Hear the rumble beneath the great collapse. The pretense of evangelical cohesion in America is disintegrating even as the Republican Party implodes, with rubble surrounding the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Long-hidden fissures have surfaced, making the obvious painfully clear: The term “evangelical” has become so thinned and adulterated it’s worse than meaningless.
A question hovers over “traditional” evangelicals such as me, wistful for the pre-1980 era when the term defined a solid theological position divorced from politics: What to do? Should we hunt for a different label?
The Jaded Religious Right
The movement’s fractures have emerged in the wake of some high-profile Trump endorsements. James Dobson said this: “Mr. Trump has been unwavering in his commitment to issues that are important to evangelicals such as myself. In particular, I have been heartened by his pledge to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, preserve religious liberty, rebuild the military, and defend the sanctity of human life. On the issue of abortion, I choose not to evaluate him based on his past position but rather on what he says are his current convictions. I believe God can change the hearts and minds of people and I celebrate when they support principles of righteousness.” This comes on the heels of Jerry Falwell Junior’s approval and Pat Robertson’s compliment: “You inspire us all.”
All of which is tediously predictable. Prying the supposedly pro-family Dobson from the Republican Party would be too much to ask, especially since he holds one of the patents on the anti-Clinton slime machine. Don’t bother inquiring, “Would you support a philandering, wife-dumping, strip-club owning Democrat whom fact-checkers give a 78-percent falsehood rating?” As for Robertson, he tipped his hand when he supported Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential bid despite the former New York mayor’s pro-choice and pro-gay marriage stances.
But the real shocker was Wayne Grudem’s July 28th essay, “Why Voting For Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice.” Grudem is a professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary and author of the popular and helpful Systematic Theology, which actually describes theological issues in readable English. He made no qualms about his Tea Party conservatism in another book, Politics, but he usually comes across as thoughtful. Not now. How “Trump” and “morally” can meet in the same sentence defies the imagination. Apparently, everything hinges on Supreme Court appointees: Grudem believes Trump would fulfill his pledge and appoint conservatives while Clinton would choose left-wingers. “The nation would no longer be ruled by the people and their elected representatives, but by unelected, unaccountable, activist judges who would dictate from the bench about whatever they were pleased to decree. And there would be nothing in our system of government that anyone could do to stop them. That is why this election is not just about Hillary Clinton. It is about defeating the far left liberal agenda that any Democratic nominee would champion.”
Fact is, the Democratic Party is far from “far left,” especially when compared with the social democratic parties of Europe, and he forgets that Republican justices wrote such pro-abortion rulings as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey – plus Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage. What’s more, “liberal” justices hold no monopoly on activism. Witness the 19th-century Dred Scott decision or the Supreme Court of the 1930’s, which dismantled much of the New Deal.
Grudem seems deaf to Trump’s many anti-democracy statements and his history of lying. He makes this incredible statement:
(Trump) is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of terrorists) that he later must abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages. These are certainly flaws, but I don’t think they are disqualifying flaws in this election.
Fortunately, moderate evangelicals had already abandoned their customary election-year silence and voiced opposition to Trump. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in February that he no longer describes himself as an evangelical in everyday conversation because “the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He marveled at a ballooning double standard: “I have watched as some of these who gave stem-winding speeches about ‘character’ in office during the Clinton administration now minimize the spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.”
Albert Mohler, the conservative president of Southern Baptist Seminary, also noticed the Clinton irony: “If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton. I would have to admit that my commentary on his scandals was wrong. I don’t believe I was. I don’t believe evangelicals who stood united that time were wrong.”
Even more significant were the February comments of Max Lucado, the popular evangelical author who intentionally remained a-political in previous campaigns. He listed Trump’s “antics” (ridiculing a war hero, mocking a handicapped reporter, labeling people as losers and dummies), then said, “Such insensitivities wouldn’t be acceptable even for a middle school body election. But for the Oval Office? And to do so while brandishing a Bible and boasting of his Christian faith?”
The denunciations kept coming. Michael Gerson has written anti-Trump columns; Ronald Sider wrote in Christian Ethics Today under the banner, “The Most Important Election in My Lifetime,” “… the (Republican) candidate … lies, nurtures racism, violates our history of religious freedom for all, supports torture and appeals to much of the worst in our society.” He listed many more flaws, then concluded: “I believe a Donald Trump presidency would seriously undermine much of what is best in American history, culture, and life. Christian voters, I hope, will help us avoid that tragedy.”
Those statements were articulated before Grudem’s endorsement, which prompted a deluge: The Christian Post listed several conservative evangelical thinkers who took aim at the scholar; Thomas J. Kidd and Erick Erickson criticized him in separate articles.
But perhaps the most poignant was Amy Gannett’s “Why Evangelicals Are Losing An Entire Generation.” She writes in behalf of h3r fellow millennials:
Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in evangelicals. And this is frightening. I am an evangelical. I hold to evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two evangelical schools. But I fear that we’re going to lose an entire generation because of the actions, words, and teachings of some evangelicals. Including Wayne Grudem.
She said Grudem erected an arbitrary “hierarchy of morals” in which traditional family values outrank racism, justice, and poverty.
My word to Amy: Welcome to the fold. Many of us baby boomers have lived in this sheep pen for decades and we’ve been crying for a holistic understanding of the Gospel. We’ve seen survey results showing dissatisfaction with political sermons as well as Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s unpopularity, but the hair-sprayed television reporters always miss those stats. We’ve been flummoxed and frustrated, especially since self-identified evangelicals seem to be falling behind Grudem despite all the objections.
