Historically, and in many parts of the world other than the United States and Canada, the term refers to the distinction between the Roman Catholic Church and movements following the tradition of the Protestant Reformation (referred to by Martin Luther as the evangelische Kirche or evangelical church).
The contemporary usage of the term derives from a 20th century movement which was perceived as the middle ground between the theological liberalism in the Mainline (Protestant) denominations and the cultural separatism of Fundamentalist Christianity. In North American usage the term evangelicals is nearly always used in this sense. Evangelicalism has been described as "the third of the leading strands in American Protestantism, straddl[ing] the divide between fundamentalists and liberals.
The term is also used by some Protestant mainstream churches, such as Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which, confusingly, is not comprised entirely of evangelical churches. Other examples for this usage can be found in Canada (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), Germany (Evangelical Church in Germany), and several other countries.
Especially toward the end of the 20th century some have tended to confuse evangelicalism and fundamentalism, but they are not the same; the labels represent very distinct differences of approach which both groups are diligent to maintain. Both groups seek to maintain an identity as theological conservatives; evangelicals, however, seek to distance themselves from stereotypical perceptions of the "fundamentalist" posture, of antagonism toward the larger society, advocating involvement in the surrounding community rather than separation from it.
In North America, evangelicals tend to be perceived as socially conservative. For instance, based on the view that marriage is defined as only between one man and one woman, many evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage and polyamory. Also, based on the view that an unborn baby's right to live takes precedence over the legal right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, evangelicals tend to oppose laws permitting abortion (See below for more details).
There was a split within the fundamentalist movement, as they disagreed among themselves about how a 'Christian' ought to respond to an unbelieving world. The evangelicals urged that Christians must engage the culture directly and constructively, and they began to express reservation about being known to the world as fundamentalists. As Kenneth Kantzer put it at the time, the name fundamentalist had become "an embarrassment instead of a badge of honor.
The fundamentalist saw the evangelicals as often being too concerned about social acceptance and intellectual respectability, and being too accommodating to a perverse generation that needed correction. In addition, they saw the efforts of evangelist Billy Graham, who worked with non-evangelical denominations, such as the Roman Catholics (which they claimed to be heretical), as a mistake.
The self-identified fundamentalists also cooperated in separating their opponents from the fundamentalist name, by increasingly seeking to distinguish themselves from the more open group, whom they often characterized derogatorily, by Ockenga's term, "Neo-evangelical" or just Evangelical.
As part of this renewal of Evangelicalism, the new evangelicals sought to engage the modern world and the liberal Christians in a positive way, remaining separate from worldliness but not from the world — a middle way between modernism and the separating variety of fundamentalism. They sought allies in denominational churches and liturgical traditions, disregarding views of eschatology and other "non-essentials", and joined also with trinitarian varieties of Pentecostalism. They believed that in doing so, they were simply re-acquainting Protestantism with its own recent tradition. The movement's aim at the outset was to reclaim the Evangelical heritage in their respective churches, not to begin something new; and for this reason, following their separation from Fundamentalists, the same movement has been better known as merely, "Evangelicalism". By the end of the 20th century, this was the most influential development in American Protestant Christianity.
The National Association of Evangelicals is a U.S. agency which coordinates cooperative ministry for its member denominations.
Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision rendered in 1973 preventing states from making laws that prohibit abortion, is the most prominent landmark of a new era of conservative evangelical political action, unprecedented in its intensity and coordination. It was not until 1980 that the evangelical movement came to oppose abortion.
In the U.S. the Religious Right is especially influential in the Republican Party. George W. Bush, elected president of the U.S. in 2000, is a self-identified born-again Christian who received strong support from evangelical voters.
The mass-appeal of the Christian right in the so-called red states, and its success in rallying resistance to certain social agendas, is sometimes alleged as an attempt to impose theocracy on an otherwise secular society. There are indications that the belief is widespread among conservative evangelicals in the USA that Christianity should enjoy a privileged place in American public life according its importance in American life and history. Accordingly, those evangelicals often strenuously oppose the expression of other faiths in schools or in the course of civic functions. For example, when Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala became the first Hindu priest to offer an invocation before Congress in 2000, the September 21 edition of the online publication operated by the Family Research Council, Culture Facts, raised objection:
While it is true that the United States was founded on the sacred principle of religious freedom for all, that liberty was never intended to exalt other religions to the level that Christianity holds in our country's heritage. The USA's founders expected that Christianity--and no other religion--would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate peoples' consciences and their right to worship. They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference.However, the Christian Right is not made completely (or even a majority) of Evangelical Christians. According to an article in the November 11, 2004 issue of The Economist, entitled "The Triumph of the Religious Right", "The implication of these findings is that Mr. Bush's moral majority is not, as is often thought, composed of a bunch of right-wing evangelical Christians. Rather, it consists of traditionalist and observant church-goers of every kind: Catholic and mainline Protestant, as well as evangelicals, Mormons, and Sign Followers. Meanwhile, modernist evangelicals tend to be Democratic." Although evangelicals are currently seen as being on the Christian Right in the United States, there are those in the center as well. In other countries there is no particular political stance associated with evangelicals. Many evangelicals have little practical interest in politics.
According to recent reports in the New York Times, some evangelicals have sought to expand their movement's social agenda to include poverty, combating AIDS in the Third World, and protecting the environment.