Why I Will Still Not Stop Calling Myself “Evangelical”
Ever since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States I have been inundated with questions and suggestions—about the label I still proudly wear: “evangelical Christian.” Many evangelicals who strongly opposed Trump have finally given up that label; for them it was apparently the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Their discomfort with the label began long ago—when the media began calling fundamentalists “evangelicals” and began identifying evangelicalism as a “Religious Right” phenomenon (the Republican Party at prayer)
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I may someday be the last hold out on this, but I doubt it. For example, many Christians belong to churches and denominations with the label “evangelical” in them. The Evangelical Covenant Church is an example. Another one is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. For some American Christians it will be really difficult to run away from the evangelical identity just because of their affiliations with churches or para-church organizations (e.g., the National Association of Evangelicals).
The words “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” have many different meanings; there is no evangelical pope to define them. For many people, however, Billy Graham symbolized one meaning of being evangelical throughout much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Then, as he began to retire and fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, who had been critics of Graham and his ministry, began calling themselves “evangelicals” on television programs like The Phil Donahue Show (1970s-1980s), the identification of being evangelical with Billy Graham began to dissipate.
However, I take the “long view” with matters like this and define “evangelical” in theological-historical ways. Modern evangelicalism began with the Pietist movements in Europe in the early 17th century and the Great Awakenings in Britain and America in the same century (Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley).
Historian David Bebbington rightly identifies the hallmarks of evangelical Christianity as conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. These are so well known and so much discussed here and elsewhere that I will not define them again. For my earlier essays about them, use a search engine. I think Bebbington and some others who so define “evangelicalism” assume a basic core of Christian orthodoxy as part of being evangelical (e.g., belief in Jesus Christ as God and Savior and belief in a supernatural reality).
“Evangelical” has been my spiritual-theological identity for my entire life—even before I knew it or thought anything about it. We, “my people,” church, denomination, most friends, most extended family, were unapologetically evangelical in our form of Christianity. It is so much ingrained in my, so much a part of my spiritual-theological and professional identity that I cannot imagine shedding it.
What is my response, then, to those who say that, when eighty percent of people calling themselves “evangelical” at the American voting polls voted for Trump, it’s time to drop the label? My response is simply that the majority does not define a long-term, historical, theological movement or its ethos. That doesn’t get much traction, however, until I start giving examples.
My guess is that if the poll takers had asked they would have found that about the same percentage of voters calling themselves “Baptist” exiting election voting locations voted for Trump. Should all anti-Trump Baptists now drop that label and identity just because of that? Of course not, and nobody I know is suggesting it. For me, anyway, “evangelical” is just as important as “Baptist” as a way of labeling my Christian form of life.
Let’s imagine something as a test case for deciding whether a majority’s behavior changes an identity and forces the minority to shed the label attached to it. Suppose that over a period of decades a majority of evangelicals in America became vegetarians. Would that mean non-vegetarian evangelicals should stop using the label “evangelical?” I don’t think so. This would make a long-standing spiritual-theological label too flexible and too subject to the whims of people. Let’s go further and imagine that the media picked up on this and began to talk equate being evangelical with being vegetarian. In my opinion, to cave into that and stop calling myself “evangelical” just because I don’t join the evangelical vegetarian parade, would be to imply that “evangelical” is not a historical-theological identity and label but one defined by a secondary quality of a majority of those who, at a particular moment in history, happen to take it on.
Now, admittedly, underlying my refusal is partly a deep, even visceral distrust and dislike of the popular media in America—including so-called news journalism. I see very little real journalism there—especially on television. I see and hear distortions all over the place there and simply suspend all belief when I am watching and listening to popular news programs and reading popular “news” outlets in print. Recently I happened to open a national news tabloid on my tablet and immediately saw two side-by-side news stories with colorful photographs. One was about Trump and the other was about a male entertainment celebrity that “lost his virginity” to a starlet (sometime in the past). Who can take seriously such “journalism?” That just proves to me that serious journalism is almost dead in America and that the popular, sensational tabloid, entertainment-obsessed publications have merged into some kind of weird hybrid.
I blame the media for the popular identification of “evangelical” with “Religious Right” politics and now Trumpism (whatever that is). The media, including advertising, has a tendency to distort the meanings of words by blatantly misusing them. I see and hear it all the time. To me, caving into that and shedding my lifelong identity as an evangelical, would be to surrender to the popular media’s larger and deeper habit of misusing good, serious, useful words. And it would be to surrender to the oddball and even sinister assortment of cynical rightwing American fundamentalists who have worked hard to take over the label “evangelical” for themselves and their political agendas.
And yet, if someone asks me if I’m an evangelical I automatically ask “What do you mean by ‘evangelical?’” and “How long do you have to listen to what I mean by it?” In today’s climate in American, anyway, I cannot simply say “yes” to such a question unless I already know the interrogator and I share a basically similar definition of “evangelical.”
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