In 1971, the movement that became Sojourners was born at an evangelical seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago. In 1973, Sojourners worked with Evangelicals for Social Action in a gathering Ron Sider convened, again in Chicago, which produced a document called the "Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern."
That was 45 years ago. Reading it today can be heartbreaking — realizing how far in the wrong direction “evangelicalism” has now gone, so diminished and distorted. In the evangelical tradition, we would call that spiritual “backsliding.” It reads in part:
As evangelical Christians committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the full authority of the Word of God, we affirm that God lays total claim upon the lives of his people, We confess that we have not acknowledged the complete claim of God on our lives … Although the Lord calls us to defend the social and economic rights of the poor and oppressed, we have mostly remained silent. We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the body of Christ along color lines … By this declaration, we endorse no political ideology or party, but call our nation’s leaders and people to that righteousness which exalts a nation.
At the time, the “Chicago Declaration” gained great attention in the evangelical world, schools, and seminaries, and it was a big news story. And until 1980, we were called the “young evangelicals” in a “new evangelical” movement.
So what happened? Politics happened. A political assault and takeover was successfully executed by the Republican right wing — and the “Religious Right” was born. It is now painfully clear that the evangelical world was strategically and politically co-opted — not by more conservative evangelical leaders, but by political operatives from the Republican Party who saw a real opportunity to take over the evangelical world by making particular appeals to “conservative social issues.”
On the 45th anniversary of the 1973 gathering, a younger generation of evangelical leaders met alongside many of the original signatories to discuss and discern the future of evangelicalism and Christian public witness. We were collectively alarmed that as Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary, argues in the book Still Evangelical, “the word evangelical has morphed in common usage from being a reference to a set of primary theological commitments into something akin to a passionately defended, theo-political brand.” In response to this trend, the group drafted a public statement entitled “The Chicago Invitation: Diverse Evangelicals Continue the Journey,” which seeks to change and transform the false operative narrative around evangelicalism.
The Chicago Invitation argues that “the story that became nationally and globally dominant after the 2016 election was that 81 percent of ‘evangelicals’ voted for Donald Trump, when, in fact, this group only represented the votes of ‘white’ evangelicals. When evangelicals of color and younger evangelicals are accurately accounted for, the picture changes significantly.” The recent dismissive statements by many white evangelical leaders like Rev. Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. on the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct only further discredit the evangelical witness.
We intentionally named this new statement an invitation rather than a declaration because we wanted to invite a dialogue about both the present and future of the evangelical movement. The Chicago Invitation also states that as “diverse evangelicals, our faith moves us to confess and lament that we have often fallen short of the biblical values and commitments proclaimed in the gospel and affirmed in the 1973 Declaration.” It also emphasizes that “in addition to the 1973 Declaration, many diverse evangelicals, including women, African-American, Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, and Indigenous leaders, have put out strong statements that have often been ignored.”
So why a new statement — and why should we care about resuscitating the term “evangelical”? We hope and pray that this invitation can foster desperately needed dialogue about the present-day diversity within the evangelical movement and can serve as a powerful antidote and corrective to a false narrative that has dominated our politics that defines evangelicals as white, Republican, and ardently pro-Trump. Evangelicalism is a much more diverse movement than the current media narrative represents. As white evangelical churches continue to decline in membership, more ethnic and diverse churches flourish. Further, we believe it is critical that the evangelical movement be defined by theological convictions and not political ones, because as Jesus points out you cannot serve two masters, in this case the gospel and a political party. Reaffirming the truth about evangelicalism is critical in part because public perceptions of evangelicals continue to undermine and hurt the very witness and reputation of the Christian church as a whole. Sadly, many unaffiliated Americans, who represent the fastest growing group in our religious landscape, often don’t differentiate between evangelicals and other Christians. By correcting the public narrative to include diverse evangelicals, we can help rehabilitate the perception of evangelicals and enable our nation and the church to better cross the bridge into a more inclusive, multi-racial future that mirrors God’s kingdom come.
The Chicago Invitation is open to everyone, whether you self-identify or not, as it says, “We invite you to join us in the journey of following Jesus, who calls us to proclaim and live the gospel, committed to love and justice.”