Let’s talk about what we’re really talking about, which is white evangelicals. African Americans and Hispanics with similar beliefs shun the term and describe themselves as “Bible believing.” The GOP fades when they’re included. More clouds fog the picture when we understand the gap between the media definition of “evangelical” and the self-understanding of evangelicals themselves: Such health and wealth Gospel figures as Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland bear the label in the news while evangelical denominations condemn their teachings.
Pollsters pile on the murk because they often accept a voter’s self-description without more probing. Anyone can claim the label – including those who rarely darken the door of the church. As Thomas J. Kidd comments: “In American pop culture parlance, ‘evangelical’ now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.”
That hardly matches the movement’s history, which plants its origins in the Protestant Reformation and subsequent movements such as European Pietism, British Puritanism, and the 18th-centuy awakenings led by Calvinist Jonathan Edwards in the North American colonies and John Wesley, an Arminian, in England (the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism are complicated; suffice it to say that the former is more deterministic than the latter). Both Edwards and Wesley called their followers back to the Bible; both emphasized religious experience and intimacy with God. American evangelicalism was especially strong in the 19th century, when it was mostly colored with an Arminian hue and stressed a personal relationship with Christ as well as societal reform. More cerebral Calvinists often launched critical salvos from their perch at Princeton Theological Seminary, often misrepresenting Arminianism in their accusations.
Evangelicalism later disintegrated into fundamentalism – which began as a call back to the faith’s “fundamentals” but devolved into an anti-intellectual retreat from culture. Leaders such as Carl Henry, Harold Lindsell, and Harold Ockenga – all influenced by Calvinist Westminster Seminary – emerged from fundamentalism in the 1940’s and labeled themselves “neo-evangelical” to distinguish themselves. The “neo” was soon dropped, and “evangelical” conveyed more openness while still holding a very high view of the Bible. New, intellectually-rigorous seminaries were founded, with Southern California’s Fuller serving as a flagship. Faculties were populated with graduates from Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. Billy Graham emerged as the movement’s most public face. Evangelical politicians included the gentlemanly and progressive Republican Senator Mark Hatfield and the equally gentlemanly Democratic Senator Harold Hughes. Americans even elected a Democratic evangelical president in 1976, Jimmy Carter.
But there were those fissures. Lindsell, Henry, and Ockenga were wedded to the doctrine of “inerrancy” (there were no mistakes in Scripture’s original documents), which is often mistaken for a strict, literal reading of the entire Bible. Fuller eventually favored “infallibility” (no fallacy) while other organizations preferred “inerrant in matters of faith and practice” or Scriptural “sufficiency.” Lindsell attacked them all in 1976 in his incendiary Battle For The Bible, and some strident Calvinists keep firing their salvos into the Arminian camp, often mowing down straw men with ad hominem attacks. DA Carson, for example, took aim at the late theologian Stanley Grenz, who affirmed traditional orthodoxy and inerrancy: “With the best will in the world, I cannot see how Grenz’s approach to Scripture can be called ‘evangelical’ in any useful sense.” Westminster’s Michael Horton argued that the term, “evangelical Arminian” is a contradiction in terms. Roger Olson of Baylor University fired back in Reformed and Always Reforming, in which he complained of self-appointed arbitrators of Protestant orthodoxy.
Lava keeps bubbling through the Arminian-Calvinist crack.
More Gaps And Fractures
Things veered into a strange, fissure-fraught land in 1980: Falwell founded the Moral Majority and favored non-evangelical Ronald Reagan over Carter while Robertson and Dobson dominated the airwaves with their unbridled partisanship. A popular image evolved: A typical evangelical preacher cajoled gullible radio listeners for donations, anointed the GOP as God’s Own Party, and stood for “values” instead of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He rarely, if ever, preached on the many passages about social justice even while he accused theological “liberals” of slicing chapters from their Bibles. Meanwhile, some health and wealth pastors promised big houses to believers who could muster enough faith.
This image, often touched up by a religiously ignorant press, was a far cry from the vision of Henry and Ockenga – never mind Edwards’ and Wesley’s – and flocking to an obviously immoral presidential candidate sullies it even more.
All of which compels me to square off with the dreaded question: Who is right? Was Kidd on target when he said the term is now “meaningless?” Or was Moore more accurate when he said it’s now “subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ”?
I fear the question because “evangelical” once conveyed “freedom” to me. I came to Christ in 1973 under the guidance of loving fundamentalists (yes, they do exist). I loved them back but never betrayed my secret heresies (mum’s the word, but I suspected the six days of Genesis One were not literal and I didn’t see why women couldn’t be church leaders). I eventually landed at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1985 and found professors just like me. I could affirm the Bible’s truthfulness without throwing my brain away and I could vote for Democrats. Later, I would discover the miraculous through the ministry of John Wimber and the Vineyard Christian Fellowship.
But that was the 1980’s. It’s now 2016. I must admit it: The “evangelical” label has walked the path of “awful,” which once meant “filled with awe” but is now synonymous with “terrible.” The word is worse than meaningless. It no longer conveys a more open-minded back-to-the-Bible Christian; it doesn’t even convey a happy but simple-minded believer with a primitive piety. It now conjures images of a spiteful, racist presidential candidate who drops vague hints that “second amendment people” should take matters into their own hands.
I’m afraid Moore is right: “the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ,” which is the very opposite of its noble heritage. Such is the sad fate of any Christian movement that binds itself to mammon-centered politics. It sinks with the ship.
I’ll keep calling myself an evangelical among the dwindling remnant who understands the term’s historic meaning, but I’m trying on other labels for the general public – just to see how they fit. Maybe I’ll follow Thomas Oden’s lead and describe myself as a “Classic Christian,” which invites us to the consensus of the faith’s early theologians and creeds, shuns doctrinal novelties, and offers contact points with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians.
Meanwhile, I cannot help but mourn a tragic loss: A word that once conveyed spiritual vigor now suggests fear and loathing.