On Monday, the three leading Democrats participated in a forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty; it featured John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.
Although all three are Protestants, they represent three discreet traditions. Edwards, born Southern Baptist, left and returned to personal faith; Barack Obama articulated the prophetic hope of the African-American church, himself an adult convert; and Hillary Clinton has been a mainline Methodist all her life. Edwards spoke easily of Jesus, Obama extolled the vision of “the beloved community,” and Clinton confessed that she is “private” when it comes to faith and finds it awkward when others “wear their faith on their sleeve.” In one short hour, they modeled the three great families of American Protestantism: evangelical, African-American, and mainline.
On the Republican side, inclusion of Mormon Mitt Romney and the likely addition of former Senator Fred Thompson to the field has cause questions to be raised about his and his opponents' faith. Focus on the Family's founder, James Dobson, said recently that Thompson does not appear to be Christian.
The fact that neither Thompson nor any of the top-tier Republican presidential candidates claims to be a born-again Christian raises broader questions in the race for the GOP nomination. One is, simply: Who do evangelicals consider to be Christian? Another is whether a candidate being considered Christian is a prerequisite to winning evangelical support.
Which frontrunning Republican candidate will be able to capture the evangelical vote has become a much-discussed question. But to the voter, it may come down to who they regard as a 'real' Christian.
There's a lot more than semantics at play here. In fact, the question of what makes a Christian has set the evangelical movement apart from other Christian traditions from its inception in the 18th century. Early evangelical theologians such as John Wesley and George Whitefield introduced notions of "true religion" to distinguish their followers from "traditional" or "routine" religion.
"Evangelicals have always had a pretty narrow understanding of who is a Christian in the proper sense of the term," says University of Notre Dame historian Mark Noll. "Catholics and most Lutherans and Episcopalians would say that anyone who has been baptized is a Christian, but most evangelicals would not agree. They see baptism as an initiation ceremony that may or may not indicate the presence of true faith."
That explains why it's commonplace today to hear evangelicals use the word "Christian" to refer exclusively to fellow evangelicals, as opposed to Catholics or members of mainline Protestant churches. Indeed, when asked whether Focus on the Family considered 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, a Catholic, to be Christian, Focus spokesman Gary Schneeberger said he'd rather not answer...
In recent decades evangelicals have begun discerning true Christians from mere professing believers less by denomination and more by religious commitment. Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says,
It's a question of the heart: Has someone turned away from his own works to put his trust in Jesus Christ and does he believe in the Jesus that the Bible portrays? If so, that person has been born again.
For voters, the question is, who amongst next year's candidates is?