The label “Evangelical” is one of the most used in America and yet it defies serious and common definition. There are definitions galore – theological, historical, ecclesiastical, and political. Were I so inclined and thought you would wade your way through all of it I could do a series of posts on the term and its definitions. But there really is no point because in the end an Evangelical person is self-identified and they have approached that identity like a menu at a Chinese restaurant, taken something from each of the various definitions and crafted their own personal definition. It means what it means to whomever claims it.
There are any number of unfortunate flip sides to that phenomena, however. One of the most prominent is that anyone opposed to an Evangelical or Evangelicalism can paste onto that which they oppose pretty much anything they want. That which lacks specific definition can be defined by those that do not self-identify as easily as by those that do. For many on the left “Evangelical” means “close-minded legalist” or some variation thereof. The irony in that is tremendous since as a movement Evangelicalism arose as a more open, loving and centrist counterbalance to the Fundamentalists who really are close-minded legalists. Nonetheless, here we are.
Never has this phenomena been more apparent to me than in the juxtaposition of these two headlines from yesterday:
Now, to be sure, there is a lot of statistical hocus-pocus in both of those pieces, but let’s cut to the bottom line. Either one of the author’s is just flat out lying or they are using very different definitions of “Evangelical.” Can a word really mean anything useful in light of something like that?
As I think about this problem, it seems to me that the sentence, “It means what it means to whomever claims it,” more than anything else defines Evangelicals and Evangelicalism – at least in the current incarnation of things. Thus while there has historically been an Evangelical movement in all denominations, including Catholicism and Orthodoxy, ecclesiastically, Evangelicalism is defined by independent congregations, or congregations that affiliate so loosely with their denomination as to have such affiliation be meaningless. Thus history can simply be ignored. Thus pews are filled with people that claim faith but cannot tell you even the most fundamental of Christian beliefs. Thus since Reagan/Bush, faith has been an ever shrinking factor in our politics.
We have “evangelized” ourselves into insignificance.
Jesus came to save the world (John 3:16, everybody knows – “For God so loved THE WORLD, that He gave his only Son….”), but we have so individualized faith that the world is simply not in view. I truly believe God saves the world one person at a time, but if those people cannot get together and organize in some meaningful and useful fashion then the world will never actually change.
Sometimes, in my darker moments, (like now) I want to proclaim Evangelicalism as nothing more than Christian-branded selfishness. But then I recall the fresh, energetic and God-filled movement that brought real life to the stale, moribund and hidebound church of my youth and my heart is filled with longing – at which point such condemnations creep to the hidden corners of my mind.
I have no way out of this dilemma at the moment, I simply know God will provide one.
Addendum 12/17/17 – Apparently the day before I wrote this post, unbeknownst to me, the Washington Post carried a story about the same issue, by Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey. Many of the sources cited in the piece are at Fuller Theological Seminary, the leading Evangelical seminary in the nation, located just a few miles from where I live. The piece is primarily about people abandoning the label because of its association with Trump and now Roy Moore. I agree that the label has been highly politicized, largely by the press, since the days of Reagan/Bush but the problems with the term run much deeper.
Evangelicalism was a movement within the greater church and it has largely come to many people be be a kind of church unto itself. Movements are in fact political in their nature so its politicization is not really the issue. True it started as a movement within the greater church to change things in the church, but that just means it was an intrachurch political battle. Becoming a political movement in national politics is indeed a significant change, but it is also not surprising – politics begats politics.
Rather, the problem is that the political movement, whether intrachurch or national politics, has become to many a church unto itself. Evangelicalism simply lacks all the necessary components to be a church. It is simply not that organized and further, has resisted every effort to so organize it.
But more than organisation, Evangelicalism has made it too easy to confuse the politics and the faith. The Reformation was necessitated by the fact that The Roman Catholic Church became more interested in its own power than in the God that granted its power. It practiced politics far better than it practiced faith. Thankfully, this is no longer true. I fear that Evangelicalism, as it now stands, is the highly diverse Protestant community finding itself guilty of the same sin. Politics is a poor substitute for genuine faith
As Larry Arnn has said many times on the radio show, “Fundamental things are afoot.”