Still Evangelical? Ten Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning with contributions edited by Mark Labberton, Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2018. 184 pages.
“In the Age of Trump, Can We Still Be Evangelical?” is the central thematic question discussed throughout this compilation of Christians with perspectives from both the left and right of politics. It is set to be released on January 23, 2018, almost a year after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. The urgent issue at hand is that: “Evangelicalism in America has cracked, split on the shoals of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, leaving many wondering if they want to be in or out of the Evangelical tribe.”
This comprehensive account discusses how American Christianity’s multidimensional and nondenominational expressions will be affected by the current dynamics of Evangelicalism. Most importantly, the broad range of perspectives offered engage with controversial debates while offering reflections on what the authors collectively consider Evangelicalism’s “present identity crisis” concerning its role in American culture.
Still Evangelical? is a collection of essays by a broad range of contributors from diverse denominational and political persuasions, complied and edited by the President of Fuller Theological Seminary, Mark Labberton. In the introduction, Labberton outlines the framework for the broader contents of the book and argues that:
The 2016 election may have been the occasion for this drama, but it isn’t the cause…in its current mode,Evangelicalism contains an amalgam of theological views, partisan political debates, regional power blocks, populist visions, racial biases, and cultural anxieties, all mixed in an ethos of fear. No wonder it can be difficult to know of in one is still an evangelical.
As the editor, Labberton attempts to appear neutral in his characterization of this problematic polarized Evangelical identity. However, it becomes increasingly evident that like the entire cast of contributors, the theme throughout the compilation tends to focus on critiquing the so-called negative political influence of the Religious Right on Evangelicalism, while occasionally implying that this negative political influence is the cause for the election of Donald Trump.
Will Evangelicalism Surrender?
Lisa Sharon Harper identifies as an African-American Evangelical activist, columnist at Sojourners Magazine and founder and president of FreedomRoad.us (launching online Fall 2017).
Harper narrates a personal account of her life, writing about what she perceives went wrong with Evangelicalism around the time she became a believer during the 1980s, saying that:
Evangelicalism was experiencing an orchestrated takeover by political operatives of the conservative movement…white Southern and Midwestern evangelicals were rising in protest of government infringement on their religious liberties. Buzzwords of the conservative movement were adopted as battle cries of the evangelical revolt: ‘small government!’, ‘religious freedom!’, ‘traditional values!’
Haper is openly a liberal activist, which explains her sharp criticism of conservative Evangelicals. She is critical of the Reagan Revolution and how “political conservatism became the official ideology of evangelicalism,” implying that the Religious Right embraced racism during the rise of Reagan decades ago, therefore this is why today Trump was able to politically attack Obama the way he did during last year’s campaign.
Furthermore, Harper purposefully politicizes the debate in stating that: “Evangelicals are the most cohesive voting block for any people group that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.”
In conclusion, she offers five ways that Evangelicals ought to pursue justice:
1) We must treat every single human being as created in the image of God,
2) We must not confuse compassion with justice,
3) We must talk about politics in our churches,
4) We must decolonize our theology,
5) We must address shame.
Why I Am an Evangelical
Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Prior personalizes her life story in her account in order to explain what Evangelicalism means to her, by writing:
As someone who has been evangelical for most of my life, I have at times been frustrated with evangelicalism – and disappointed, too…yet I can’t quit Evangelicalism. Nor do I want to…I am evangelical because the movement’s origin and defining characteristics are deeply rooted in the Protestant Reformation, which defines the core tenets of my Christian belief.
In addition, she cites why she supports evangelicalism, being that it is apt for the modern age, has faithful beautiful witnesses, had a role in advancing freedom and equality for all people and because it was profoundly formative in her life as her family’s faith tradition. Prior does not openly express any political statements except in her concluding statements where she writes that:
Evangelicalism isn’t limited to the culture wars in which I came of age or to the rise of the religious right that gave birth to those culture wars, nor is it tethered inextricably to the evangelicals largely responsible for electing the current US president (an election that uncovered the inherent flaws of a deeply individualistic faith tradition).
