The Evangelical Identity Crisis

By Adam Ericksen 2-03-2016
Senator Ted Cruz is a guest during a morning service at Christian Life Assembly of God in Des Moines, Iowa on Nov. 29. Photo by Clay Masters, iprimages/Flickr.com

Ted Cruz ended Monday night with a yuuuuge victory over Donald Trump in Iowa. (Sorry, had to do it!) Religion played a big role in Cruz’s victory. The New York Times reports that Cruz’s victory was “powered by a surge of support from evangelical Christians.”

For his part, Cruz reaffirmed his connection with his evangelical supporters by evoking divine favor upon his victory. “God bless the great state of Iowa! Let me first say, to God be the glory.”

But I can’t help but feel uneasy about the God proclaimed by the so-called "evangelical vote." That’s because, when it comes to their evangelical faith, they have an identity crisis.

The word “evangelical” has a specific meaning and history. It comes from the Greek word evangelion, which means “good news.”

Evangelical has become a distinctively Christian term, but during the first century it was used predominantly by the Roman Empire. In fact, when Caesar sent his armies off to conquer new land in the name of Roman peace, Roman soldiers would announce military strength as the “ Gospel according to Caesar.” Rome waged peace through violence. In his book Jesus and Empire, Richard Horsley states that:

In the Roman world, the “gospel” was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world. Caesar was the “savior” who had brought “salvation” to the whole world. The peoples of the empire were therefore to have “faith” (pistis/fides) in their “lord” the emperor. Moreover, Caesar the lord and savior was to be honored and celebrate by the “assemblies” (ekklesiai) of cities such as Philippi, Corinth, and Ephesus. 

Now, a good Bible-believing evangelical will instantly recognize the politically subversive language of the New Testament. In the face of Roman military that brought the good news of “peace” by the sword, the early Christians delivered an alternative message of good news that claimed “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Make no mistake, their evangelical message was political. They sought to reorder the world, not through Caesar’s military strength, but through Christ’s nonviolent love.

The early Christians subverted Roman violence through their use of language and their actions. They claimed that the good news was found not in Caesar, but in Christ. Christ, not Caesar, was the “savior” who brought “salvation” to the world. People were to have “faith” in him as their “lord.” Jesus was to be honored and celebrates at assemblies, which would become known as churches.

But for the early Christians, words weren’t enough. They took Jesus’ command to follow him seriously. Jesus didn’t lift the sword to defend himself against the violence that killed him, and neither did his disciples lift their swords. Rather, they continued to challenge the Roman Empire’s “good news” of achieving peace through violence. The disciples claimed that true peace could only be achieved by following the nonviolent way of Jesus, whose evangelical message commanded that his follower love everyone, included their enemies, including those who sought to persecute them. In following Jesus their Lord, the disciples were murdered, just like their Lord and Savior.

Jump ahead about 2,000 years to Monday night in Iowa and we discover that the “evangelical vote” has an identity crisis. They claim that Jesus is their Lord with words, but not in action. Cruz promises to “carpet bomb” his enemies. He promises to beef up the American military, a military that spends roughly the same amount as “the next nine largest military budgets around the world, combined.” The U.S. military is already the strongest military that the world has ever seen.

RenĂ© Girard wrote in his apocalyptic book Battling to the End that Christians must make a decision about violence because Christ has left us with a choice, “either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is non-belief.”

Christianity is non-belief in violence because it believes in the one true God who on the cross responded to violence not with more violence, but with nonviolent love and forgiveness.

As long as evangelicals proclaim faith in Jesus as their Lord, but continue to believe in violence as the way to peace and security for the United States, they will suffer from an identity crisis. And rightfully so, because that combination is not the Good News.

Adam Ericksen

Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Like his Facebook page Adam Ericksen – Public Theologian and follow him on Twitter.

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