If evangelical votes have been credited as part of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the last US presidential election, does this damage the evangelical brand? If so, is it time to drop the moniker? Rhys Bezzant asks us to treasure the name ‘evangelical’ and its story.
Rhys Bezzant is Dean of Missional Leadership and Lecturer in Christian Thought at Ridley College, Melbourne
No doubt you are hearing this question too: why is it that so many evangelicals voted for Trump? Many used this term to describe their voting choices in the US, even if amongst the unsophisticated media pundits it meant simply ‘white, non-Hispanic Protestants’. Of course, if your politics don’t align with Trump, you might be asking the question to distance yourself from those Christians who take on this label. There are however many who vote Republican, but have serious questions anyway about whether the evangelical brand is damaged. The populism of American presidential elections is often a bellwether for other countries too. Many nations around the world are experiencing either discomfort with, or disdain for, the international order, and are making their opinions known through the ballot box. Here is not the place to canvass the economic drivers which lead to different kinds of extreme politics, or to analyse the strategy of fear-mongering adopted by world leaders. But here is the place to ask the question whether the word ‘evangelical’ is past its use-by date. I say it is not.
Like any technical word, we need to get behind popular usage to find out what generated its adoption in the first place. Only then can we decide whether it is worth junking. And as an historian, I want to help us understand that technical words are valuable because they summarise a story, and alert us to debates and decisions, of which we are beneficiaries, even when the narrative has got confused in the meantime. The word ‘evangelical’ contains the beautiful resonance of Gospel-centredness, and in the Reformation it meant something like Bible-focussed. However with other descriptors arising to summarise Protestant convictions, like Lutheran or Reformed or Anglican, the word ‘evangelical’ in the eighteenth century was used again in a fresh way.
In the 1700s, when Enlightenment philosophers pushed God out of the world, and instead taught that human beings have the capacity to make sense of their experience without him, conservative Protestants began to call themselves ‘evangelicals’ because they wanted to remind their listeners that God was not distant but close, and that we can experience him being near through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The language of regeneration became a hot-button issue. Not that the likes of John Wesley or George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards had given up on the doctrine of justification by faith. Far from it. But they did turn up the volume on the language of being born again. Remember: many nominal Christians upheld justification in their statement of belief, but they didn’t act like it was true in their heart. If you want a succinct definition of being evangelical, this is it: the protection and promotion of vital piety in the modern world. After the 1730s, being a conservative Protestant needed a modern theological defence. As Doug Sweeney so eloquently says, being an evangelical is being a conservative Protestant ‘with an eighteenth-century twist.’ If you prize vital piety, or a real experience of the Lord, or a personal faith, you can call yourself an evangelical.
The world was changing dramatically around the time of the Great Awakening. Early capitalism was creating a new kind of economy, which was no longer defined by face-to-face encounters of producers and buyers. Now, more impersonally through money exchange and not bartering, a worldwide commercial economy was born. Mobility of goods and of people was essential for this early globalisation to thrive. The postal service was created for carrying letters and parcels, and personal identity was no longer defined by your village or locality. No wonder itinerancy flourished, with preachers travelling throughout countries or across the sea to make converts. As offensive as it might have been for Whitefield to come to town and win souls to Christ without asking for permission from the settled pastor, it worked. And he used the postal system to encourage advance publicity, and reports of his work travelled around the world quickly. There was a new sense of space and time amongst citizens of the eighteenth century, and in the experience of the newly regenerate too. One of the most frequent words used to describe a conversion was ‘enlargement.’ When you are converted in the fields and not in a church building, God somehow seems bigger.
This openness to God’s active presence in the world has made evangelicals more open to cultural movements of their own day, for good or for ill. Our evangelistic commitment means that we get close to the people we are serving—as the Apostle Paul suggests we should in 1 Corinthians 9—and our evangelistic flexibility enables us to apply new cultural means for traditional Christian ends. This sometimes gets us into hot water. We have felt the fear of the French Revolution and have grown more conservative. We have reacted to the teachings of Darwin and have instead pursued a vision for history that is not based on gradual evolution but rather apocalyptic intervention. We have brought flowers into church as a result of the Romantic movement, and we have savoured the imaginative beauty of C. S. Lewis’s children’s books which were composed in contrast to a world where technology seemed out of control. After World War II, we had to rethink what Christian civilisation might look like after old norms had come tumbling down.
One of the ways to respond to a post-Christian world is to engage through politics. This has been one of the chief strategies for evangelicals in the US, given Americans’ commitment to participatory democracy and power pushed down to the most local level. They elect their police chief, whereas Australians do not. They have a nervousness about big government, going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, whereas we recognise our need for governments to help a small population cultivate a big and sometimes brutal land. Christian witness in the realm of politics is certainly one possible path which evangelicals have taken, but our very own tradition alerts us to the fact that there are options too.
Evangelicals over the last three hundred years have reshaped nations through local revival tents, prayer meetings, petitions to abolish slavery, involvement in trade unions, establishing hospitals or orphanages, grassroots protests against racism, conventions in the mountains or missions at the beach. We have built publishing houses and published magazines. We have welcomed the nations who have come to us, as well as sending our own to serve our neighbours overseas. As we adapt yet again, this time to a post-Christian and yet strangely pre-Christian society, evangelicals will pursue vital piety in a number of different ways, through our speaking gifts and our service gifts, as Peter summarises so well (1 Peter 4:10-11). Our individual contexts will vary, and our responses will no doubt also be carefully calibrated to needs and opportunities.
But in all this, please don’t ignore our story, the history of one of the most powerful Christian movements in the modern world. And to remind us of the story, let us keep using the word ‘evangelical.’ It may not be perfect, but if we did jettison it, we would still have to find another term to capture the wonderful ways that God has worked amongst conservative Protestants since the eighteenth century. We can hold this story of vital piety, or the power of godliness, in trust for the sake of the universal church. In fact, we must.