Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The hijacking of the word "evangelical"

When I became a Christian in college, in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism. ... In those years, there was such great energy in the movement that, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, it had eclipsed mainline Protestantism as the dominant branch of the Christian church in the U.S. ...

Today, while the name is no longer unfamiliar in my city, its meaning has changed drastically. The conservative leaders who have come to be most identified with the movement have largely driven this redefinition. But political pollsters have also helped, as they have sought to highlight a crucial voting bloc. When they survey people, there is no discussion of any theological beliefs, or other criteria. The great majority of them simply ask people, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” And those who answer ‘yes’ are counted. More than eighty per cent of such people voted for Donald Trump, and, last week, a similar percentage cast their ballots for Roy Moore, in the Alabama Senate race. So, in common parlance, evangelicals have become people with two qualities: they are both self-professed Christians and doggedly conservative politically. ...

“Evangelical” used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with “hypocrite.” ...

Understanding the religious landscape, however, requires discerning differences between the smaller, let’s call it “big-E Evangelicalism,” which gets much media attention, and a much larger, little-e evangelicalism, which does not. The larger, lower-case evangelicalism is defined not by a political party, whether conservative, liberal, or populist, but by theological beliefs. ... Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete, according to Bebbington. They also see it as the ultimate authority, unlike Catholics, who make church tradition equal to it. In addition, the ancient creedal formulations of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as others, are taken at face value, without reservation. And, again, unlike many in mainline Protestantism, evangelicals believe that Jesus truly did exist as the divine Son before he was born, that he actually was born of a virgin, and that he really was raised bodily from the dead.

Do the self-identified white “big-E Evangelicals” of the pollsters hold to these beliefs? Recent studies indicate that many do not. In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity. So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically. ...

Yet there exists a far larger evangelicalism, both here and around the world, which is not politically aligned. In the U.S., there are millions of evangelicals spread throughout mainline Protestant congregations, as well as in more theologically conservative denominations like the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. But, most significantly, the vast majority of the fast-growing Protestant churches in Asia, Latin America, and Africa all share these same beliefs. And in the U.S., while white Evangelicalism is aging and declining, evangelicalism over all is not. ...

Here in New York City, even within Manhattan, I have seen scores of churches begun over the last fifteen years that are fully evangelical by our definition, only a minority of which are white, and which are not aligned with any political party.

In my view, these churches tend to be much more committed to racial justice and care for the poor than is commonly seen in white Evangelicalism. In this way, they might be called liberal. On the other hand, these multicultural churches remain avowedly conservative on issues like sex outside of marriage. They look, to most eyes, like a strange mixture of liberal and conservative viewpoints, although they themselves see a strong inner consistency between these views. They resist the contemporary ethical package deals that today’s progressivism and conservatism seek to impose on adherents, insisting that true believers must toe the line on every one of a host of issues. But these younger evangelical churches simply won’t play by those rules. ...

The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name ["evangelical"], yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever. Some predict that younger evangelicals will not only reject the name but also become more secular. That is not what I have been seeing here in New York City. And studies by the Pew Research Center and others indicate that religious denominations that have become more friendly to secularism are shrinking precipitously, while the evangelical churches that resist dilution in their theological beliefs and practices are holding their own or growing. And if evangelicals—or whatever they will call themselves­—continue to become more multiethnic in leadership and confound the left-right political categories, they may continue to do so.