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Four graphs chart the rise of ‘evangelicals’ within our national conversation

We've been talking about evangelicals for centuries, but never as much as we do today.

Ngram chart of evangelicals in American English

When did we start talking about evangelicals?  It’s actually an old word, but it used for more widely today than in decades past. Why?

I chart out the use of the word evangelicals in books published in America using google’s ngram viewer. This google toy/tool immediately counts the frequency of words and compares them to the use of other words. It’s a great way to learn and/or waste a lot of time. I use it here to see show when evangelicals rose in our vernacular, and compare it to other terms that hint at why we are more likely to talk about evangelicals today.

The term evangelical has existed for centuries. Originally, it was a synonym for Protestant.  Later it came to mean a more a Protestant with particular approach to the Christian faith. Since the early 1800s, we find evangelicals used in some religious writings. The word did not become common in the American vernacular until the 1970s, about the time that Jimmy Carter and others brought attention to evangelicalism. In 1976, for example, both Time and Newsweek featured cover stories on evangelicals. Time even called 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” It turned out that this “Year of the Evangelical” was not the apex of the movement; it was just its coming out party.

To put this surge into historical context, I charted out the use of Baptists alongside evangelicals (both includes both capitalized and lower-case versions). Baptists has historically been far more common than evangelicals. Baptists were a focus in the early 1800s when Baptists divided over the issues of missions and slavery. Over the past century, the frequency of Baptists were referred to more often than evangelicals. While the frequency of Baptists has remained steady over the past century, evangelicals has now risen. Today, each term is used equally in our language.

One possible explanation for the dramatic rise in the use of evangelicals is that the word took on a new meaning in post-war America. Evangelicals or “neo-evangelicals” were a movement within Protestantism. These evangelicals came out of fundamentalism, favored greater engagement with the larger culture, and focused on evangelism. At the same time, they stayed to the right of modernist or liberal churches in the National Council of Churches.

This neo-evangelical movement occurred decades before the rise of evangelicals. This delay wasn’t merely because the new evangelicals went unnoticed. Billy Graham, who was one the architects of evangelicalism (and one of its archetypes). His name alone was receiving attention in the 1950s, and he continued to be referred to later. But Graham’s rise did not affect the use of evangelicals more broadly—it did not rise alongside the increase of Graham’s name and the surge in the use of evangelicals came even as Graham’s name did not change.

What does appear to happen is that Graham and other leaders within evangelicalism created an identity that was real, but it was not commonly recognized. The up-tick in the use of evangelicals coincides with the rise of two related terms. First, we see a rise in the use of born-again, as in “born-again Christians.” Graham and others in evangelicalism referred to the conversion experience as being born again. As with evangelicalsborn-again had been in use for years but was not part of the national conversation. Second, we see a rise in the use of mainline, a word used to describe  establishment churches that were more liberal theologically. Mainline is a counterbalance to evangelical. From the mid-1970s through the 1990s, both terms rise together.

So what’s going on? After decades of use within religious conversations, evangelicals became part of the national conversation in the 1970s. It reflected both the division within churches (evangelicals vis-a-vis mainline) and greater cultural presence (the neo-evangelicals). Since 2000, evangelicals continues to grow more and more popular in our language. Born-again and mainline, in contrast, are not. My hunch is that the reason is politics. From the 1970s through the 1990s, we talked about evangelicals in religious terms. They weren’t mainline Protestants. They were born-again. Over the past decade or so, evangelicals has taken on more and more of a political meaning. Rather than compare them to those in mainline churches, we compare them to main-street Republicans. The word has taken on meanings that are as much about conservative ideology as conservative theology.

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