Most of my friends knew evangelicalism only through the big, bellicose voices of TV preachers and religio-political activists such as Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. Not surprisingly, my friends hadn't experienced an evangelicalism that sounded particularly loving, accepting or open-minded.
After eschewing the descriptor because I hadn't wanted to be associated with a faith tradition known more for harsh judgmentalism and fearmongering than the revolutionary love and freedom that Jesus taught, I began publicly referring to myself again as an evangelical. By speaking up, I hoped I might help reclaim "evangelical" for what it is supposed to mean.
Since the rule of Constantine in the 4th century A.D., church leaders have lived precariously close to showing preference and promoting one political leader over another. The Rev. Billy Graham came to regret his close ties to Richard Nixon, who used "America's Pastor" to his political advantage.
A prophetic distance must be maintained, allowing space between what the Spirit and the Word might say in any given situation, and the political leader or policy in question. The role of prophetic analysis requires distance so as to avoid compromise.
Then, too, we see how important it is not to make our rendition of the Gospel synonymous with a particular view of economics, role of government, social management or civic engagement. After watching Christian leaders running to the beck and call of Nixon, Chuck Colson warned us that the kingdom of Christ does not arrive on Air Force One.
The “E Word” in Christianity is a funny thing.
In one respect, Evangelicals are self-identified, and therefore, self-defined. On the other, popular culture (particularly media) lays its own meaning on what it means to be Evangelical. In the latter context, the word inevitably translates to “Conservative Christian.”
But I think this definition isn’t fair. What’s more, it’s not accurate.
I’m a self-proclaimed “word nerd,” so I tend to turn to etymology for help. The root meaning of “evangelical,” at least as a paraphrase, means “to tell the good news.”
Sufficiently vague, right? Depends on who you ask.
Every so often, evangelicals get the urge to ex-communicate. Feminists, open theists, and universalists have all drawn the ire of their co-religionists. In the absence of a central religious authority, such efforts are doomed to fail.
According to most scholars, evangelicalism is more of a network than a unified church. Magazines, publishing houses, colleges, and parachurch groups play a bigger role than ecclesial bodies. While condemned from many pulpits, the emerging church continues to publish with Zondervan and Baker. Owned by the same company as Zondervan and Fox News (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), HarperOne has provided a home for Rob Bell and his Love Wins.
Though it hasn’t been easy, Bell has remained a part of American evangelicalism.
Fried by their battles with fellow believers, some have decided to ex-communicate themselves. Even then it is hard to cut the tie. As in the case of cultural Catholicism, religious terminology may haunt a post-evangelical’s speech. Commenting on this phenomenon, Tony Jones wonders whether evangelicalism is the “new Jewish" — more cultural than confessional.
“Evangelical voters” have now been sized and squeezed into a homogeneous political block. These folks have views on the political right wing, trust in robust American military might, believe that wealth is a blessing to be protected by tax policy, want society to be inhospitable toward gays, oppose any form of abortion, feel that “big” government is always malevolent, and assert that American individualism is the divinely sanctioned cornerstone of the Republic. Apply the label “evangelical” to a voter and you can expect these political responses.
The problem is that it’s simply inaccurate. One size doesn’t fit all when in come to evangelicals. It distorts reality. But that’s just too inconvenient for pundits intent on predicting how various blocks will vote.
Self-identifying as an Evangelical might get me labeled a political activist. Yes, I’m an Evangelical. I’m also a Republican. But touching these two labels together invokes pictures of voting checklist guides, culture wars, and the case of Visine needed to make Michelle Bachmann eyes blink. I‘m not a militant, taking the country back for God.
So am I an Evangelical? Did you know that the family name is actually Swiss-German? That explains our passive-aggressive nature.
The term "Evangelical" is like a pair of hand-me-down underwear. It's been stretched over so many shapes and sizes that it's lost its snap and doesn't fit anyone anymore. It’s been pulled around the circumference of Mars Hill, Seattle and Mars Hill, Grand Rapids. Billy Graham, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, Jay Bakker Benny Hinn, Scot McKnight, Don Miller, Jimmy Carter, W., John Piper, Ken Ham, Jim Wallis, and Bill Hybels have all had their turn sporting this hand-me-down garment.
Ask me if I’m an Evangelical and I’ll ask if you know where that label’s been. It’s rubbed against far too much junk for my taste.
Words lose their currency with overuse, it’s true. But it’s also true that a large part of my issue with being labeled an Evangelical is vanity.
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.)
When I applied for a job at CNN in the 90s, and told the interviewer that I had interned with an evangelical magazine called Christianity Today, his response was, "If it's Christian, it isn't journalism."
Over the years that expanded to, "If it's evangelical, it's Republican. Or Jerry Falwell. Pat Robertson. The Tea Party. Wrapped in a Patriotic Flag. White People. Derivative, cheesy music. Big Money. Big Hair." Fill in the rest of the blanks.
Are those labels a distortion of what it means to be an evangelical? Of course they are. Yet they are how evangelicals are perceived, rightly or wrongly (I personally think it's a mixture of both), in our society.
The reason the word Evangelical has become so poisonous is because the answer to the above question comes from a conversion-based model of cultural engagement - political, theological and social. Too many Christians believe, and have wrongly been taught, that those "others" and "opposites" who have made an active choice not to believe in "our" teachings are justifiably: 1) left to their own devices as we wash our hands of them because of their bad choice (think in terms of blood-on-their-own-head); or 2) uninformed, so much so that their "no" is an illegitimate answer.
Evangelicals care more about positions -- whether progressive or conservative -- than people. We lack nuance. We have become either all Scripture or all Justice. I don't know where the balance was lost in terms of holding Scripture in high authority and, simultaneously, loving with reckless abandon?
Why I’m not an evangelical … and why I am:
“Evangelical” is a dirty word in the New York art world. A friend, an artist, told me that before she understood the claims of the Bible, she thought Christianity was a weird political group, and evangelicals the most extreme and terrifying. Whenever this word is raised, the next statement is “oh no, you are not one of them, are you?!”
Then, I usually say,“well, it depends on what you mean by the word ‘evangelical,’” followed by a confession, “I am not sure if I am an evangelical but let’s do talk about what the word actually means.”
People often assume that I am of the evangelical persuasion because I have been associated with many churches and Christian organizations. I just completed a major project for the 400th Anniversary of King James Bible. I was even appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Council on the Arts. People in the art world assume that if you have anything to do with President Bush and the Bible then you must be an evangelical.