The word “evangelical” has gotten a lot of bad press lately. If you read or watched any news outlet in the last year, you probably heard the word used repeatedly to refer to a particular conservative voting bloc. According to multiple analyses from major news networks, evangelicals are the reason Donald Trump is our current president.
The connotation of the word is not good in contemporary America; to most, an evangelical is a sub-set of Republican voters who attend church on a semi-regular basis. Especially after evangelicals overwhelmingly identified with Donald Trump, the term has become fraught with baggage.
Given this, it isn’t surprising the last year has seen many Christians distancing themselves from that label. While I haven’t seen any studies or polls dealing with people disassociating themselves with evangelicalism (if anyone knows of any, please let me know!), I’ve encountered more people than I can count who have said they no longer consider themselves evangelical after the 2016 election.
I don’t blame them. It’s hard to do ministry as a member of a group most of the country sees as arrogant, mean-spirited and only concerned with getting Republicans in office. I cannot, however, join those jumping ship; I am committed to evangelicalism and what it historically has meant—before it became a moniker for a certain brand of American politics.
Defining the term
What is an evangelical, actually? Historian George M. Marsden helpfully identifies five main identifiers of evangelicalism: belief in the authority of Scripture, belief in the historicity of God’s saving work, salvation through the work of Christ, the importance of missions and evangelism, and the importance of spiritual transformation.
I certainly agree with all these points, but what makes me a proud evangelical is a conviction that stands behind and drives these principles—the belief God still speaks to and acts in the world and stands apart from human culture.
After the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, many Christians began to wonder if faith still was tenable in the new, scientifically-minded world. Amidst concerns about the validity of Christian doctrine, a new form of Christianity emerged late in that century. It downplayed supernatural claims and instead emphasized the ethical teachings of Christianity and the ability of individuals to find God within themselves. While the aim of this school of thought—making Christianity make sense in a changing world—was admirable, many in the church, especially in America, felt this school of thought had gone too far in de-emphasizing the historical character of Christianity and the value of Scripture. Evangelicalism emerged as a reaction, holding that even in the modern world, Christianity remained the same.
Theological, not political
This is what I love about evangelicalism. It began as a way to recognize God is distinct from humanity and can be known only through Jesus Christ, as a real, historical person. It was a theological movement, not a political one.
Interestingly, early evangelicals weren’t especially politically involved. For most of the 1800s and 1900s, evangelicals were less interested in politics than the rest of the population, due largely to the conviction that politics was concerned with the affairs of the world. Only in the 1980s did evangelicals become an identifiable and motivated voting bloc, due largely to the efforts of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority.
This is one of the great ironies of modern evangelicalism—an over-entangling of Christianity and culture led to its founding and distrust of politics. The modern consensus that evangelicalism primarily is a religiously motivated political movement is wholly out-of-line with how the group has been understood historically.
Don’t leave …
Far too many evangelicals today have forsaken our historic commitment to preserving the distinction between Christianity and culture. If evangelicalism is going to be reclaimed for what it originally stood, we first must learn to stop pledging allegiance to political parties. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say 2016 revealed the majority of evangelicals are content to put their support behind anyone with an “R” next to their name on a ballot, not that there isn’t a significant number of evangelicals on the left who will do the same thing if the letter is “D.”
Friends who have left evangelicalism, I sympathize. Our corner of Christianity has much repenting to do. Please don’t leave just yet, though. Evangelicalism stands for something special, and it’s worth fighting to preserve.
Jake Raabe is a student at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas.