Some of my friends have been talking about giving up the “evangelical” label, because of what it has come to be associated with, in this year’s political campaign. I’m not ready to make that move. I spent a good part of the 1960s trying hard not to be an evangelical, but without success.
When I marched for civil rights during my graduate school years, I helped to organize “ban the bomb” marches and protested the Vietnam War. I was clearly out of step with much of the evangelicalism of the day.
When one key evangelical leader suggested that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was being used by the Communists to undercut American values, I came close to resigning from the movement. But, when I realized I had nowhere else to go theologically and spiritually, I simply hung on and hoped for better days.
And the better days did come in the early 1970s, as many of us who had survived the previous decades, as politically lonely evangelicals on secular campuses, began to search each other out.
We finally had an evangelical homecoming experience in 1973, when 40 of us — including some of the older evangelical leaders who wanted to encourage us younger ones — gathered on the weekend of Thanksgiving of 1973, in the YMCA in downtown Chicago, to produce “The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.”
Our call for a new evangelical commitment to justice and peacemaking received much publicity. Time magazine observed, for example, that this was the first time American evangelicals ever spent a whole weekend talking about social justice issues.
The evangelical activism that we called for in Chicago soon took a different direction, with the emergence of the Moral Majority in 1980, and various manifestations of the religious right since then.
The recent campaign, where key evangelical leaders compared to King David a candidate who boasted of sexual immorality, mimicked disabled persons, and encouraged racist and anti-immigrant expressions, was a serious setback for those of us who had promoted an evangelical commitment to justice and peacemaking in the early 1970s.
Thus the conviction of many of my friends that “evangelical” is no longer a label they can own.
But I am not giving up.
Good things have also been happening during this past year. In January, 15,000 evangelical college students, attending a major gathering sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, enthusiastically applauded a call by an African-American speaker to work diligently against racial injustice.
This past summer, two evangelical denominations — the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America — issued declarations repenting of their racism, past and present. For those of us who remember evangelicalism in the 1950s and ‘60s, these are important signs — even in the midst of our present post-election despondency — that we have come a long way.
But it goes deeper for me.
I regularly spend time as a guest speaker on evangelical undergraduate campuses, and the students I meet are an inspiration. They care about the integrity of God’s creation. They want to put an end to homelessness, sex trafficking, the horrors of warfare. They are inspired by the marvelous growth of the Christian churches — often under very difficult conditions — in the Global South.
They reject the mean-spiritedness of some of the older generation of evangelicals —witness the case of the large number of students at Liberty University who protested the enthusiastic support that their president, Jerry Falwell Jr., offered to Donald Trump.
The seminary I serve is the largest accredited theological school in North America, with students from about 70 nations. I recently met a new international student from a tribal culture, and I asked her why she had chosen to study at Fuller Seminary. Her answer: “Because I want my people to come to know Jesus!” That response was a good reminder for me about why — try as I may sometimes — I cannot give up on being an evangelical.