Responding to “Is This the End of ‘Evangelicalism’?”

Skye Jethani addressed President Obama’s inauguration committee’s decision to boot Louie Giglio from praying at Mr. Obama’s second inauguration in an article on January 22, 2013. Jethani notes that Giglio, an evangelical, got the boot because somebody dug up a sermon in which he expressed opposition to practicing homosexuality, whereas a Catholic got to pray at the Democratic National Convention, despite the Roman Catholic Church’s well-known opposition to homosexuality and gay marriage. Because evangelicals are supposed to be on the cutting edge of adapting to culture and society, their refusal to approve of homosexuality and same-sex marriage dashes them on the rocks of hypocrisy. The Roman Catholics who insist upon wearing funny hats and swooshy robes are okay because, no matter what funny views they hold, at least they don’t claim to be hip.

I once wondered what “evangelical” meant, and in Bible college I asked some of my professors to explain it to me. They said that it was kind of hard to explain, and so I continued with my understanding that it was just one more term to describe a real deal, bona fide Christian. Now I understand “evangelical” to mean “based on the gospel”, but then I have heard of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox “evangelicals” — and this is aside from the fact that they claim to hand down the very gospel taught by the Lord Jesus Christ. I consider myself “evangelical” by default because I guess I look like one. In modern American politics, the word “evangelical” means everything from brainwashed bigot to true blue American. What is clear is that from the Moral Majority of the 80s, the Christian Coalition of the 90s, and all the big name preachers involved in politics today, Christians trying to be faithful to the gospel take political stands and regularly bathe in acrimony.

Says Jethani,

Rather than using the aftermath of the Louie Giglio inauguration mess as an opportunity to blast LGBT activists or President Obama for intolerance, which only serves to reinforce the brand image most Americans already have of evangelicals, perhaps the energy of concerned Christians would be better spent in self-reflection. We not only need to consider how we contributed to this unfortunate outcome by our endless pursuit of relevancy, but also how we are going to change in the future.

There are a great many Christians who are looking for a new public identity–a new banner–that is distinct from the tainted brand of evangelicalism we’ve inherited from the Religious Right. We’re looking for one that retains the theological orthodoxy of Scripture as well as the historical commitment to the common good that earlier manifestations of evangelicalism affirmed. I suspect the leaders who rise up to carry that new banner will not only find many post-evangelical Christians rallying around them, but they may also discover the public square welcomes their presence.

I have a good friend who contemplated converting to Catholicism because the Catholics at the public university he goes to are the ones who gave him high-grade intellectual companionship, as well as the fact that they were the ones who had an all-encompassing pro-life approach beyond halting abortion. In my own life, I have thought, why try to create a new Christian label when there are existing Christian traditions with centuries of history that I could just join? Why create a new brand? I could make happen in my own life what I want to see in the world, joining the centuries of momentum in a non-Protestant tradition. Leaving aside the question of the wisdom of leaving the Protestant heritage I was brought up in, what did Jesus do when people perceived him to be a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19)? He said that wisdom is justified “by her deeds”, being curiously silent on pamphleteering.

Jethani talks about the “brand ambiguity” of evangelicalism, and given the commonly criticized thousands of denominations in Protestantism, I can see cause for the rise in popularity for Reformed theology, conversion to non-Protestant strands of Christianity, or even departure from the faith. Reformed theology presents a well-organized yet Protestant brand, Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox present centuries of history and tradition, and leaving the faith is a simple and effective escape hatch. The house of evangelicalism is crowdsourced and celebrity-led, and as I can see it, is essentially low church Protestantism with an emphasis on survivalist essential points of Christian doctrine to keep the faith pure. (The Wikipedia article on evangelicalism is very helpful.) “Evangelicals” can be everyone from highly educated philosophers to back country farmers, and liturgical Protestants sometimes take the name “evangelical” but bristle at being called low church. Pamphleteers trying to herd evangelicals regard cats with peculiar fondness.

The Body of Christ is, at the end of the day, one. If you want to rally around the standard of Jesus Christ, you find a set of common brands and trademarks used by people who fight as though they were Democrats and Republicans. We have to go to the real and living Christ outside the gate and suffer with him ignominiously and anonymously. God himself, raised up on the cross like the bronze snake of Moses, is our brand, our trademark, and our standard. God is the final guarantor of right belief and right practice. As for the evangelical brand name, evangelicalism is not a product to sell that depends upon profits to justify its continued production, nor is it the complete Church of Jesus Christ on earth or in heaven. As far as our brand name is concerned, the best trademarks we have are not our proprietary material developed in our R & D labs anyway. We can safely go on using the good stuff without threatening the corporate bottom line, so let us prove wisdom right by her deeds so that she may show up in our pamphleteering.