Yesterday, I reviewed the new edition of Donald Dayton’s Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage. My own sense as I reflect on the book and its title is that the identifier “evangelical” in the American context has been eviscerated of its meaning. “Mourning a Lost Heritage” might be a better title.
Almost no one I know thinks this is a good word any longer. It is associated with the racial and political divides in our country. To be “evangelical” is to be white, Republican, anti-immigrant, among other things, none of which has to do with the word’s etymological roots or historic usage.
Literally, the term means “one who bears or is associated with a good message” or more briefly, “a bearer of good news.” There are four qualities that have made this good news, historically, noted by historians like David Bebbington and Mark Noll:
1. Conversion. The idea is that the message of Christian faith is not try harder, but become a new person through trust in Christ. It is a message that offers hope across all ethnic groups, economic strata, and every human condition.
2. God has spoken. Evangelicals affirm a Bible that is trustworthy and speaks with authority about the crucial questions of life, not leaving us to wander in the dark.
3. The Person and Work of Christ. Evangelicals have affirmed that Christ is fully God and fully human, and thus the perfect mediator to bring God to us, and us to God. His death and bodily resurrection root our hope of life and future with God not in what we do but what has been done for us in time and space.
4. Activism. Gratitude for the above three realities motivates a care for others expressed both in word and deed, both in seeking to persuade others to believe, hopefully but not always with grace and humility, and caring for needs of the body and injustices of society as well as spiritual renewal. Dayton’s book highlights how nineteenth century evangelicals like Charles Finney were in the vanguard of abolitionist and feminist movements, anti-trafficking movements, and urban outreaches to the poor, many immigrants. Some of this continues to the present in organizations like the Salvation Army.
Sadly, outside a historically and theologically informed sub-culture, I suspect there are few in American society today who would think of these distinctives when they hear the word “evangelical.” I seriously doubt they would think “good news” when they hear this word. It’s not their fault, however. It is ours. We’ve traded the pursuit of these wonderful distinctives and a message that transcends Left and Right for attempted political influence with one political party. And the sad truth is that in the end, we’ve had little political influence and lost spiritual influence in our culture. We’ve been political and cultural captives, and we are dying in captivity!
I’ll be honest, I had hoped that this would be the election when “evangelicals” would abstain from endorsements and public advocacy for particular candidates, given who the nominees are. Sadly, if anything, evangelicals have been among the most visible advocates for this year’s Republican candidate. Given what seems to be a deepening racial estrangement in our nation, this identification if anything has only seemed to deepen the corresponding estrangement between white evangelicals and black churches, and other ethnic minorities.
There are many believers, black and white who are seeking to bridge these divides. Many of us think that if we have any engagement in the political process, it is not to lodge our hope in political power, but to advocate with whoever is in office for justice. My sense is that most are very uncomfortable with the identifier of “evangelical.” Truthfully, I am among them. I often describe myself as a “mere Christian,” drawing on the example of C. S. Lewis. But it is not the case that I have left “evangelicalism” but rather that I would say “evangelicalism,” at least in its American form, has left me. Scratch me, and I bleed Bebbington’s distinctives.
But I grieve for the destruction of a good word about good news. I hate the fact that it is an epithet in the ears of many, and for all the wrong reasons. The real issue isn’t the word, but the loss of what the word has represented as a vital stream within American (as well as global) Christianity. I also grieve because of how much “damage control” it seems is necessary because of the political captivity of American evangelicalism. It often seems so hard to get to the good news, because first we have to deal with all the barriers and misconceptions that associates Christian faith in any form with “bad news.” I wish those “evangelical” leaders who make endorsements understood how every endorsement makes it just that much harder to pursue those core distinctives some of us still hold dear.
This particular movement may die, as Robert P. Jones and others are predicting. God’s way seems to be when one group ceases to be faithful to its call, others are raised up to take their place. Today, the most vibrant forms of Christianity are outside North America, and it might be argued that the most vibrant forms of Christianity inside North America are outside the white, evangelical church, in immigrant and ethnic minority communities. God is not bound to our cultural and political captivities. The question is whether we are willing to walk with Him on His long road to freedom.