Shedding the Label “Evangelical”

Billy Graham’s grandson stopped calling himself an evangelical (here), saying “'evangelical' isn't like Baptist or Episcopalian, which can be clearly defined. The minute you use that term to someone, you're defined by how they interpret it.” He complained it is too “broad and vague.” Earlier this year, the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship – a student group at the university - dropped "evangelical" and became the Princeton Christian Fellowship. Russell Moore, the theological spokesman of the Southern Baptist Convention, is also wavering.

Evangelism and Politics

Moore complains of its vagueness and potential misuse: “the majority of the time it's a political identity first. And many journalists just assume that what evangelicals do all day is wait for the Iowa caucuses every four years…. sometimes people haven't really thought about evangelicalism since the evangelical scandals of the 1980s I guess, or the aftermath of that. Or they think of some health and wealth prosperity gospel preacher. And that's even more true overseas.”

Over 80% of evangelicals supported Donald Trump for President, including most leading evangelicals. They did so despite the fact that their major theme in recent decades had been “family values,” and Trump was far from a role model, being a serial adulterer and pussy-grabber. A good deal of the newly-found unhappiness with “evangelical” seems to reflect a backlash against Trump and the support he received from evangelical institutions and followers.

What is an Evangelical?

This has never been clear. But the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), one of the largest evangelical groups, says evangelicals must meet four basic criteria:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ's death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God's free gift of eternal salvation.

The second point suggests that evangelicals must evangelize non-Christians. But very few do, and most actively avoid such discussions. The third point said that Jesus’ death was necessary for God to forgive sins. But the living Jesus told his followers to use what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer, which says that if you forgive others’ sins, God will forgive yours. This is officially the central prayer of the Catholic Church, and has to rank high with evangelicals as well. But the Lord’s Prayer contradicts the 3rd evangelical criterion. Finally, the first point affirms the Bible as the highest authority. But evangelicals are woefully ignorant of the Bible and their leaders are far less concerned with teaching it than with delivering political messages (not to mention financial messages like the prosperity gospel).

Conclusion

All in all, we are talking about a rather tightly-knit group, comprising roughly one-third of all Americans, which has relatively little substantive or doctrinal basis. Members have a strong sense of group identity, but their attitudes and beliefs are flexible enough to support a serial adulterer and fornicator in the name of ‘family values.’ They are also resilient, especially to matters of fact. Just witness Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker, not to mention Ted Haggard, former head of the NAE. I think this group is dwindling, but doctrinal matters are far less important than cultural changes.

 

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