Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Is “Evangelical” Still a Useful Term?

David Swartz claims that one reason the “Evangelical Left” has failed as a popular movement (unlike the Evangelical Right which dominates an entire U.S. political party) is discomfort with the term “evangelical” itself.  Is this surprising? When I was a teen in the 1970s, it was fairly easy to call myself “evangelical” and to identify with the Evangelical Left as it was then: Jim Wallis, Joyce Hollyday & the Sojourners Community; Tony Campolo; Ron Sider & Evangelicals for Social Action; Koinonia Partners in Americus, GA, founded in 1942 by Clarence & Florence Jordan & Martin & Mable England as an interracial Christian community–in the midst of segregation and racism; Jubilee Partners and The Other Side magazine (1965-2005); Virginia Ramey Mollenkott; Nancey Hardesty; Letha Dawson Scanzoni–Biblical feminism and the Evangelical Woman’s Conference (now the Evangelical and Ecumenical Woman’s Conference); the radical Black evangelism of Tom Skinner, John Perkins (and Voice of Calvary Ministries), and William E. Pannell–these and other people and organizations were the Left wing of American Evangelicalism, but clearly recognized as evangelical by their more moderate and even conservative sisters and brothers. (Scanzoni and Mollenkott, Rev. Troy Perry, & a few brave souls at The Other Side even dared–and it was VERY daring at the time–to call into questian the consensus blanket condemnation of “homosexuality.” At the time, I did not dare follow their conclusions, but I did think the conversation should be open and free from fear of knee-jerk cries of “HERESY!”)

After all, when Time magazine referred to 1976 as “Year of the Evangelical,” it focused on a Georgia governor and Sunday School teacher making an unlikely run for U.S. President–Jimmy Carter. With Carter and Billy Graham (then a much less hardline conservative figure) defining the Evangelical Center, those of us on the Evangelical Left had little difficulty with the term “Evangelical.” Even when Jerry Falwell founded The Moral Majority in 1978, he helped reinforce those of us in the Evangelical Left in identifying with the term “Evangelical” because Falwell & his ilk considered “Evangelical” to be a “mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy term,” and proudly proclaimed themselves “Fundamentalists,” intead. (The Moral Majority even published The Fundamentalist Journal which didn’t just lambast liberal Christian publications such as The Christian Century, and Christianity & Crisis–the latter now sadly defunct–or Evangelical Left publications like Sojourners, The Other Side, Radix, or Katallagete (of which, only Sojourners is still in circulation), but indicted such staid organs of the Evangelical establishment as His, Eternity, and even Christianity Today as heretical.) Thus, Falwell and other Religious Right figures helped the secular mainstream media distinguish between “Evangelicals” and “Fundamentalists.”

What changed?  The fierce doctrinal debate over whether Scriptural authority should be understood by the term “inerrancy,” a debate which began first among Missouri Synod Lutherans (leading to a schism) and then moved into para-church Evangelicalism before dominating the Southern Baptist Convention (c. 1979–c.1990–and resulting in schism and fragmentation) was one factor.  As some factions defined “inerrancy” every more strictly or insisted that one who rejected this term was no longer “evangelical,” many of us in the Evangelical Left became weary of that fight. (I wanted to spend less time debating the nature of biblical authority and more time learning to interpret Scripture carefully and to demonstrate loyalty to biblical authority by the way it shaped lives and communities of faithful disciples. )

