.

Muslim and non-Muslim critics complained that Graham’s plans are disrespectful of Arab culture and Islam. Supporters responded that Graham has every right to try to save Muslims from what he believes will be eternal damnation.

It’s the Gilroy “Got Purpose?” debate on an international scale.

I’d argue that both sides are right. Graham, quoted as saying Islam is “evil” and “wicked,” is offensive to many Muslims; yet, he does have a right to believe he should convert Muslims. Evangelicals – like columnists – are frequently sincere and offensive at the same time.

However, if each group could keep the other’s point of view in mind before opening mouths, ascribing motives and hurling invective, plenty of hot air and hurt feelings might be avoided.

The controversies – local and international – underline the importance of the separation of church and state. Many evangelicals’ willingness to pay almost any price to save souls (so what if we offend millions of Muslims, make the world more dangerous and make the president’s job more difficult, we’re sending those missionaries) means that separation is imperative.

Our secular government must consider earthly consequences – including increased terrorism, religious freedom and free speech – unfettered by literal interpretation of any religion’s holy texts and unencumbered by commandments to evangelize, for the sake of every religion, which often contradict and conflict with one another.

With church-state separation, everyone – fundamentalist, evangelical, religious, and some or none of the above – wins. The strife, persecution and intolerance in so many countries that lack it prove that separation of church and state is, well, fundamental.



  1. […] with a loss-of-faith experience, no matter the religion, will appreciate Auslander’s […]

  2. […] using words correctly. The definitions  of evangelical and fundamentalist featured prominently in my column about a Gilroy church’s proselytizing campaign. The shifting definition of downtown was at the […]

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