Hot Button: Has ‘Evangelical’ Become a Dirty Word?
We can’t really blame Donald Trump and Roy Moore for pushing Evangelical Christians off the cliff, or can we?
The question is part of the discussion that’s trending (and I don’t mean in a Santa video kind of way) right now. In an opinion piece posted at The Washington Post last week, Eugene Scott wrote that after Roy Moore lost Alabama’s special Senate election, “despite running a campaign on what he called Christian values, some evangelical voters seem to be considering that their label has been co-opted.”
“There’s a growing concern that aligning with people such as Moore and President Trump has hurt evangelicalism in the public eye. But others connected to the movement say evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals, had a perception problem long before Trump and Moore became the faces of the community’s politics,” Scott reports.
The question has been so much in the forefront of the Christian community and even the community at large that The New Yorker gave Timothy Keller its platform yesterday to answer the question put this way: Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?
In typical brilliant Tim-speak, Keller writes:
In the nineteen-forties and fifties, Billy Graham and others promoted the word to describe themselves and the religious space they were seeking to create between the cultural withdrawal espoused by the fundamentalist movement, on the one hand, and mainline Protestantism’s departures from historic Christian doctrine, on the other. In each of these phases, the term has had a somewhat different meaning, and yet it keeps surfacing because it has described a set of basic historic beliefs and impulses.
When I became a Christian in college, in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism. Shortly thereafter, I went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. It was one of the many institutions that Graham, Harold Ockenga, and J. Howard Pew, and other neo-evangelicals, as they were sometimes called, established. In those years, there was such great energy in the movement that, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, it had eclipsed mainline Protestantism as the dominant branch of the Christian church in the U.S. When I moved to Manhattan to start a new church, in 1989, most people I met found the church and its ministry to be a curiosity in secular New York but not a threat. And, if they heard the word “evangelical” around the congregation, a name we seldom used, they usually asked what it meant.
Today, while the name is no longer unfamiliar in my city, its meaning has changed drastically. The conservative leaders who have come to be most identified with the movement have largely driven this redefinition. But political pollsters have also helped, as they have sought to highlight a crucial voting bloc. When they survey people, there is no discussion of any theological beliefs, or other criteria. The great majority of them simply ask people, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?”
Keller concludes that evangelicalism as a movement may or may not abandon or demote the prominence of the name, “yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever.”
Should followers of Jesus simply trust Keller on his positive outlook on the Church’s direction?
Perhaps it’s equally important to be aware that there is a fissure that appears to be widening.
In the article, Young U.S. Christians Fear Trump Is Turning ‘Evangelical’ Into a Dirty Word – and Israel Is Paying the Price, published at Haaretz, the writer makes the claim that “a new generation has emerged that questions the literal beliefs of the Bible and rejects the politicization of their religion by some on the right.”
Brandan Robertson, 25, who is the lead pastor of “a progressive Christian community” in San Diego, California, and has made a substantial impression in both the political and faith communities as a gay advocate, told Haaretz that he thinks “evangelicalism is in a real crisis right now.”
Shachar Peled, reporter for the piece, writes: “Despite growing up learning about the Chosen People in what he calls ‘the hotbed of Christian Zionism,’ modern technology and globalization led Robertson and his peers to question those teachings.”
“Because we live in such an interconnected globalized world, as students we were able to go on Facebook or to easily travel to a different part of the world and see that the things we were being told – based on, in my opinion, antiquated theology – didn’t live up and match up to the reality of what was happening to the world.”
Before throwing out the “antiquated theology” with the baby and the bathwater, perhaps those who are so eager to oust “evangelical” from their vocabulary (or reasoning) should consider, as studies from Pew Research Center and others show and as Keller points out, “evangelical churches that resist dilution in their theological beliefs and practices are holding their own or growing.”
Keller adds, “And if evangelicals—or whatever they will call themselves—continue to become more multiethnic in leadership and confound the left-right political categories, they may continue to do so.”
Getting into solution is so much better than obsession with the blame game.