Why I can’t give up the label “evangelical”

Why I can’t give up the label “evangelical” May 23, 2011

Friends and acquaintances on both the right and the left and nowhere on the theological spectrum (I don’t insist that everyone be somewhere on that spectrum) have asked me why I continue to call myself “evangelical”–given all the problems with that term today.

Well, I respond, what else would I call myself?  Just Christian?  That label has just as many problems and always gets the response “What kind of Christian?”  Protestant?  Again, too vague and inclusive.  I am both of those, but if I use them alone or in tandem to identify my theological orientation people rightly ask “What kind of Christian and what kind of Protestant?’

All my life I’ve called myself an “evangelical Christian” or, when I was very young but old enough to be aware of these things, knew I was part of a wider Christian community called “evangelical.”  To us, evangelical was synonymous with “authentically Christian” as opposed to “nominally Christian.”  When I was a teenager deeply involved in Youth for Christ, for example, I knew which churches in our midwest city of about 100,000 people were evangelical in that sense and which were just (in our eyes, anyway) religious clubs.  And we knew that some good Christians stayed in their nominally Christian churches which did not make their churches evangelical or them less than fully and authentically Christian.  So, it was complicated, but not too complicated.

When did “evangelical” become a problem for me and many others who proudly wore that label for decades?  First, when Jerry Falwell began calling himself an evangelical and, second, when the mass media began depicting Falwell and Pat Robertson and people associated with the Religious Right as “the” evangelical–i.e., as the leading spokesmen for the movement.

Again, as with the scandal about the “end of the world,” I blame the media for the good label “evangelical” becoming problematic.  I talk to media people fairly often.  Just last week, in the run up to the “end of the world” day (May 21) I was interviewed by a local reporter.  I mentioned to her the Luther quote about planting a tree today (if he knew the world would end or Christ would return tomorrow).  She thought Luther was sometime in the 1800s!

Most stories I see and hear in the media about “evangelicals” are so distorted and uninformed that I can hardly stand to watch them or read them.  Most journalists (with a few notable exceptions) have come to use the term for anyone or group they consider religiously fanatical or theocratic.

So, I understand why some of my friends and acquaintances want me to give up the label.

However, I’m stubborn and don’t want to give the media (and fundamentalists) the privilege and power to define good religious labels wrongly.  I also don’t know what label I would turn to to begin to define my particular kind of Christianity.  Whatever label I use will need some explaining.  And it’s just naive to think we can get away from all labeling.

Call me Don Quixote, but I think rescuing “evangelical” from the media and the fundamentalists is worth the attempt.

In the meantime, however, I do have to qualify my particular brand of evangelicalism.  So I have used the qualifier “postconservative.”  Occasionally, if I know I don’t have time to explain that (!), I’ll just use “progressive.”

All labels have their problems and, to be sure “evangelical” is fraught with them.  But I am not giving it up.  Instead, I will fight for it.  To me, it is virtually synonymous with “God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving” Christianity.  Of course, that needs unpacking also.

One thing I find helpful when talking to someone or a group with time to listen is to distinguish between the evangelical ethos and the evangelical movement.  I see myself as participating in both, but I am more comfortable claiming the evangelical ethos than I am identifying with the evangelical movement– at least as it is viewed by most people.

So, most of the time, when I say I am evangelical I mean I am a Protestant Christian who believes authentic Christianity requires a conversion experience of regeneration and that faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and repentance for sin are necessarily included in that.  It cannot be merely an “enlightenment,” so to speak–a new way of thinking.

Of course, much more could be said about the true meaning of evangelical, but my point here is simply that, for me, it is still a good and useful label, but it needs qualifying–just like all one word labels do.

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