Am I Still an Evangelical?

Allan H. Harvey

In 2002, I wrote an essay titled Am I an Evangelical? in which I lamented that a label I used for myself, while accurate, had become too strongly associated with a fundamentalist approach to the Bible and with right-wing politics. While recognizing that, as a political moderate with a more nuanced view of Scripture, I might not be considered part of the tribe by some Evangelicals, I ultimately concluded Iím not ready to give up on it quite yet.

2017 is a good time to revisit that. Some Christians have renounced the evangelical label, often in disgust at the role of Evangelicals in electing arguably the most un-Christlike person ever to become President of the United States. My own faith has evolved in some ways (for example, I am more appreciative of the human aspects of Scripture and see faith more as relational trust and less as mental assent to propositions), but its shape is roughly the same as it was in 2002. The question is whether I still want to call that faith "evangelical."

I can start by saying that the label still applies in its classic sense. While I wonít bore you with analysis of its historic meaning (search "Bebbington quadrilateral" if you are interested), I am still committed to the "evangel," the good news of God reconciling all things in Jesus. A Christ-centered faith, a commitment to following Jesus with the Bible as our guide, and a desire to live out and spread the Good News, should make one an Evangelical by any reasonable definition. However, the connotations of words can change, and that has happened with "evangelical." It may be that the word has been irredeemably spoiled, at least in the U.S. I perceive two main culprits in that spoilage; these overlap with but are not identical to the complaints I articulated in 2002.

The first is the association with right-wing politics, which seems to have worsened since 2002. It was not always so; in the early 1900s many theologically conservative Christians (such as William Jennings Bryan) supported progressive causes like worker's rights, economic justice, and international peace. More recently, Newsweek declared 1976 the "Year of the Evangelical," in part because of the political rise of Jimmy Carter, whose personal Christian integrity was appealing in the wake of Watergate. But by 1980 Carter was the enemy for a new influx of politically active Christian conservatives (notably the Moral Majority), whose original impetus was the government's denial of tax exemptions to schools that practiced racial discrimination (only a few years later did abortion become a major issue). That rightward turn has since continued.

As a result, in many minds Evangelicalism has become synonymous with a Religious Right that crusades for things that I consider contrary to the ways of Jesus. "Evangelical" causes include the glorification of guns and violence, a flag-waving nationalism that often becomes idolatrous, opposition to caring for God's creation, and policies that favor the rich over the poor. An increasingly prominent feature is hostility to science – not just science like biology that is in tension with some interpretations of Scripture, but also fields like environmental and climate science that don't threaten any Christian doctrine but do threaten corporate profits.

Things took a darker turn in 2016, as much of the Religious Right aligned itself with the "alt-right." While there has long been some racism and xenophobia in the church (the KKK is officially Christian, and many Christians joined the John Birch Society in its heyday), Evangelicals and especially their leaders have usually shunned these as fringe views. This continued in the early days of the Donald Trump campaign, as most Evangelical leaders rejected its disregard for truth and denigration of ethnic groups. But as Trump gained momentum, many of those leaders jumped on the bandwagon, not just reluctantly supporting the "lesser of two evils" (which I could respect even while disagreeing with their calculation), but embracing Trump and his campaign. This conveyed acceptance of the alt-right with its bigotry and misogyny, its conspiracy theories, and its hateful rhetoric. It appeared that Evangelicals would excuse anything as long as a candidate claimed to oppose abortion and had an "R" after his name. Now, we find ourselves in a country where alt-right ideas that are inimical to the values of Jesus (such as white nationalism, demonization of outsiders, and an "America first" that devalues the rest of God's world) have gained great influence. Many people perceive that Evangelicals are complicit in this deplorable outcome.

