“When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Alas, if only that maxim could be applied to the word “evangelical.” My dilemma is whether or not I’m still evangelical. To decide, I must attempt to define the word. The original meaning from ancient times had to do with “good news.” The National Association of Evangelicals asserts that evangelicals have four characteristics:
Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life-long process of following Jesus
Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
Retreat from Evangelical
By that definition, I’m an evangelical. However, to the American public and to many prominent religious leaders, evangelicalism is a political label for an ethno-religious group characterized as white, Protestant, conservative, Republican, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, and anti-gay. My characteristics don’t include that whole list. This ethno-religious group has helped elect two Presidents, voting as an 81% block in 2016. Within the religious community there is abandonment of the evangelical label even by conservative leaders. These include David Gushee, Baptist ethicist (Still Christian – Following Jesus Out of American Evangelism) and Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and conservative columnist for the New York Times. Both Michael Gerson, Washington Post columnist, and Russell Moore, Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President, have bemoaned the loss of the original meaning of word evangelical. Southern Baptists remain staunchly evangelical in both the religious and political sense of the word. Cooperative Fellowship Baptists do not include evangelism in their four core values – soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom, and religious freedom. Have CBFers thrown the baby out with the bathwater in their effort to not be Southern Baptists? Perhaps not. The CBF website does note the following which sounds evangelistic to me: “God calls and equips us to spread the hope of Jesus Christ to the least evangelized, most marginalized people on earth.”
American Evangelism History
Old time evangelicalism has a proud history as dispassionately described in Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals – the Struggle to Shape America. The First and Second Great Awakenings (1720s-1740s and 1800s -1850s respectively) encouraged not only the rise of the Baptists and Methodists but also positively influenced religious freedom, abolition of slavery, temperance, penal reform, college education, and aid to the poor.
After the rise and fall of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century, the 1950s and 1960s brought us what should be called the Third Great Awakening led by the late Billy Graham. His simple message was to love people, turn your life over to Jesus, and share Jesus with everyone. He gently advocated civil rights and eschewed financial gain. His brief flirtation with national politics taught him a number of painful lessons, and the latter part of his ministry was characterized by an apolitical emphasis. The 1950s and early 1960s were a time when evangelicals could live out their faith without labeling. The Moral Majority brought all this to an abrupt halt when the temptation of political power outweighed all other considerations. Politics largely destroyed the Third Great Awakening, and starting in the late 1970s evangelicals seemed irrevocably linked to right wing politics. Arguably the merger of a political party with the evangelical movement has gravely injured both. If evangelicals are to be moral leaders and prophetic voices within a community, then they must not become submerged within any political party.
What Humpty Would Do
So, what would Humpty Dumpty do with “evangelical?” Will the word evangelical suffer Humpty’s fate? Some have suggested that we contrast the religious and political differences by capitalizing one and not the other. I am a lower case evangelical, but the upper case ones, the Evangelicals, are the politicians. We could also place an asterisk beside the word and define it in a footnote, but that gets cumbersome. I really do not want to abandon evangelical just yet because it defines an absolutely essential feature of our faith. Let’s use the following definition – a Christian evangelical is someone who spreads the good news of Christ to the world with care, compassion, and love.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV).