For years I’ve called myself an evangelical. There were points at which I was hesitant to embrace this label, partly because, in my lifetime, the term has become increasingly politicized. Additionally, as a good Wesleyan/Pietist, I ascribe a higher role to tradition than most evangelicals would, so deeply committed are they to the idea of sola Scriptura. These matters aside, however, evangelicalism has been a theological home for me, and like all homes, I have at times been more and less pleased with the behavior and attitudes of the other people who live there. No doubt, they’ve felt the same about me.
Recently I’ve thought of moving out of that home. It’s not that my convictions have changed. They haven’t. According to the National Association of Evangelicals (drawing on the work of David Bebbington), there are four main characteristics that have historically characterized evangelicalism:
- 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
Check, check, check, and check. I can affirm all of these without blinking.
The same organization, however, specifies one more thing that is quite important:
These distinctives and theological convictions define us — not political, social or cultural trends. In fact, many evangelicals rarely use the term “evangelical” to describe themselves, focusing simply on the core convictions of the triune God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, salvation, evangelism and discipleship.
The juxtaposition of these two sentences is very interesting. The first states that evangelicalism is (in theory) not beholden to any political, social, or cultural trend. The second states that many people who fit theologically within evangelicalism largely eschew the label. What is the connection between these ideas? It is that segments of evangelicalism have done exactly what the first sentence denounces. They have tied themselves to a political/cultural movement, and Christians who may agree with them on most every theological matter are not comfortable being characterized in these political and cultural terms.
The election of Donald Trump and the serious candidacy of Roy Moore have caused a number of evangelicals I know to question whether the name itself is useful any longer. From the perspective of the wider culture, evangelicalism is, to put it generously, a deeply inconsistent movement. Some of evangelicalism’s most vocal leaders claim to stand on a platform of Christian morality, all the while looking the other way on matters of sexual abuse, misogyny, and the courting of the racist movement known as the “alt-right.” Donald Trump and Roy Moore perfectly exemplify the internal contradictions of political evangelicalism. Some evangelicals will simply admit that candidates like Trump and Moore are means to an end, that end being conservative national positions on abortion and religious freedom. Others, like Franklin Graham, seem ready to beatify Trump.
If we reduce matters of Christian faith to abortion and religious freedom, this tweet is comprehensible. Christian faith, however, involves much more more than these. It involves commitment to a set of historical theological claims. It involves ethical commitments around the care of the poor, humility, and self-giving. Paul tells us what the “fruit” will be of a life devoted to Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Galatians 5:23). The works of the flesh, however, are “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like” (Gal 5:19-20). The second list sounds much more like our political world than the first. Neither political party has a monopoly on moral virtue or vice. But those who make the most public claims to Christian allegiance must come to terms with this fact: some of those people with whom we share political commitments are unrepentantly mired in vice, and thus lack the necessary moral character to lead effectively. When we become aware that this is the case, we simply need to admit it.
If we do not, we will surely compromise our witness to Jesus Christ. 1 Peter teaches us, “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they may speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12). In other words, we witness to the non-Christian world not just by our preaching, but by our integrity. People may speak against us, but if we walk in integrity, the witness of our actions will win out.
I’m not ready to jettison the term “evangelical,” but there may come a time when I have to do so. Some visible evangelical leaders have spoken or written about these matters before. For example, Russell Moore, Karen Swallow Prior, and Craig Keener have all taken public stands on matters of personal integrity among political candidates. I’m grateful for their witness. They give me hope that we can reclaim what it means to be evangelical in the best sense of the word: Protestant Christians who boldly proclaim Jesus for the salvation of the lost, hold Scripture as the final authority for faith and practice, and live the faith day by day in personal piety and good works. Perhaps the term can be recovered. Perhaps it cannot. In the meantime, we need more leaders like these to speak difficult truths into the community of faith.
It may be that committed Christians, evangelical or otherwise, will find that neither party fits them very well. It may well become commonplace for us to see our voting as a choice between two deeply flawed options. This should not surprise us, however. Scripture teaches us that we are aliens and exiles (1 Pet 2:11). The integrity of our witness means we must come to terms with this poignant biblical truth.