02 December 2021

That "evangelical" label, part two

It's been four years since I wrote my defense of the "evangelical" label as I applied it to myself.

On a personal and emotional level, that defense still stands. However, I'm increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with USA evangelicalism in all its institutional ugliness, particularly among white Americans. A movement that once declared the unity of individual righteousness and social justice now barely makes a peep as celebrity preachers and their political allies trash the reputation of the Gospel in favor of "Christian" nationalism. Up with tax breaks for wealthy people and impunity for Israel; down with any honest accounting for systemic racism; down with elementary public health measures in time of crisis. Left in the dust: any winsome presentation of the promises of God in Jesus; any invitation to experience "the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people" (from Ephesians 1:18; context); any vision of how we could be a blessing to everyone everywhere. 

Of course there are millions of evangelicals in the USA who are not happy with this situation. But institutionally they (we) seem invisible and inaudible compared to the toxic anti-evangelistic message that threatens to become Christianity's public face in the USA.

Does all this rob the label "evangelical" of all publicly useful content? Here are some thoughts....

First of all, it's probably important to remind ourselves that today's evangelical scene is far from monolithic, even within the USA. (And it's important to remember that most of the world's evangelical Christians are not in the USA.) In fact that scene is in the process of fracturing--and here's how, according to Michael Graham: today's categories and faultlines.

Roger E. Olson, whose calm and useful commentaries I've often admired, makes an interesting distinction: evangelicalism as ethos, vs evangelicalism as movement. He says bluntly that "...the American evangelical movement that flourished in the 1950s through the 1970s is now probably dead" but that "the death of the movement has nothing to do with the ethos." The rich theological legacy he refers to is as persuasive and inspiring to me as it ever was. Might the collapse of its pretentious outward structures be a liberating moment?

For another commentator, Clint Schnekloth, liberation can't come a moment too soon. He titled a recent essay, "If you're evangelical it's time for you to leave." The heart of his argument:

It’s no longer that the evangelicals have one truth, and the Catholics another, and mainline Protestants another.

Conservative evangelicalism has left the building. If you’re still affiliating with it, it’s time for you to leave.

I’m certainly aware that many faithful people in evangelical churches oppose at least some of the harmful views of the majority. I hear the pain from those evangelicals, struggling as they are to find their way in a religious movement that is drifting further and further away from them.

But at this point, evangelicalism (and the various strains of populist Christianity that ride alongside it, like Southern Baptists, mega-churches, etc.) is so beholden to forces antithetical to the gospel of Christ, I believe there is nothing there to reform, and so many ways to get to healthier spaces.

For those of us Quakers whose churches were forced out of Northwest Yearly Meeting, we in fact had no choice but to leave. I now find myself in a new little band of Quaker churches who would probably never agree to adopt as loaded a label as "evangelical" but are striving to honor and advance the good news of Jesus and make it as accessible as we possibly can. The label itself still helps me to describe the influences that formed me as a new disciple and continue to inspire me today, but it no longer describes any organizational affiliation that I'd care to join.

FRIDAY PS: Please tell me if you know of any significant corporate protest from organized evangelicalism against the trends I mention above. I suppose there are many churches, colleges, and organizations that maintain silence or claim neutrality, but that's not enough.

Actually, this incongruity between white institutional evangelicalism and Christianity has been evident for a long time. I found some related comments that I posted back in 2004. Going back further, I remember my Christian bookseller friend and boss Florence Skove asking, in the presidential election season of 1980, "Why does everyone assume that I'm going to vote for Ronald Reagan?"

A hint of something more positive? Another old post: The golden age of evangelism.

Peter Wehner published his own diagnosis in a recent article in The Atlantic.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University examines evangelicalism's cultural captivity and its toxic results in her important book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.

Cornerstone Church: a case study of modern-day heresy.

Speaking of Kristin Kobes Du Mez, here's another case study: "... Others are doing history and sociology, but we do Bible."

For Russian comedians, political satire is no joke.

The final Quaker Changemaker event of 2021: A conversation with Friends Committee on National Legislation's outgoing general secretary Diane Randall.

... and Angela Merkel's slightly unorthodox departure.

The case for Dorothy Day's canonization is about to be delivered to Rome.

When the blues came to Norway. "Can't Get No Grinding." Muddy Waters and his band, 1977.

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