Why I can't call myself an Evangelical anymore
It was 2004. Right after Bush’s invasion of Iraq and my first year at Temple. I was sitting in Ralph Young’s Dissent In America Teach-In. Ralph, which is what Dr. Young, a history professor at Temple, preferred to be called, specialized in topics related to reform and dissent, and we were holding court after. Someone took a shot at Christians. I piped up and said I was a Christian. She corrected me and told me that she was mainly concerned about Evangelical Christians. I whimpered out something about being one too. I felt sheepish.
I thought of myself as an Evangelical, and it wasn’t so long ago that I would have called myself that. I survived the Bush Administration as one, in fact. But this new ordeal with Trump and his cadre of so-called Evangelicals has put the nail in the coffin. I’m done calling myself one. We are breaking up.
I recently said that those who are interested in evangelism (that is, sharing the good news) should distance themselves from Evangelicalism. My favorite Evangelical friends were defensive because they considered themselves Evangelicals but they don’t consider the loudest Evangelicals in the rooms—the ones causing my own distancing from the term—to be true Evangelicals.
It’s, of course, an example of the No True Scotsman fallacy. It tries to protect a universal generalization from counterexamples by saying that the generalization only applies to people who are truly in the generalization.
Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge." Person B: "But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge." Person A: "Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
So when I generalize about Evangelicals supporting Trump, for example, as a reason to distance myself from them, they say no true Evangelicals do support him. Why do they say that? Because true Evangelicals are defined by David Bebbington’s historical definition based on the Evangelicalism that was alternative to the Anglican church in Britain in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century. His four characteristics (see here):
Biblicism: all essential truth is found in the Bible (this is more nuanced that the fundamentalist “inerrant” or even “infallible” notions).
Crucicentrism: a focus on the atoning on Jesus (again, this is not a focus on Penal Substitutionary Atonement, which is a hallmark for many Evangelicals with whom I fiercely disagree).
Conversionism: the basic idea that people need to be changed and transformed (into followers of Jesus).
Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed practically and earnestly.
His work was an attempt to note the historical significance of Evangelicalism. That’s important to note because it serves to define what it was and not what it is. What it has transformed into is largely based on the perception of people on its outside. The fact that people can list that 81 percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump as a characteristic is much more noteworthy that Bebbington’s definition. That I had to list Bebbington’s quadrilateral at all proves that, while it may be a useful historical definition for a specific movement that happened hundreds of years ago, it is utterly irrelevant today.
Now, it doesn’t have to be, of course. But it would take a herculean effort to undo the common perception of Evangelicals as framed by much of the mainstream press and as reinforced by several outspoken Christians. In my opinion, fundamentalists have overtaken the term "Evangelical" because of the problems with being associated with fundamentalism was damaging too (and because that’s how they defame Muslims, but that’s another blog post altogether).
Do Trump’s loudest supporters, and yes, plainly put, my disassociation has to do with the decidedly un- and anti-Christian President of ours, fit Bebbington’s definition? Not by a long shot. Early on they defended him after his lewd comment and bragging about sexual assault.
Tony Perkins, of the Family Research Council, offered Trump a mulligan on his affair with the porn star he paid off, to quote Politico, “so long as he delivers for them on policy.”
Robert Jeffress, one of the worst Evangelical offenders, defends nuclear war against North Korea here. Jeffress isn’t the only Evangelical who defended Trump cursing certain brown and black nations; people in our own denomination did, rather loudly, on our denomination’s listserv. Our denomination still aligns itself with Evangelicals, and I wish it didn't.
At the CPAC convention, the following was an agenda item: “If Heaven Has a Gate, and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?” Not surprising that 74 percent supported his travel ban. Franklin Graham, on the other hand, called him the best defender of Christians in his lifetime.
So, Bebbington Evangelicals are right in saying that these folks aren’t true Evangelicals. Maybe so, but I’ll gladly abdicate the title to them while still living out Bebbington’s principals. The term just doesn’t hold the same meaning anymore. They have removed its historical meaning and added their own. I’m OK to call it a loss and move on.
It may not be technically right, but if I spend all my time technically correcting your misuse of Evangelicals, I lose the opportunity to share the Gospel. If I waste my time trying to win back Bebbington’s definition, I might lose the Gospel altogether.
Furthermore, if I am committed to the title Evangelical, then I cannot distance myself from those so-called fake Evangelicals that are actually fundamentalists. Yes, you can say “not all Evangelicals” are like that, or in fact that they aren’t true Evangelicals, but you’re guilty by association when you use that title and I don’t want to relate or play with them anymore.
My final word to those Evangelicals tarnishing the Gospel as I leave the Evangelical room is from 1 John 2:19:
You went out from us, but you were not really part of us. If you had been part of us, you would have stayed with us. But by going out from us, you showed you all are not part of us.
I’m dusting my sandals off and leaving the town. I’ve said enough. They aren’t listening. Time to find people who are.