I’m going to stop calling myself an “evangelical,” although I wish it weren’t so.
A few years ago someone close to me asked, “What’s the Religious Right?” In my attempt to give a thorough and satisfying answer I ended up admitting, “In thirty years of ministry I have to say, I’m not sure I know anybody in the ‘Religious Right.’” I went on to explain that I thought it was media construct, used to describe a certain group of people. I did admit that I’ve met a few people who are labeled (and label is the right word) as leaders of the Religious Right, but I’m not so sure that the would self identify themselves on their Facebook Profiles as “Religious Right.” That was a few years ago. In my various travels among diverse Christian groups since then, I’ve not heard anybody self-identify that way. The answer seemed to satisfy him.
Then another question. “So then, what is an Evangelical?” I told him an Evangelical is somebody that believes the Bible (in some form or another) and has had a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ. What I failed to include that day was that an evangelical would also feel on some level the duty to tell about their experience and spread the Word. Telling is found in the construction of the word ‘evangelion’ in the original Greek, the language the Bible was written in. It’s actually a pretty narrow definition. Just a few things.
Not satisfied with that answer he asked, “Like who?” I told him, “Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell,” to which he was, “Yeah, just what I thought.” When I continued, “Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King, probably Jesse Jackson and Bono.” The last group of names were surprising to him, but sure enough they fit the historical definition of Evangelical going back some 500 years. In fairness to his slight surprise about the names in the latter group, I’m relatively certain they might not define themselves in that category either. But given the historical definition they are.
I started following Jesus in 1975 after a pretty wild life and equally radical conversion experience. The same year Jimmy Carter was running for president. He sent shocks waves through the media when he announced he was a Sunday School Teacher who was a “Born Again Christian.” “Born Again” is the core description of an evangelical. One who has had a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ. The other core descriptors follow this one. Believing the Bible and telling others about it.
“Born Again’ was a term used before anybody started thinking about using the word ‘Evangelical.’ While evangelical can be traced to the Reformation, ‘born-again’ finds it’s roots in the words of Jesus where He describes ‘new life,’ being ‘born anew’ in John’s Gospel chapter 3. An evangelical then is a ‘born-again.’ That’s our story, it’s comes from the Bible we believe, and we’re sticking to it as we tell others.
It might go without saying, but probably needs to be clarified, that not all Protestants are ‘evangelicals’ in the theological or experimental sense. Protestantism, the movement that broke with the Roman Catholic Church in the Reformation of the 16th century, has many faces, expressions and belief structures. Not all of Protestantism would hold to, or even necessarily expect that their followers be ‘born again,’ believe the Bible, or be active in sharing their faith. These would be identifying traits of the ‘evangelical wing’ of the Protestant Movement.
Back to the “Religious Right.” The rise of the what has been called, mostly from outsiders and not insiders, the Religious Right has it’s roots in the anti-abortion movement within Evangelical Christianity. As the movement grew participating Evangelicals found themselves in the halls of Courts and Congress. Who were they and where did they come from? They were a formidable force to be dealt with, and to be defined. As the movement within Evangelicalism grew, so did the power, the recognition, and the arms stretching into new areas of political involvement, lobbying, and power brokering. On the surface and in the deeper reality, there is nothing wrong with any of this, and reflects on the duty of being a citizen in a representative democracy. Each voice counts. Activism is encouraged. The Religious Right would eventually merge on the political front with the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and Pro-Life Movement at large. Together they became a rather strong political bloc increasingly referred to as the Religious Right. Which might be an apt description, but it’s not what insiders were calling themselves. And it certainly did not represent the whole of ‘Evangelicals.’
Eventually the Religious Right (which would have included, Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals) as a term was used in decreasing measure and the term “Evangelical” substituted, particularly when it came to a voting bloc. That was unfortunate on two fronts. (1) Being ‘born-again,’ believing the Bible and having a need to share that with others was not shared by everyone in the new diverse movement. (2) If anybody thinks that all, or even most of ‘born-again,’ Bible believing people are voting in one bloc on one issue they are wrong.
In the last 4-5 years the public definition of Evangelical has come to mean an even more specifically defined group that aligns itself to fiscal, partisan and moral issues. The word has nothing to do with people who identify themselves as ‘born-again followers of Jesus that believe the Bible and are interested in telling the world the story.’ At this point I have no idea what people, religious or otherwise mean when they use the word Evangelical. I’m pretty certain they aren’t thinking of people who had a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ.
To even use the word “evangelical’ to describe some supposed voting bloc, or category of people is unfair, in that the Evangelical Movement is global and historical. It existed before there even was a United States. It’s simply become another hijacked word that means anything anybody wants it to me. The way it is being used in the media in the United States today it cannot possibly mean what millions of Evangelical world wide movement believe about themselves.
For me it’s too complicated to figure out, let alone allowing somebody to squeeze me into some category that even the one using the term can’t define. No more Evangelical for me. So what am I? A born-again, follower of Jesus, believing my Bible and wanting the whole world to hear and know. It’s really that simple. My old moniker used to, “Jesus Changed My Life.” It happened in a born-again moment. I’m going back to that and sticking with it. All the other stuff is just too hard, too complicated, and does not describe what most born-again people are about!
Jesus Changed My Life!