The Last Evangelical

From the Editor:

For centuries, the movement of evangelicalism has been a home for those across the globe who devoted themselves to love of God, love of neighbor, and love for His Word. Yet today it seems the word holds a different meaning—not one associated with good news, but with very bad news. Is it time for us to retire the term “evangelical?” In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Has “evangelical” become unsalvageable in its link to white conservatism? 

This is the first article in a series where we pose the question: Is it time to leave the term “evangelical” behind us?

You’ll notice that not all of the articles land in the same place but instead express different viewpoints. At Missio Alliance our goal is not to dictate what we believe the “right answer” is, but to foster conversation in the spirit of love and humility that helps the Church discern a faithful way forward.

We need to hear from you too. Throughout history and still today Evangelicalism has included women and men of color as well as vibrant communities around the globe. We need to hear from all parts of the Church as we engage in this critical self-reflection and invite the Spirit to guide, refine, and teach us for the sake of God’s mission in this world. If you have something to contribute to this conversation, consider submitting an article for consideration here

May this help to foster much-needed dialogue and discernment for the days ahead.

Juliet Liu
Editorial Director 

Forty years ago, in 1977, the Force-wielding Jedi stormed into our cultural imaginations in Star Wars. The year before, in 1976, evangelicals stormed into our collective consciousness in what Time Magazine called the “year of the evangelical.”

But is it now time for both to pass?

The Last Evangelicals

Have we seen the last evangelical? Is it time for evangelicalism to end?

Last year, after 4 of 5 evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, many finally gave up on evangelicalism.

Last month, after evangelical leaders like James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell Jr. supported Roy Moore in Alabama, many are rethinking their use of the label.

Are Falwell and Graham the last evangelicals?

This mass exodus from evangelicalism prompted Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City, to ask in The New Yorker, “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” In his op-ed, Keller attempts to distance theological evangelicalism (with a small ‘e’) from political Evangelicalism (with a big ‘E’).

Keller discusses how evangelicals preceded fundamentalists by 200 years. He situates American evangelicalism as part of a global, evangelical movement. And he points out American Evangelicalism’s many deficiencies.

Keller wonders that just as Democratic “liberals” have rebranded as “progressives,” perhaps evangelicals are in a process of rebranding beyond the politically driven big “E” Evangelicalism.  But in his mind it will still be theologically evangelical, even if by another name.

Perhaps Keller is the last evangelical? Have we seen the last evangelical? Is it time for evangelicalism to end? Click To Tweet

It’s Always Been Political

Although I didn’t know it then, the linking of evangelical theology and conservative politics goes all the way back to the beginning of my religious experience. For me, theological evangelicalism was always also political evangelicalism.

I was raised in an evangelical, dispensational Bible church in Silicon Valley in the ’80’s. I remember the stories of Christian missionaries smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.  I remember that the greatest threat to Christian America was Soviet Atheism (notice the blending of Christianity and nationalism).

One year, our church hosted a youth group activity by transforming our entire campus into “Pursevocia”—a fictional eastern European country where communists were persecuting the church (get it—Pursevocia?).  We had to complete various activities while eluding communist soldiers (and if you were captured you had to watch “Thief in the Night” while in prison). Our church was simultaneously teaching us the hardship of Christian missionaries and the benefit of American religious freedom. The two were inseparable.

Through experiences like this and many others, I learned my church was a staunch supporter of the Moral Majority—even if it didn’t talk politics in sermons. 

Commitment to conservative politics was as implicit for us as our commitment to conservative theology was explicit.

My experience—and that of many outside of Keller’s New York experience—belies an all-too-easy separation between a mistakenly political Evangelicalism and the more purely theological evangelicalism.

Not least because of the failure of vast swaths of 20th century evangelicalism to support the Civil Rights Movement, it has been fair to ask, “Are evangelicals really just white Republicans?

(See “The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory” for a quick primer on how we so easily forget our history and heritage).

The Honesty of The Last Jedi

Evangelicals—collectively—have reached a moment like Luke Skywalker did in the most recent Star Wars film, The Last Jedi.

For the first time in the Star Wars universe, the self-confident and self-assured Jedi—defenders of all that is right and true in the galaxy—practice a form of collective introspection and humility.

In The Last Jedi, we again meet Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original movies.  But now he has lost faith in the Jedi—disavowing all he had fought for, all he had built.

Luke accuses the Jedi—at the height of their power—of overlooking the rise of an evil that would destroy everything (enter Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader).  For Luke, the Jedi were not all-wise and discerning. They were blinded by their folly. The Jedi were not meek and humble protectors of the Republic. Rather, they were complicit with the Republic’s downfall through their own hubris and neglect.

The Jedi were as much part of the problem as the Sith Lords of the Dark Side.

And in Luke’s mind, the Jedi must end. 

But wouldn’t that mean the Force would disappear?
That no one would stand for what is good?
That evil would prevail?

No. Of course not.

That is exactly the folly of the Jedi—thinking they were the only defenders against the dark.

For Luke, the end of the Jedi means a new generation of heroes will come of age,find their way, and stand up to fight in a new manner, under a different name, beyond and after the Jedi.

Can Evangelicals Be This Honest?

The honesty, boldness, and critical reflection that The Last Jedi offers is something evangelicals would be wise to imitate.

Evangelicals have reached a similar moment of disillusionment. People are asking of each other, “Still Evangelical?”(forthcoming book by IVP). Should there be any more evangelicals?

Evangelicals like me are asking, “Am I the last evangelical? Are we the last of the evangelicals?”

Having exchanged its founding principles for a porridge of political power, having betrayed its moral virtue for political victories, I wonder if it’s time for evangelicalism to end.

  • Many of us have lost confidence in leaders who raised the standard of sexual purity against Bill Clinton but now shrug when it comes Donald Trump or Roy Moore. 
  • Many of us have lost confidence in evangelical pastors who proclaim the inerrancy of God’s Word but support one who disregards the veracity of any and every statement. 
  • Many of us have lost confidence in a group of people for whom the greatest heresy is to speak against gun ownership or to speak for welfare expansion.

If Luke Skywalker can repudiate the Jedi as a flawed group outliving their purpose, perhaps evangelicals can too.

This doesn’t mean there is nothing to stand for. Neither does it mean that all is lost.

It means we are changing how we stand for what is right. It means maybe evangelicalism needs to die so that something else can come to life in its place (and while I don’t have time to expand it here, I don’t think adopting a progressive-left agenda is the answer either. See this episode of the Theology on Mission podcast for more on that). Maybe evangelicalism needs to die so that something else can come to life in its place. Click To Tweet

White, American Evangelicalism

And for evangelicalism to die, I really just mean white, American evangelicalism.

There has always been a robust, non-white strain of evangelicalism through the African-American church, and a growing identification among Hispanic Christians.  And there has always been a global evangelicalism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that promotes both spiritual revival and social reform—seeing each as integral to the “good news” proclaimed by evangelicalism.

Rather than the opposition between a political and a theological evangelicalism, we need to recover a robust integration of spiritual revival and social reform, something that global evangelicalism never lost. Rather than the opposition between a political and a theological evangelicalism, we need to recover a robust integration of spiritual revival and social reform, something that global evangelicalism never lost. Click To Tweet

If—when?—white, American evangelicalism disappears, it will only be to make room for a more robust, more multicultural, and a more ancient version of evangelicalism from all the corners of the globe.

We—the last (white, American) evangelicals—must make way for what comes after. Not as a covert rebranding.

But as a true conversion.