The Common Good

Wes Granberg-Michaelson Answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Wes Granberg-Michaelson. Photo courtesy of the author.
Wes Granberg-Michaelson. Photo courtesy of the author.

Lately, whenever I hear national political reporters covering the GOP primaries say “evangelical,” I cringe at what follows. 

It’s always bad and based on poor reporting.  And they don’t know it.

“Evangelical voters” have now been sized and squeezed into a homogeneous political block. These folks have views on the political right wing, trust in robust American military might, believe that wealth is a blessing to be protected by tax policy, want society to be inhospitable toward gays, oppose any form of abortion, feel that “big” government is always malevolent, and assert that American individualism is the divinely sanctioned cornerstone of the Republic. Apply the label “evangelical” to a voter and you can expect these political responses.

The problem is that it’s simply inaccurate. One size doesn’t fit all when in come to evangelicals. It distorts reality. But that’s just too inconvenient for pundits intent on predicting how various blocks will vote.

Of course, there are millions of evangelicals who conveniently fit this popular political description. You can always interview someone who will validate the stereotype. But there are other millions who don’t. Yet, no one seems to notice (or care.)

Sensible studies of this elastic group called “evangelicals” reveal those with strong views on the political right, but others with moderate, centrist political convictions, and still more on the progressive side of the spectrum.

These views become even more diverse as you look at evangelicals who are younger and those who are non-white — in other words, those parts of the evangelical constituency who are shaping its future.

Moreover, views on these issues don’t congeal in standard ways. It’s not at all uncommon to find a 23-year-old evangelical who is strongly opposed to abortion, but just as strongly opposed to the war in Afghanistan, favors tax policies that reduce the inequality of wealth, and is not the least bit willing to join a crusade against gay marriage.

Millions of evangelicals vote Democrat. That’s just a statement of fact, but seems about as real in today’s political analysis as claiming there is life on Mars. Yes, more vote Republican. But ignoring evangelical Democrats and Independents is like assuming no environmentalists ever vote Republican.

Moreover, President Obama publicly proclaims his faith in Jesus Christ in ways that make him sound like a student at Wheaton College (the one in Illinois, not Massachussetts.) But that gets dismissed by a political prejudice that can’t separate Republican/evangelical/Christian.

What I really worry about in all this, however, is the damage it is doing to the witness of the Gospel in our society — and even in the world. These days, countless new church planters are cringing like me when they hear the popular political descriptions of evangelical Christians. Their already challenging ministry is suddenly that much more difficult because now they have to convince seekers, estranged from faith, that they don’t have to agree with the political views of Rick Perry in order to be at home in the church — or more importantly, to seriously explore faith in Jesus Christ.

Young people, described by numerous thoughtful studies as being turned off by the judgmental self-righteousness of the established church, simply shrug their shoulders when they hear a reporter describe an evangelical voter.  “That’s just what I thought,” they say, “and that’s why I’ve got no interest in walking through the door of a church.”

And it gets worse when the leave the borders of the United States. Can you imagine what millions of people around the world think when they listen to, for instance, the BBC describe evangelicals and the American political elections? 

It confirms their worst fears. Christianity really does favor protecting American self-righteousness through its military muscle around the world, they conclude. A few choice phrases from presidential candidates going after the “evangelical” vote with promises that God is always on our side (and Israel’s), is enough to undo decades of faithful work by missionaries and committed groups trying to live out the gospel’s message of reconciliation, compassion, and peace.

I’m really troubled by all of this. Such a political season threatens to inflict serious damage on what our society — and perhaps those around the world as well — think it means to live as a follower of Jesus Christ. 

We have to reclaim the public conversation about what it means to belong to Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior.

The question isn’t, “What would Jesus do?” It’s “What would Jesus think?”

There’s more than an election involved here. The meaning of the Gospel is at stake.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and author of the book Unexpected Destinations.

READ THE ENTIRE SOJO SERIES, "WHAT IS AN EVANGELICAL?" HERE.

 

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