A Way Forward: Recapturing Evangelical Identity and Mission
Mark Young is the President of Denver Seminary and is also Professor of World Missions and Intercultural Studies.
Young’s account first and foremost seeks to contrast contemporary Evangelicalism with Christian fundamentalism, arguing that most Americans perceive the two to be one and the same, while in fact they contradict each other on some aspects while overlapping on others.
Throughout the account, Young emphasizes positive and negative aspects of its historical development in writing that:
the trans denominational character of Evangelicalism in the United States contributed to its impressive growth and expanding social power. It has also made evangelicalism notoriously difficult to define and impossible to direct…no single person or organization speaks authoritatively for evangelicals or evangelicalism as a whole.
However, due to more recent political developments, he laments the fact that Trump was elected president, stating:
the fact that the candidate preferred by a strong majority of self-identified evangelical voters sits in the Oval Office should not be confused with any kind of victory in the culture wars or with growing cultural power for evangelicals. Indeed, the opposite is true. More people voted for the candidate in the 2016 presidential election endorsed by mainline Protestant denominations than the candidate supported by evangelicals.
Finally, Young discusses what he believes are the broader social and spiritual repercussions of this political outcome:
Our theological identity, our moral integrity, the credibility of our witness, and any progress that we’ve made in racial reconciliation, relationships with immigrant groups, and international partnerships have all been negatively affected.
Nevertheless, he hopes and prays that Evangelicalism would be more defined in its identity and mission on the gospel rather than by socio-political issues as it has been on the left and the right, though he tends to critique the right far more than the left as all the writers do.
Soong-Chan Rah is Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park University.
Rah from the onset and throughout his account is quite critical toward the notion of American exceptionalism and how this civilizational idea has also influenced Christianity around the world. He rejects this notion as problematic and writes that:
the white evangelical theological worldview, therefore, is elevated to a position of authority on level with the Word of God, and it becomes the defining perspective.
However, he offers hope for the vision in which American Christianity is now exemplified by an increased outreach to Hispanic Americans, growth of Asian Americans in seminaries and ever more participation of African Americans in megachurches. Rah cites this effect which can be called the “de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”
Furthermore, he writes definitely that:
Historians and missiologists alike agree that the era of Western-centric, white Christianity has drawn to a close. Diversity of races, nationalities, ethnicities, languages, and cultures serve as the norm on a global scale for Christianity…The trajectory of diversity in global Christianity is also evident in American Christianity, which is increasingly less white and comprised more and more of people of color.
Theology and Orthopraxis in Twenty-First-Century Global Evangelicalism
Allen Yeh is Professor of Missiology specializing in Evangelism in Latin and America and China, at Biola University.
Yeh’s account is perhaps the longest and most developed of all, it advances the idea that:
the West needs to balance its orthodoxy with orthopraxis, and the Majority World needs to increase its theological output to come into its own.
What Yeh means is that Western Christian churches ought to focus on reforming the way that they act more than their beliefs, while the non-Western churches ought in turn to produce more concrete statements of their beliefs rather than only acting according to their purpose, so in that way there is more balance in global Christianity.
Also, as an observer of Christian missionaries, he talks about how:
early Christian movements had a purity about them, but they start to stray or become imbalanced over time as accretions accumulate from human error, misguided traditions, or culture that gets confused with Christianity. Therefore, it’s necessary to have periodic reformations to restore balance.
Yeh also points out that modern Christian doctrine has been influenced more by Western or European thought than its original more Eastern or Semitic origins within Judaism. In addition, he concludes that:
the word evangelical has come to a critical juncture in Western history, largely due to the two momentous events: the 2016 election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America and the 2017 celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The former has put evangelicals in the political limelight, while the latter gives historicity to evangelicalism. However, both of these are Western definitions: one from the United States and the other from Europe… Evangelicals worldwide need unity. We need to recognize our commonalities and not just our differences. Global evangelicalism has a strong, bright future only if we all work together.
