Dec 21, 2017 by Alyssa Duvall

In a challenging editorial for The New Yorker, acclaimed Bible teacher Tim Keller asks evangelical readers if the movement, or at least its reputation for morality, can survive having supported controversial figures such as President Donald Trump or Senate candidate Roy Moore. “People who once called themselves the ‘Moral Majority’,” Keller suggests, “are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions.”

Noting the evolution of the term “evangelical” and its connotations throughout history, the Redeemer Presbyterian church founder shares that when he first became a Christian “in the early nineteen-seventies, the word ‘evangelical’ still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism,” while still rejecting the divergence in mainline Protestantism from core doctrines of the faith.

Today, however, Keller observes that the label, mostly through the interference of political pundits and pollsters, has taken on a drastically different meaning. “More than eighty per cent of [self-identified evangelicals] voted for Donald Trump, and, last week, a similar percentage cast their ballots for Roy Moore, in the Alabama Senate race. So, in common parlance, evangelicals have become people with two qualities: they are both self-professed Christians and doggedly conservative politically.” Essentially, Keller explains that evangelicals have allowed themselves to be defined by outside secular sources: “…Evangelicalism is defined not by a political party, whether conservative, liberal, or populist, but by theological beliefs.”

Keller notes the difficulty many within the Christian community have with reconciling Christian values and beliefs with the seemingly questionable character of the Conservative candidates they are expected to support: “‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.”

So, what is a true evangelical? According to Keller, who cites evangelical historian David Bebbington, evangelicals are best defined from beliefs that set them apart from the rest of the Christian community: They believe the whole of Scripture is inspired and authoritative, unlike mainline denominations who believe much of it to be obsolete. They also regard it as the ultimate authority, unlike Roman Catholics who add church tradition and papal infallibility to the mix. In evangelicalism, defining creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are accepted “without reservation”. And, unlike a surprising number of mainline Protestants, “evangelicals believe that Jesus truly did exist as the divine Son before he was born, that he actually was born of a virgin, and that he really was raised bodily from the dead.”

Keller continues, “…another defining evangelical quality is the belief in the necessity of conversion, the conviction that everyone needs a profound, life-changing encounter with God…through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death for sin.” Finally, evangelicals are “bound by both desire and duty to share their faith with others in both word and deeds of service.”

Do politically-driven, “capital-E” Evangelicals meet these criteria? Recent studies suggest that they largely do not. According to polls conducted by LifeWay research, only 1 in 100 Americans would call himself “evangelical” if the label had nothing to do with politics. “Meanwhile,” as Christianity Today reported, “the label is primarily a political identity for only about 1 in 10 self-identified evangelicals,” revealing a “gap between who evangelicals say they are and what they believe.”

Keller explains that there is a much larger evangelical community, in America and worldwide, which holds true to its faith roots independently of politics and secular influence. Whether this rising movement, and the churches it spawns, will continue to use the co-opted Evangelical label, Keller is uncertain–but he is sure it doesn’t matter: “The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name, yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever.”

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