Following the death of evangelicalism on Nov. 8, 2016, those of us who number ourselves among the followers of Jesus in the evangelical tradition have struggled for a new way to identify ourselves on the religious landscape of North America. I suggest we adopt the moniker "Sojourners Christians."
I don’t give up on evangelicalism lightly or willingly. Evangelicalism is in my DNA, and I’ll put my credentials as an evangelical up against anyone: evangelical parents, a preacher’s kid, gave my heart to Jesus at age three (and many times thereafter), youth group, Bible camp, graduated from Trinity College and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. My father was a distinguished pastor in the Evangelical Free Church for 40 years; I honor his ministry and his memory.
But evangelicalism contracted a terminal disease in 1980 when evangelicals turned their backs on one of their own, Jimmy Carter, a born-again Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, in favor of a divorced and remarried former Hollywood actor. In so doing, evangelicals cast their lot with the far-right fringes of the Republican Party and began systematically to disregard the teachings of Jesus as well as the noble legacy of 19th-century evangelicals, who advocated for those on the margins of society: the poor, prisoners, minorities, and women.
Evangelicals in the 19th century were far from perfect. Many evangelicals in the South defended slavery, and some evangelicals aligned themselves with nativists. But evangelicals also fought against slavery. They were involved in peace crusades and advocated prison reform. They supported public education, known then as common schools, because they believed that education would allow the children of the less affluent to toe the ladder of upward mobility. Evangelicals supported women’s equality, including voting rights, which was considered a radical notion at the time. In the course of my research, I’ve even discovered an evangelical crusade for gun control in the 19th century.
I have spent much of my career trying to call evangelicals back to their own heritage and to their better selves. I’ve spilled more ink than I care to tally on books and op-ed pieces in places like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Des Moines Register, not to mention Christianity Today (where I served as editor-at-large until they disowned me for breaking with the orthodoxy of the Religious Right).
All for naught. In the 2016 presidential election, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator and former casino operator who cannot even feign religious literacy. According to independent sources, Donald Trump has told more than 16,000 lies or misleading statements since his inauguration, yet he continues to bask in the lavish praise of Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., and other evangelical leaders.
The 2016 election finally laid bare the fiction that the Religious Right was concerned with “family values.” It also allowed the Religious Right to circle back to its charter principles, which are embedded in racism, not, as commonly supposed, in opposition to abortion. (Prominent evangelicals initially praised the Roe v. Wade ruling; they mobilized politically later in the 1970s to defend racial segregation at places like Bob Jones University.)
Since the 2016 election stripped evangelicalism of all claims to moral credibility, what are those of us who formerly claimed that label to do? Some have suggested Followers of Jesus, which has the virtue of simplicity. Others favor exvangelicals, which may be a tad too cute; besides, I resist defining myself in negative terms. Red Letter Christians is a worthy choice (and, if memory serves, I’m a charter member), but it’s a term that needs explanation these days, and there’s a perception that, however loosely configured, it’s an organization, not a movement.
I propose instead Sojourners Christians, which is a bit more generic. This is not an attempt to elevate or to reify this magazine, but since its earliest days as the Post-American, Sojourners has taken seriously Jesus’ mandate to be peacemakers, to welcome the stranger and care for the least of these. In addition, Sojourners has matured to take into its orbit Catholic spirituality, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the best of the peace church and the black church tradition. Even mainline Protestantism finds a place in the Sojourners spectrum, although many of us remain properly wary of its vanilla, anything-goes ethic.
If I were younger, more ambitious, and technologically savvy, I’d set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account for Sojourners Christians. If this idea has any merit, I’ll leave that to others. In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, I shall refer to myself as a Sojourners Christian.