Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things I have commanded of you.
The word "evangelical" means "to spread a message", and historically, Christianity has always been a proselytizing faith, which separates it from (for example) Judaism, which was and is meant to be a religion tied to one ethnic group. Christianity is not alone in this regard, but it has had the most success at spreading throughout the globe, from the time of the early Apostles to the present day. Needless to say, this spread has not always been a peaceful thing, but the historical transgressions of Christians in their missionary work is not the main point of this writeup.
Despite the fact that evangelizing is a scriptural imperative and a tradition that almost all Christian churches adhere to, "Evangelical Christian" has a more specific meaning. For one thing, not all Christian Churches put the same weight on actively preaching and seeking converts (for example, the Orthodox Church is more focused around ministering to the community life of its ethnically-based membership than actively seeking new converts). However, it is a bit difficult to say what exactly an Evangelical Christian is. For one thing, as the term is mostly used, it refers to Protestants with orthodox theology. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventist, and Latter Day Saints are not considered "Evangelical Christians". Within that, I would say, from a non-specialist, non-theological standpoint, that there are a few aspects of what constitutes Evangelical Christianity.
- A personal conversion and belief in the faith: unlike Catholicism or "High Protestant" churches, which focus on doctrine and ritual as the cornerstone of belief, most Evangelical Christians value a personal experience of faith, often a very dramatic one.
- Biblical inerrancy: Somewhat at odds with the above, which stresses the individual, emotional nature of faith, most Evangelical Christians also require a fairly strict, literal interpretation of scripture.
- Charismatic or emotional worship services: Although the Charismatic movement in religion and the Evangelical movement are not synonymous, they are often related. Since one of the cornerstones of the movement is the personal, emotional nature of faith, the worship often reflects this.
- Missionary work: as the name would suggest, one of the defining marks of an Evangelical church is that they evangelize, both in terms of health and welfare missionary work, and in actively seeking to convert people to their faith.
One of the things about this list of definitive characteristics is it is not actually that definitive. The truth is, most Protestant churches share at least some of these characteristics. In the actual day-to-day practice of religion, it might be hard to say whether a church is evangelical or not, at least on the level of theology and doctrine. From reading a list of the beliefs and practices of say, the conservative American Association of Lutheran Churches and the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (yes, the "Evangelical Lutheran Church" is actually the Church that is not, on the whole, Evangelical), it would be hard for most people not trained in theological debates to pick out which church was the "Evangelical" church.
This has been somewhat of an interesting point in my own life, since I was raised in a church, the Evangelical Friends Church, that is, as its name suggests, an Evangelical church, but is also a type of Quakerism, a religious group whose general theological orientation is considered decidedly non-Evangelical.
But the name of this write-up is not "Evangelical Christianity", but rather "Evangelical Christian". An individual Evangelical Christian might not be a perfect believer in the dogma of their church, they may not fit all of the criteria of what a worshipper or believer in that church should be. Even in a church that preaches total scriptural inerrancy and belief in Jesus Christ as the sole means of salvation, the individual believer may have doubts about scripture, and may not choose to believe that all non-believers are confined to hell.
Just as there is no single description of what an Evangelical church is like, there is no single description of what an Evangelical Christian is like.
Which brings us to what is perhaps the main point of the term "Evangelical Christian" as it is currently used. The term is often used more in its connotation than its denotation (with said denotation being, as discussed, pretty slippery anyway). The connotation of "Evangelical Christian" is of a white, conservative, probably Southern voter who maybe drives a pick-up truck. When used as a political or social term, "Evangelical Christian" usually excludes the many Black Evangelicals, Hispanic Evangelicals, and usually does not denote someone who might have Evangelical theological beliefs but not fit the social or political profile of an Evangelical Christian. In other words, it is often used (much like the term "Hispanic") as a term made by lazy demographers to describe a certain group of people who have certain characteristics, one of which is sometimes a group of beliefs that may be called "Evangelical Christianity".
So while Evangelical Christians are an important group in the United States, and there are certainly generalities that are true of them, it is often the case that attempts to stick the denotations or connotations of "Evangelical Christian" on to people is a lazy and non-productive practice.