When someone asks me if I’m an evangelical, I hesitate to answer; not because I’m unsure of my theology, but because I’m unsure what the word “evangelical” means to the person asking.
Twenty years ago it was a theological term. Today it’s as loaded as an AK-47 in Tijuana.
I grew up in a Lutheran church where Jesus was alive and well. Yet I don’t remember hearing the word “evangelical,” just the word “evangelism.” Some missionary spinster would bring a slide show of her life in some tropical outpost, eating monkey brains and hedgehog eyeballs with the natives, all in name of evangelism. “Some day, God may call you to evangelize the nations,” she'd say.
Evangelism scared me more than having to write Bible skits.
I first heard the term "evangelical" in the 1980s, about the time the Swaggarts and Bakkers were imploding. Christianity needed a new name for sane, intellectually sound faith.
"Born-again" had been sullied by the televangelists and worn out by Debbie Boone’s explanation of how she justified singing the lyrics to “You Light Up My Life.”
"Jesus Freak" had died with the Peace movement.
We needed another word to separate true Christians from fake ones; sheep from goats; serious believers from those who merely checked the “Christian” box on their driver’s license application because Jew, Muslim or Ekkankar didn’t apply.
(Sometimes I wonder if all the denominations in Christendom are merely a list of the nomenclature we’ve used to separate Us from Them.)
As a young adult, "evangelical" was the perfect word to explain my faith to my secular friends. It meant I believed the words of the Apostle’s creed: Jesus really was the Son of God, really did rise on the Third Day, and really was coming back to judge the quick and the dead.
Evangelical also had an intellectual gravitas. I hadn’t merely absorbed my cultural default; I’d been persuaded through rational thought that Christianity was true. We evangelicals claimed great thinkers such as C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and John R. W. Stott. Evangelical applied to Tony Campolo and to James Dobson.
What a difference a few decades make.
Today “evangelical” is fraught with politics. Beginning with the Moral Majority, evangelical Christians asserted themselves in the public sphere. Nothing wrong with that – we should all vote our conscience, and faith should influence our conscience. But the Moral Majority focused on personal behavior and overlooked larger issues such as poverty.
The Christian Coalition began leaving their Congressional Scorecards in church narthexes, cards that claimed to identify which public servants voted in the best interests of Christian families.
The Christian Coalition website reads, “We base our rankings on the votes that were most important to the conservative agenda.” Historically evangelicals have sided with conservative politics, so it’s a fair claim the coalition is making. But you don’t need me to tell you that the best interests of a rich, suburban Christian family are different than best interests of a poor, urban Christian family.
Here’s the sticky wicket: While I may detect a difference between “evangelical Christian” (theological connotation) and “evangelical” (political connotation), a person outside the faith may not. Tell an agnostic you’re an evangelical — meaning you believe in the words of the Apostle’s creed — and he may assume you’re anti-gay, anti-Obama and pro-British Petroleum.
Progressive and conservative Christians alike are scrambling for a fresh, unsullied word to identify their faith: Emergent, post-modern, Christ-follower; Reformed, Calvinist, orthodox…That last oner must annoy the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Call yourself an orthodox Christian and you should at least grow a ZZ Top beard.
I don’t know if we’ll ever divest “evangelical” of its political connotation. We might have to ban the word the way Germany outlawed Hitler as a surname. Which is sad, because the Greek root, evangel, means “good news.”
That reminds me of Emo Phillips’s joke that was voted the best God joke of all time. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2005/sep/29/comedy.religion )
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!"
He said, "Nobody loves me."
I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
He said, "A Christian."
I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"
He said, "Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.
Susan Isaacs is an actor, comedienne and author of the memoir, Angry Conversations With God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir. She identifies herself as “Lutheran on the inside.”
[Editor's note: To read the rest of the "What is an Evangelical?" SoJo series, click HERE.]