Van Ens: Good news turned bad: For many, the term ‘evangelical’ now beats out of rhythm (column)
For centuries, believers used the word “evangelical” to reveal Christianity’s heart. For many, “evangelical” now beats out of rhythm.
As a label identifying conservative Christians, “evangelical” has lost its luster. Instead of referring to a set of key beliefs that define faith, “evangelical” today serves as a political tag synonymous with the most conservative faction in the Republican Party.
Some believers and Christianity’s skeptics say “evangelical” doesn’t past the taste test. It’s a bitter brew. Once a tasteful description of Christianity, now many regard “evangelicals” as tasteless political power-grabbers.
Can this word be restored to sum up Christianity’s primary message?
The Bible frequently uses “evangelical.” It is derived from the Greek euangelion, which means “good news.” “Evangelical” is the biblical word for “gospel.” At the first Christmas, an angel announcing Jesus’ birth brought “glad tidings of great joy” to shepherds (Luke 2: 10). What was the good news of the gospel tucked into these “glad tidings?”
Our human hearts are scarred, teaches scripture. Even the best of us can’t remove what stains our lives. A merciful God, however, accomplishes what we can’t do. He cleanses our soiled lives. Christ’s death on the cross is the cleansing agent. Consequently, when God sees us, He doesn’t look at our stains but focuses on the strengths Jesus gives us.
In turn, a Christian’s joy and duty make whole what is broken, transforming bad news into good.
In the 1830s, evangelical Christians brought good news to rescue slaves, women, children and Native Americans from their bad-news plight. African-Americans were forced to forfeit human rights because of skin color. Evangelicals led from the front by forming abolitionist societies to break slavish chains.
Moreover, women in the early 19th century were devalued. They couldn’t vote or own property. Evangelicals worked to reform such constraints. Children in factories suffered terrible injuries. Evangelicals passed legislation to protect youngsters. They protested Native American policies in which state and federal governments forced tribes into arid wilderness west of the Mississippi River.
Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 with strong white conservative Protestant support. Since then, “evangelical” sounds offensive to citizens who spurn Christianity that’s judgmental, reactionary or racist.
Mention “evangelical” to many un-churched people. They reject this poisonous faith that afflicts our country. They believe the conservative evangelical movement is as toxic to our nation as the president it supports.
Many Christians shun the word “evangelical” because it connotes “legalistic theology, a literal interpretation of Scripture; dismissal of opposing viewpoints; perceived hostility toward the LGBTQ community; skepticism of science and academia; and understandings of such issues as masculinity, femininity, family and marriage that many find oppressive” (Living Lutheran magazine, “The “e” word,” April 2018, p. 17). (livinglutheran.blob.core.windows.net/cdn/wp- content/uploads/2018/03/1804 evangelical.pdf)
Many citizens are upset with a president who uses racially tinged rhetoric that separates winners from losers, likes to brag about himself and picks fights to even old slights. Then they see white Christians sound like the president when evangelicals condemn immigrants, gun regulations, Islam, same-sex marriage and abortion clinics as threats to our Republic.
Where is the good news, the glad tidings of the first Christmas? Where is the 1830s spirit of reform that energized Christians to protest slavery, denial of women’s voting rights, child factory labor and removal of Native Americans from their homelands?
When will “evangelical” regain its credibility, announcing God’s good news, rather than be mired in bad news of white Christians flexing muscle, not mercy?
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.