Now that grades are in, I've got some free moments to return to blogging. There's much I can reflect on over the four months since I last posted, but one idea grabbed me two weeks ago that I haven't been able to shake.
Last week I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition about how various Iowas Evangelicals were sizing up the Republican presidential candidates in anticipation of the upcoming Iowa Caucus. There's not really anything particularly surprising about this story. Those interviewed worry about Romney's Mormonism, about Gingrich's past infidelities in light of his conversion (although there are still concerns that he's "Catholic"), and worries about whether we should have a woman in the White House (where Bachman's supporters confront their issues with women in leadership).
But what really got my attention in the story was the ABSENCE of talk I consider to be at the heart of evangelicalism. According to the folks at the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, scholars have some generally agreed upon characteristics to define an evangelical. Here's my take: a belief in the need to "born again" through the saving power of Christ's sacrifice, a view of the Bible as "authoritative" (which means to be taken seriously), and a belief that we are partners in improving the world in pursuit of the Kingdom of God.
None of the folks NPR interviewed talked about these key issues -- they talked about hot button political topics, they ethnocentrically denounced groups other than themselves, and expressed a surprising sense of cynicism. Some of that is likely the way the interviewer's questions were framed, which encourages those responses and not more nuanced theological positions. But I really wanted them to address the larger "meta-narrative" -- As someone saved by grace, I have to be careful casting blame, I want to see God's Kingdom come, and I want to "let this mind be in [me] that was also in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5). This would have a lot to say about how one thought about candidates, cast a vote, or engaged in public debate.
This gap in thinking is not new. Nearly 20 years ago, Mark Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. More recently, Stephen Prothero wrote a book on Religion Illiteracy. Both of these books demonstrate that the state of our knowledge in terms of theology and biblicism suffers from malnourishment. I have been fortunate to regularly hear sermons from pastors who ran counter to that trend. Maybe it's been the influence of American Individualism and Consumerism that has led folks to adopt what Christian Smith calls "Moral Therapeutic Deism" that doesn't think about larger concerns like theology or eschatology (the study of the coming Kingdom).
The politicization of the Evangelical church has been going on for some time, although groups like The Family Leader seem to push things to new levels (why do all these religious interest groups have such innocuous names? - I'm naming my advocacy group "Jesus loves puppies").
There is a demonstrable impact of this politicization, however. Folks are leaving the evangelical fold so as not to been seen as "one of those people". Robert Putnam and David Campbell's American Grace documents the disaffection of the under 35 crown with Evangelicalism, a trend I see in smaller scale with the frustration of my own Christian university students. Gordon College graduate and Patrol editor Jonathan Fitzgerald, recently wrote of his own move to an Episcopal church (not that there's anything wrong with that). There's only so long one can push against the tide.
I've thought that myself for years. When I first got acquainted with the folks at the ISAE in the early-80s, I argued that evangelicalism had reached a point where it ceased to have any predictive meaning. People self-defined and we needed to accept that there would be a wide variety of viewpoints with little theological referent. So I've avoided the label wherever possible, preferring to talk about the importance of being Wesleyan (which at least connected to the theological views of John and Charles Wesley).
But I now realize that doing that is like what happens when Christian folks pull their kids out of public school because they worry about "secular values" -- they guarantee that the positions in the school will be more secular. As evangelical scholars avoid the label, it simply leaves behind those whose political positions look less and less like my theological commitments.
So I've decided that I'm OWNING the label. If folks like Bill McKibben and Richard Cizik can stay in the evangelical fold and demand to be heard, I need to do the same. I don't want the NPR folks in Iowa to be denied their views. I want to make clear that I can believe in Salvation, follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, read my Bible, work toward God's justice in society, and vote my conscience. I'm doing it as an Evangelical Voter and welcome political candidates or NPR reporters to come ask me why I have the policy positions I have.
Because I won't give the title away to somebody else. If we are called to be Christ's presence in the world, we must act differently than other political interest groups. Otherwise we will continue to drive my students away from the evangelical church and the message of the gospel becomes a tool for political propaganda. As Pasadena First Nazarene pastor Scott Daniels helped me see, we're building Kingdom in an age of Empire. And that calls for a radically different approach without ceding our evangelical heritage to others.
If you love Jesus and Puppies, join me.