But the success of the Religious Right as a political movement was another major factor:  As the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and others gained more and more worldly political power, they gave up the term “Fundamentalist,” and embraced “Evangelical.” But the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons (and, later, the Mohlers, Rick Warrens, etc.) didn’t just say, “Yes, we are also part of the Evangelical heritage–this terms includes us.” No, they laid claim to SOLE OWNERSHIP of the label and denied that those of us in the Evangelical Left were “true Evangelicals.”  They even began to deny that Jimmy Carter was evangelical! And the media followed suit with this. So, by the early 1990s, most people in America thought that “Evangelical” automatically meant all of the following: Conservative Republican who supports: teacher-led prayers and Bible readings in the public schools; the use of federal tax money to support private Christian schools; bannings or restrictions of pornography–and this could be defined to even include great works of art like the Venus de Milo sculpture (During the 1st term of the presidency of George W. Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft (R-MO), a member of the Religious Right, draped a cloth over the statue of Justice to hide the statue’s naked breast!); banning the teaching of biological evolution; uncritical support for a huge military budget and nationalist wars.  It also meant one opposed: The Equal Rights Amendment; all or nearly all abortions (the one part of the Religious Right’s agenda which did have some legitimacy even though I disagreed with all their conclusions–the Left’s refusal to see any moral dimensions at all to abortion was sheer blindness); opposed women’s leadership roles in churches as well as society; wanted restrictions on the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual & transgendered persons and promoted fear and hatred of them in the churches. Opposed government aid to the poor.  Opposed environmental stewardship–even when re-christened “Creation Care.” Demanded uncritical support for Latin American dictators who were “pro-American” and gave uncritical support for the apartheid government of South Africa for the same reason (and was surprised that this was called “racist.”) By the ’90s, the agenda included uncritical support for the government of Israel and opposition to ALL efforts to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. (Jimmy Carter’s Middle East peacemaking, once heralded with pride by American evangelicals were now considered both heretical and treasonous.) By the Bush years, to be “Evangelical” in America meant to endorse a unilateral authority to declare war and invade anyone designated as even a possible future enemy and to approve torture.

I LIKE the term “evangelical.” It literally means “gospel centered” & I, like most Christians, want to be “gospel centered.” Historically, the term “Evangelical” referred to the Reformers of the 16th C. and, in much of Europe and Latin America today, “Evangelical” is simply a synonym for “Protestant.” Well, I am definitely a Protestant. Another use distinguishes “Evangelical” from “Reformed,” so that “Evangelical” means “Lutheran” rather than “Calvinist.” Well, I am neither of those, so I don’t have any investment in this definition of “Evangelical.”  In the 18th C., the “Evangelical Revival” in the United Kingdom and North America was led by George Whitfield and the brothers Wesley. Well, I was raised United Methodist and retain enough Wesleyan influence to identify with that meaning of “Evangelical.” And since the days of Charles Finney, “Evangelical” has also meant “revivalist,” and I was “born again” at a revival, so, despite my criticisms of the shortcomings of the revivalist tradition, I am “evangelical” in that sense, too.  I am NOT “evangelical” in the sense the word aquired after the Furndamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and definitely not in the sense of the Religious Right. And my theology, while having many influences from the Evangelical tradition as described above, has other influences too: from the Anabaptist tradition and the Anabaptist strand of the Baptist faith, from the more Christocentric strands of Protestant liberalism, from some forms of Neorthodoxy and the post-WWII “Biblical Theology” movement, from Liberation theologies and theologies of Hope, etc.  If one has to avoid all such influences to be genuinely “Evangelical, then I am NOT Evangelical.  If one must be conservative politically, then I, a Green-leaning democratic socialist and registered Democrat, fail the test.

It gets tiring to have to respond to the question, “Are you an Evangelical?” with “It depends on your definition” and then sketch the history above.  Is it any wonder that many of the Evangelical Left  began to be ambivalent about identifying with the term “Evangelical?”

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July 15, 2012 - Posted by | testimony, theology, tradition

3 Comments »

  1. Michael, although I consider a lot of writing on “evangelicalism” to be a navel-gazing, worn-out theme, this is an exception. Although I wasn’t even alive during the Carter admin, you have perfectly described my struggle with keeping this label.

    I’m curious – what would be a new, different word for those of us who want to be gospel-centered, but not a card-carrying member of the GOP? I feel like journalists and culture critics don’t have a common term for those of us in this category, so we may get overlooked. Ross Douthat’s op-ed about the failings of liberal Christianity, and others who cite statistics about the decline of liberal churches along with a corresponding growth of conservative churches, makes me wonder if there’s an overlooked contingent who don’t fit in either category. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/douthat-can-liberal-christianity-be-saved.html?_r=1&ref=rossdouthat)

    Anyway, as always, I appreciate your analysis.

    Comment by Natalie Burris | July 16, 2012 | Reply

    • I wish I knew, Natalie.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 16, 2012 | Reply

  2. […] with a very helpful biographical narrative and expansion of the basic point. Go check it out here. Is this surprising? When I was a teen in the 1970s, it was fairly easy to call myself […]

    Pingback by Duh! « Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism | July 16, 2012 | Reply


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