before we abandon ship: reclaiming the meaning behind “evangelical”

to say that the trump campaign is gaining steam would be an understatement. since “the donald” announced his candidacy for the republican nomination last summer, most of the people i’ve talked to have not really taken it seriously. there was just the assumption that his brash and demeaning style would fizzle. the mindset was, as the old expression goes, give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself. 

but he didn’t. he’s actually leading, and likely [so it seems now] to be the republican nominee for president. not of some company, but of the united states. and that reality–that he actually not only has a shot, but a realistic shot–is starting to hit home with people who are terrified of the kind of country a trump led america would become. 

as a pastor, i will never endorse a political candidate. i will never tell the people i serve for whom they should vote. but i will say this: i am one of those people who are very alarmed by the divisive, hateful, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric trump spews nonstop. 

the point of this post, though, isn’t trump. the point of this post is that a seemingly growing swath of “evangelicals” have decided to enthusiastically endorse and support trump. plenty of people have written about why this is problematic, about the issues, morally and professionally, that cling to trump like a dryer sheet, so i won’t rehash them here. however, the disturbing reality is that somehow the words and actions of donald trump are being baptized by some evangelicals, as if they are somehow reflective of jesus or the idea of evangelicalism. 

a brief tangent:  while i don’t want to admit it, trump claims to be a christian. yet, there’s a huge difference in being “a” christian, and actually being christian–being transformed to speak and act in ways consistent with the teachings and example of jesus. i’m not there, by the way. no one is going to confuse me for jesus. i’m on the journey. i’m growing, i’m hopeful, and yet so very unfinished. 

in response to this, many people who once considered themselves proud-down-to-the-bone evangelicals, are now publicly renouncing that affiliation. for example, russell moore, the president of the ethics and religious liberty commission of the southern baptist convention, wrote an op-ed for the washington post in which he tries to distance himself from the label, at least during this election cycle.

people who find this new marriage of trump and evangelicals worrisome are fleeing the evangelical ship like it’s sinking faster than the titanic.

i’ll admit, over the past decade, as my theological views have changed [which i wrote about here], i’ve grown uncomfortable with the label. it’s come to stand for a lot of things that i can’t support, because they seem opposed to the way and teaching of jesus. so, i usually just eschew the label completely. recently, however, i’ve come to think a bit differently about this whole issue for a couple reasons.  

first, the word evangelical comes from the greek word that means “good news.” 

this is where we get the word “gospel.” perhaps the best way to evaluate whether or not something is truly evangelical is to ask: is this good news? if so, for whom?

only for straight upper/middle class white males?
only for people of a particular religious tradition?
only for people of a particular political party [could be either side] that vote in a certain way? 

because that isn’t the gospel. jesus announced the gospel as being the reality that god’s kingdom is near and available to all people [mark 1]. further when jesus proclaimed this gospel in a synagogue, he quoted a text from isaiah 61 that announced good news [gospel!] for the poor, release for those that were in bondage, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed. that’s the gospel.

and if it isn’t good news for everyone, then it’s a cheap imitation. it’s not the real thing. it won’t transform you, me, or the world. and we all still need the good news that jesus announced and embodied to and for the world. 

second, i’ve met some amazing people who are seeking to reclaim and rehabilitate this problematic word, “evangelical.”

in the past year i’ve been so fortunate to connect with a group of people who, like me, have serious misgivings about what the word “evangelical” has come to mean in our culture, and yet, we feel deeply drawn and connected to the idea of “good news.”

so, we aren’t abandoning ship. we are choosing to partner together to reclaim the real meaning of evangelical: good news for the whole world. 

through the OPEN network, we are seeking to partner together to create more just and generous expressions of christianity and church. because if the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, it isn’t good news for anybody.

that’s why we can’t give up. we can’t let the word evangelical become synonymous with political and religious ideas that aren’t good for everyone, that aren’t good for the world, that seek to further wound and divide us. 

we don’t need to consign this word to the past. we need to reclaim this word–and all the goodness, hope, healing, and beauty that accompany it–to create a better future. 



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