Looking for Unity in All the Wrong Places
Mark Galli is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. Previously he edited Leadership and Christian History magazines also published by Christianity Today.
Galli goes on in his account to address the the most personal or partisan political issues within Evangelicalism, concerning:
the shock some evangelicals felt after the election of Donald Trump, especially when they heard that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for him. Most evangelical Christians like exclaimed, ‘who are these people? I know hardly anyone, let alone any evangelical Christian, who voted for Trump…I describe evangelicals like me as ‘elite’ evangelicals… It’s not a term many Americans are comfortable with but if you are part of the professional-managerial class, well, you’re an elite.
Galli reaches a pessimistic conclusion, pointing out the underlying problem that:
(Trump’s) candidacy and now presidency have only revealed a rift in the evangelical world that is threatening to become an unbridgeable divide.
Evangelicalism Must Be Born Again
Shane Claiborne is a self-described liberal activist, who is part of the Red Letter Christians movement. Clairborne focuses his account on the usual criticism of the political affiliation of many Evangelicals:
the religious right began to align itself with the Republican National Committee, and things began to go haywire, as they do any time the church gets in bed with the empire…of course, it all climaxed in this last election with the support for Trump, as 81 percent of white evangelicals supported him.
Clairborne’s complaints address real issues in the Church, but uses politically loaded terminology to do so, undermining his message:
Christians in America in general have an image problem… Evangelicals in particular – have an image crisis, whether it’s deserved or not. When people hear the word evangelical, it conjures up an image of folks who are anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-environment, pro-guns, pro-war, and pro-capital punishment. We often look very unlike our Christ.
This become even more evident when he recommends that Evangelicals adopt views closely aligned with his own neo-Anabaptist agenda:
wouldn’t it beautiful to have a pro-life movement that stands against abortion, but also stands just as passionately against the death penalty, gun violence, militarism and war, the degradation of creation, police brutality, and all other things that destroy life?
On conclusion, Claiborne continues his politicized agenda while calling for a reformation among younger Evangelicals:
This toxicity within evangelicalism runs so deep we are left with few options. One is to attempt to take back the term evangelical from the older white folks that have hijacked it…We’ve just crossed the line of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps it is time for another rummage sale, another reformation.
The Importance of Listening in Today’s Evangelicalism
Jim Daly is the President of Focus on the Family.
Daly’s account is perhaps the shortest one, though it stands out among the others as it does not criticize the conservative influence on Evangelicalism. Daly simply and humbly writes the following words that stand out:
Of course, some individuals and groups are strongly opposed to what we stand for, and we should be mindful and ready to counter them win truth and love as we meet them. But not everyone is like that, just as not all Christians are exactly like you or me. In fact, think about this, the body of Christ is the most diverse collection of people on the planet, probably more so than any other group. This is God’s design. It makes his church both attractive and influential.
Finally, Daly who stands for conservative principles though purposefully does not engage in political comments in his account concludes with words of inspiration:
God calls each of us to a particular generation with its own unique challenges, opportunities and possibilities. This generation is the stage upon which he has called us to play a part in his story of redemption, with a mind toward what it will leave for the coming generation. The Future of evangelicalism rests ultimately with God…
Hope for the Next Generation
Tom Lin is the President of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
Lin as the last contributor to the compilation composes his account in an outline that offers concluding remarks on three aspects concerning he hopes will drive the future of Evangelicalism:
- Evangelicalism as a Global Fellowship: pointing out that global evangelicalism “inspires us in the midst of our American malaise, has become a full partner in world mission and is growing in size and maturity.”
- Evangelicalism as a Reform Movement: noting the profound importance of “Biblicalism, Crucicentrism, Conversion and Activism.”
- Evangelicalism in the Next Generation: offering hope to those concerned with the fact that “record numbers of students are coming to faith in Christ, there is a collaborative spirit in this generation to cross tribal, organizational and historical boundaries…evangelical campus ministries are taking steps to engage the future of evangelicalism and in the midst of fidelity to Christ’s mission, we see fidelity to doctrine.”