Taking Back the Word 'Evangelical': A Way Forward

I believe that now is the time for the church, including the evangelical wing of the church, to resist.

I’ve been tempted in recent months to stop identifying as an evangelical Christian. The temptation has not arisen because I’ve decided to reject any of the core components of evangelical spirituality, including the need for a lifelong personal transformation centered on faith in Christ, a high regard for the Bible, the centrality of the crucifixion of Christ, and social activism via missions and other reform efforts grounded in the gospel.[1]

For me, the temptation to no longer identify with the term has to do with the cultural baggage that has become increasingly attached to it: anti-intellectualism, monolithic political conservatism, naive biblicism, Christianism, and in recent times Trumpism. It must be said that there are plenty of evangelicals who value and pursue the life of the mind, who seek to ground their political positions in scripture and Christian thought rather than one contemporary political party or philosophy, who value the kingdom of God over the kingdoms of this world, and who reject Trumpism. But at least among white evangelicals who voted in the recent presidential election, those who reject some or all of these are in the minority, as only 1 in 5 of them voted against Trump.

But I don’t want to give up on the term “evangelical,” or on the evangelical movement. As Russell Moore wrote nearly a year ago, “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.” I’m tempted to give it up, but like Moore I’m not ready to do so. At least not yet.

I’ve said plenty about what I think is wrong with Trump and support for him (here, here, and here). I’ve also written about the understandable reasons that some people had for voting for him. Here, I want to speak on behalf of the evangelicals like myself who did not vote for Trump.

We must stand together, no matter what it costs us culturally, socially, politically, or financially.

We evangelicals who voted for Clinton, a third party candidate, or simply didn’t cast a vote at the top of the ballot must intentionally take a stand with others who believe that a Trump presidency will pose deep problems, both domestically and internationally. I really want to be wrong about the moral, legal, social, and political disasters that I think may come to pass in the next 4 years. But it seems clear to me that resistance is called for, across party lines, and across social, economic, and religious lines as well. We must hold the Trump administration’s feet to the fire so that it is not able to make good on those proposals and positions of his that are immoral, unjust, and unwise.

Historically, many evangelicals have done just this sort of thing. Think of William Wilberforce’s battle against slavery. Think of the evangelical men and women who were involved in the civil rights movement. Think of those who today fight against human trafficking and other social evils. It is time for evangelicals to take a stand alongside others—regardless of their political or religious persuasion, socioeconomic status, gender, race, sexual orientation, and national origin—and humbly work together for righteousness, justice, and peace. We don’t need to (and surely will not) agree on everything amongst ourselves or with our non-evangelical allies. Yet we need to find a center that will hold, avoiding the mistakes on the evangelical right and left.

In short, we must take back the word “evangelical.” While it may be presumptuous to speak on behalf of the 1 in 5, and the many other evangelicals who oppose Trump and his politics, I believe that now is the time for the church, including the evangelical wing of the church, to resist. We must stand together, no matter what it costs us culturally, socially, politically, or financially. To this end, I offer 10 core beliefs that I think we evangelicals should accept and fight for in the coming years of Trump and beyond.

By adopting and working for these 10 beliefs, we could make real progress in taking back the word “evangelical.” More importantly, we could make real progress in being what we ought to be: a community that exemplifies love, justice, and peace as it works to foster good in the world. If we fail to take a strong stand for values such as these, I fear that whatever moral credibility we yet retain will fully disappear. Much more could be said and should be done, but I think that the following is a good place to start, and should be acceptable regardless of one’s political affiliation as we seek to serve the world for Christ:

  • 1. We believe that we must stand with and support those who are fearful and at risk of being harmed by racism, sexism, and religious persecution. (Galatians 3:28)
  • 2. We believe that we have much to learn from each other and that white evangelicals should partner with, listen to, and defer to their non-white brothers and sisters in humility and love. (Philippians 2:1-5) [2]
  • 3. Whatever we believe about sexual ethics, we believe that all human beings are made in the image of God and as such possess intrinsic worth and dignity; they are all therefore worthy recipients of respect and love. (Genesis 1:26-27)
  • 4. We believe that the church should be a home for and servant of the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed, and all who are marginalized by society, focused on helping to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. (Matthew 25:34-46; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 10:27; James 1:27)
  • 5. We believe that one of our fundamental human rights is the right to basic medical care. We may disagree about the best means to this end, but we are convinced that no one should go without basic care simply because they cannot afford it. (Matthew 25:34-46)
  • 6. We believe that reducing the number of abortions is an important and valuable goal. Some of us think reversing Roe v. Wade is important here, while others of us prefer to focus on creating a society where fewer women will believe that abortion is a choice they must make. And, of course, many believe that both of these are important. (Genesis 1:26-27)
  • 7. We believe that national security is important, but we reject the idea that in order to maintain it we must target innocent civilians or torture anyone, even our worst enemies. (Proverbs 6:16-19; Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 12:17-21)
  • 8. We believe that the United States has an important role to play in international affairs, to help create a more just and peaceful world. We believe that the creative energy that is put into developing weapons should be applied to creating peaceful solutions to international conflict whenever possible. (Isaiah 2:4)
  • 9. We believe that we must learn to disagree in a virtuous manner, not stridently, disrespectfully, or hatefully, but in a communal pursuit of wisdom and truth. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
  • 10. We believe that at the heart of effective and proper social and political engagement is a transformed character. We must be growing morally and spiritually, cultivating the character of Christ individually and corporately, if we are to reflect and foster righteousness, justice, and peace in our homes, communities, nation, and world. (2 Peter 1:3-11; Romans 12:1-2)

The evangelical movement has a host of problems, but it also does a world of good. And it is capable of so much more! My hope and prayer is that we will move ahead as a community of Christ-followers united around gospel-centered moral, social, and political values that we can all share. In this way we can seek to be a small part of the larger answer to the Lord’s prayer: “Your will be done, your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” If we do this, we could have an evangelicalism that is worthy of the name.

Photo by Sean Davis, CCL.