From my article at Desiring God:
Where did today’s evangelical crisis come from? The crisis did not result from evangelicals just becoming political, as evangelicals have been more or less politically involved since the Great Awakening of the 1740s. And it can’t just be that evangelicals of different ethnicities seem to inhabit different political planets. Racial tension among evangelicals also dates back to the Great Awakening, when some of its leading figures owned slaves. But politicization and ethnic misunderstanding are definitely two of the key components of the problems American evangelicals are facing in this fraught moment.
The evangelical problem in America runs even deeper, however, because of widespread confusion about the meaning of the term itself. Understanding that confusion requires a quick review of the origins of “evangelical.” The Greek word euangelion, many readers will recall, just means “good news” in the Bible, so the Greek root of the term “evangelical” has been with the church since the time of Christ. During the Reformation, the German word evangelisch tended just to mean Protestant. Sometimes the Puritans of the English Reformation were known as evangelical pastors or believers, but in the era before about 1800, “evangelical” was almost always an adjective, not a noun (as in an evangelical preacher, or an evangelical sermon). One of the first instances of the use of “evangelicals” came in 1807, when a British writer referred to the followers of the late George Whitefield as evangelicals.
Still, the term “evangelical” was not usually used as a noun until the time of the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. Some evidence suggests that the founders of the NAE chose the word “evangelicals” because it was not used very often, so it could set them apart from the inward-focused “fundamentalists” of the era. By 1958, a young J. I. Packer stated on behalf of his Anglo-American cohort of believers, “We prefer to call ourselves ‘Evangelicals’ rather than ‘Fundamentalists.’” (“Evangelical” was more likely to be capitalized in England than in America. “Evangelicalism” is almost exclusively a scholars’ or journalists’ term employed in the second half of the twentieth century.)
Packer and his English and Canadian evangelical community faced a starkly different cultural landscape than did American evangelicals. The prominence and political ambitions of British and Canadian evangelicals faded during the mid-twentieth century, while white American evangelicals found themselves with increasing connections to national political leaders. This insider GOP trend began with Billy Graham, whose remarkable success as an evangelist brought him to the attention of politicians such as Dwight Eisenhower. Graham helped to convince the former general to run for president in 1952, and Eisenhower enlisted Graham to inject spiritual themes into his speeches. Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, had no place for evangelical beliefs in their speeches, such as the need for conversion or the authority of the Bible. They did, however, tout the value of the Judeo-Christian tradition and American civil religion. Graham (as he later conceded) got a taste for the highest echelons of political authority, and that access sometimes blurred his focus on the unadulterated gospel message.
Read the rest of the article here.