The Common Good
March-April 1995

Faith in Search of a Home

by Tony Campolo | March-April 1995

The lost meaning of "evangelical."

George Bernard Shaw once said, "God created us in his own image; and we decided to return the favor." The truth of that statement certainly has been born out in recent days. Many politically conservative evangelical Christians have been not too subtly transforming God into a transcendental member of the right wing of the Republican Party. It is not just a matter of their making a biblical case for their political agenda; they seem to be going further than that. They are giving the impression that anyone who disagrees with their agenda is outside the will of God. These people have been so effective in associating evangelical Christianity with right-wing Republicanism that to the secular press the word "evangelical" has come to mean the Christian Coalition.

This recent development has generated great consternation among many of us who, over the last few decades, have used the word "evangelical" to establish our own religious identity. We now have to ask, Can we continue to use that title? We hold to the orthodox theology of evangelicalism, but we are not about to buy into all the values and programs espoused by the Religious Right. We have questions to raise about how much care for the poor, how much justice for the oppressed, how much responsibility for the natural environment, and how much concern for Third World peoples is written into their program for society.

Those of us who used to be able to call ourselves "evangelicals" have been a people theologically akin to fundamentalists. We have believed in the deity of Christ, salvation through his death and resurrection, and in the infallibility of scripture. Where we differed from fundamentalists was that we embraced a host of social concerns that they, in reaction to the "social gospel" of liberal Protestantism, were going to avoid. We also rejected the anti-intellectualism, legalism, and separatist tendencies of fundamentalism. We evangelicals were ready to dialogue with those in secular academia. We did not sense any need to leave mainline denominational churches in order to find communities of faith wherein we could live out our convictions.

We had observed with dismay the ways in which early fundamentalism, which had heroically held the fort against attacks of biblical criticism and theological liberalism, had been gradually transformed into a subculture of petty mores and folkways. And we decided that it had become a subculture from which we wanted a divorce. We focused on ending racism, sexism, militarism, poverty, and political injustices. We defined ourselves as being theologically orthodox but with a progressive social agenda.

NOW ALL OF THAT has changed. Those who once called themselves "fundamentalists" have stolen the "evangelical" label and made it their own. They have adopted our label and given it new meaning. To the theological concerns that had always defined evangelicalism, they added so many right-wing political positions that Newt Gingrich's Contract With America seems like an evangelical manifesto.

Those of us who do not agree with the attitudes and political ideology of these renamed fundamentalists are treated by them as something less than legitimate Christians. We, who once considered ourselves evangelicals, are being driven out of that camp and rendered ideologically homeless. I say that we are homeless because over the last few years, evangelicals also have become increasingly discontented with some of the radical expressions of Christianity in mainline denominations which appear to be into the rhetoric of some offbeat ideologies.

We who feel homeless have been casting about for a new name to establish our identity. I have heard names like "neo-evangelical" and "classical Christian" suggested. One of my friends has simply chosen to call himself "a follower of Jesus," because he thinks that even the word "Christian" has become tainted with adverse political meanings.

In the face of all this, many of us see a need to establish a new community of faith. If I were asked to summarize quickly the beliefs of this redefined group of Christians, I would lay out the following:

1. We are a people who believe in the doctrines of the Apostles' Creed.

2. We are a people who hold to the infallibility of scripture.

3. We are a people who are committed to the social vision articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Our belief in the Apostles' Creed is an affirmation of those doctrines that have been hammered out by the church and long been the core of what Christians believe. In our commitment to scripture, we uphold that the Old and New Testaments are infallible guides for faith and practice.

And finally, in our declaration of the vision so brilliantly articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, we set forth our hopes for society. We believe that we must try to break down the barriers that divide us, demolish the oppressive power structures that diminish the humanity of people, and eliminate the grinding poverty that keeps many from believing that they have a future. We are a people who believe in that coming kingdom in which the will of God will be done on earth, even as it is done in heaven.

I am convinced that there are many who have called themselves evangelicals, both inside and outside of mainline denominations, who can resonate to all of this and are ready to stand up and be counted. They are a people who do not simply want to react to the Religious Right nor to the Religious Left. They are looking for a clear-cut alternative. They want a vision for the church that combines theologically sound evangelism with a bold and dynamic social initiative. They want a Christianity that is viable for the 21st century.

I don't know how many people like this are out there. But then I don't know how many the Religious Right has on its side, either. However, in the days that lie ahead, I'm sure we're going to find out.

TONY CAMPOLO is a professor of sociology at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. He is the author, most recently, of Carpé Diem (Word Publishing, 1994).

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