At this point, I should acknowledge my ambivalence about what exactly I am objecting to. Is it that Evangelicalism has become so closely associated with politics? Or is it the objectionable content of the politics? Probably some of each. Regardless of the specifics, it is wrong to be so tied to secular politics that the word "evangelical" brings to mind not Jesus but instead certain political views. I like to think I would object even if the church's captivity was to politics I agreed with. Yet I would not say that the church should avoid politics completely. Politics is about how a society is organized and lives out its values. Following Jesus is not just a private spiritual matter; it affects our whole lives, including participation in our communities. Discipleship cannot help but be political – this was evident in the early church when affirming "Jesus is Lord" testified that Caesar was not Lord. It is good that Christians engaged in the causes of abolition and civil rights. I have no problem with Christians taking up the pro-life cause (even as I might wish for that concern to extend more to life after birth and to social and health services that reduce the demand for abortion). While Jesus should be the primary thing that comes to mind when Evangelicalism is mentioned, I would not object if social causes came in second, as long as they aligned with the values of Jesus. This would be a politics that prioritized loving our neighbors, rejecting the selfishness of consumerism and nationalism, and blessing the poor and marginalized. Unfortunately, nowadays not only is politics the main thing many associate with Evangelicalism, but the politics is that of the Religious Right, and now also the alt-right. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot claim the Evangelical label if that is what it means.

My other concern in 2002 was the association with fundamentalist views of the Bible. Today I think of that as one symptom of a larger problem, which is the hijacking of the evangelical label by neo-fundamentalists.

I should explain what I mean by "neo-fundamentalist." The original Fundamentalists in the early 1900s were actually somewhat diverse in doctrine – for example, their manifesto The Fundamentals contained a couple of essays sympathetic to theistic evolution. By the mid-20th Century, the movement had hardened, and a defining characteristic was separatism, isolating themselves from less conservative Christians (and often from politics and society). While there are still some fundamentalists in this classic sense, much of today's fundamentalism is different, to the point where another term such as "neo-fundamentalist" is appropriate.

I would define neo-fundamentalism by two distinctive characteristics:

  1. Extreme Biblicism. This includes the "inerrancy" doctrine that many Evangelicals affirm, but it takes an extreme form, where the Bible is revered as magically perfect by modern Western standards that would have been foreign to the Biblical writers. This is not the place for an exposition of how this human-constructed doctrine about how the Bible is supposed to behave fails when confronted with the Bible we actually have; suffice it to say that it often prevents thinking people from giving a hearing to the messages of Scripture. But it is not just a matter of holding this view of Scripture; for neo-fundamentalists that doctrine becomes a litmus test of orthodoxy, or even an essential of the faith. I have said that one might tell the difference between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist by asking "What is the absolute foundation of the Christian faith?" An Evangelical should say "Jesus" (in line with 1 Cor 3:11), while a Fundamentalist will say "The Bible."
  2. An extreme "us versus them" outlook. This has similarities with old-fashioned separatist fundamentalism, but neo-fundamentalists are more likely to engage and attack those with different views. The demonized "them" includes not only the usual suspects such as intellectuals and scientists, but also non-fundamentalist Christians. Doctrinal battles and culture wars are at the forefront, while love and grace are seldom apparent.

What does this have to do with my discomfort with the word "evangelical"? The problem is that, perhaps because American society marginalized Fundamentalists, neo-fundamentalists are now calling themselves Evangelicals. I have not traced the history, but it might have begun when Jerry Falwell (for years a proud self-proclaimed Fundamentalist) started calling himself an Evangelical in the 1980s. Now, many Christians who should really be thought of as Fundamentalists (like the Falwells, Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, and Tim LaHaye) present themselves as spokesmen for Evangelical Christianity. To the extent Evanglicalism is identified with the ungracious Biblicism of neo-fundamentalism, I want no part of it.

So, am I ready to give up the evangelical label? Yes and no, but mostly yes. In our current context, it has become an obstacle. If I am to represent Jesus to those around me, that word causes too many mental doors to slam shut as people associate it with the political right and with Bible-thumping neo-fundamentalists. If somebody asks whether I am an Evangelical, any affirmative answer will have to include something like "but not like what you might think" to distinguish myself from what it now implies. In other words, I will not renounce the word, but I won't advertise it either. Instead, I will identify as a Christian (and hope that label does not become similarly spoiled), or simply as a follower of Jesus. It is, after all, Jesus who is the "evangel," the Good News at the center of true evangelical faith, so focusing our language on Jesus is not a bad thing.
Give me Jesus, but don't give me 21st-Century American Evangelicalism.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Originally written May 2017. Page last modified November 26, 2017.