The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of “evangelical,” seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities. That’s especially true when media don’t distinguish in election exit polls between churchgoers and those who merely self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical.”
Many of those who tell pollsters they are “evangelical” may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.
The other problem is the behavior of some evangelical leaders. I have watched as some of these who gave stem-winding speeches about “character” in office during the Clinton administration now minimize the spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.
I watched one evangelical leader pronounce a candidate a Christian, though he explicitly states that he has never repented of sin, because he displays the fruit of the Spirit in job creation. That’s not a political problem; it’s a gospel problem.
Why are many evangelical leaders, including some who pontificate on nearly everything else, scared silent as evangelicalism is associated with everything from authoritarianism and bigotry to violations of religious freedom? How can they look the other way in silence when politicians praise Planned Parenthood and demur about white supremacists and neo-Nazis?
Worst of all, what happens when evangelicalism is no longer even clear about what it takes to be saved: repentance from sin and personal trust in Jesus Christ?
For years, secular progressives have said that evangelical social action in America is not about religious conviction but all about power. They have implied that the goal of the Religious Right is to cynically use the “moral” to get to the “majority,” not the other way around.
This year, a group of high-profile old-guard evangelicals has proven these critics right. But thank God, that’s not the whole story.
The word “evangelical” isn’t, first of all, about American politics. The word is rooted in the Greek word for gospel, good news for sinners through the life, death, resurrection and reign of Jesus of Nazareth as the son of God and anointed ruler of the cosmos.
Evangelical means a commitment to the truth of God’s revelation in the Bible and a conviction that the blood of Christ is offered to any repentant, believing sinner as a full atonement for sin.
The contemporary evangelical movement mobilized after World War II at least partly because the word “fundamentalist” had become as confused as the word “evangelical” now is. “Fundamentalist” initially referred to those committed to the “fundamentals” of the faith — the authority of Scripture, the miracles, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the Second Coming.
By mid-century, though, it has become associated with those who fought over tertiary issues — such as the specific interpretation of Revelation chapter 20 or what Bible translation should be used. Evangelicalism conveyed people who held to the fundamentals but who were defined around good news.
The evangelical nonsense we see too often today has a long pedigree, from the 1980s flock-fleecing television evangelists to the prosperity gospel heretics on our airwaves to those who peddle “end-times” books with false prophecies year after year, revising their charts to fit the headlines.
We have been too willing to look the other way when the word “evangelical” has been co-opted by heretics and lunatics. This sort could deny creedal Christianity and gospel clarity with impunity, as long as they were on the right side of the culture war.
Thankfully, this sort of evangelicalism is not the future.
Look at the millennial pastors and church planters all over the country. Look at who is in evangelical seminaries, of every denomination. Look at who is flocking to evangelical conferences — from Urbana to Passion to Send North America to The Gospel Coalition. The future of evangelicalism is vibrant, prophetic, theologically-grounded, gospel-centered and unwilling to be anyone’s political mascot.
Evangelical is a magnificent word — a word that resonates with the gospel dissent of Martin Luther and the gospel crusades of Billy Graham. More than that, it is rooted in the New Testament itself that tells us that Jesus saves. And I’m not ready to give it up yet.
But you will forgive me if, at least until this crazy campaign year is over, I choose just to say that I’m a gospel Christian.
When this fevered moment is over, we will need to make “evangelical” great again.