There’s evangelicals, and there’s Evangelicals.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 June
EVANGELICAL i.væn'ʤɛl.ə.kəl adjective. Has to do with the evangel, i.e. the gospel.
2. [capitalized] Holds to the Protestant tradition of individual conversion to Christianity (i.e. being born again). Plus Jesus’s atonement, the bible’s authority, and an active Christian lifestyle.
[Evangelicalism i.væn'ʤɛl.ə.kəl.ɪz.əm noun.]

I once heard a pagan define Evangelical as “somebody who actually believes in all that doo-doo.” She didn’t use the word “doo-doo”; it was something less family-friendly, and an indication of her own unbelief in all our doo-doo. And while we do believe in it, that’s not quite the proper definition.

Over the past several decades another definition has cropped up in the press: A politically conservative Protestant. It’s also incorrect, but it’s totally understandable why people might jump to that conclusion. Evangelicals are Protestant, and in the United States most white Evangelicals are politically conservative. Sometimes more so than they are Christian; some conservative beliefs, and many conservative attitudes, are wholly incompatible with Jesus’s teachings. Not just a little incompatible, and with a little adjustment Jesus’ll be totally cool with it: Wholly incompatible. You likely know which views I mean, and if you don’t you need to read his Semon on the Mount again.

And quite often I see people in the press confuse Evangelical for evangelistic, evangelism, evangelist, and other terms which have to do with sharing the gospel. Understandable mixup, but the lowercase-E evangelical has to do with sharing the gospel, and the uppercase-E Evangelical has to do with a Christian religious movement.

Every Christian is the lowercase-E kind of evangelical. That is, we all believe—or are expected to believe, ’cause Jesus orders us to believe Mt 28.19-20 —in sharing Jesus and his gospel with the world. We all believe in this doo-doo. We may not agree about miracles, or worship styles, or how to interpret bible, or whether electric guitars are of God. (And they totally are. God likes his music loud.) But we all agree—or are expected to agree—Jesus is God the Son, our Lord, conceived by the Spirit, born of Mary, suffered under Pilate, crucified, died, buried, resurrected, ascended, coming back to personally inaugurate God’s kingdom of which he is King. By definition, those who don’t believe the gospel aren’t Christian. They might go through the motions because they love the trappings. But they’re like those women who wear yoga pants yet clearly never do yoga.

The uppercase Evangelical is a whole different animal. This term refers to a Protestant movement which emphasizes individual conversion. In other words, we aren’t Christian because we were born one. There are those who figure they were born into a Christian family or country, baptized as a baby, assimilated into a predominantly Christian culture, and they’re Christian by default. Evangelicals believe that’s rubbish: You’re Christian because you came to Christ, on your own, without your culture forcing it upon you, with your full consent and knowledge. You confessed him as Lord, of your own free will. You’re responsible for being in this religion. It might’ve been dropped on you, as it was me; but you took ownership of it.

Ironically the movement was started by John Calvin. I say “ironically” ’cause Calvin and Calvinists are really big fans of determinism, the belief God’s in such control of the cosmos, we’re actually not responsible for being in this religion: God put us here. We only think we chose him with our free will, but this is because he’s been working us without our knowledge. There are tons of moral problems with determinism, which I discuss in my article on it. But that’s not today’s subject; it’s Evangelicalism, and Evangelicals are correct about how religion isn’t up to our community or state. If it were, we’d get a state full of hypocrites, who are faking religion so they don’t get in trouble. (We got plenty enough of those as it is!) But my parents can’t determine my religion for me, nor my government. Each of us has to decide for Jesus for ourselves.

Why people think we are born into it.

Thing is, most people are born into their religion. I was.

I was born Catholic. My grandparents were Catholic, so Mom was Catholic, so I was Catholic. Wasn’t up to me; I was an infant. Before I was even able to raise my head on my own, I got baptized. As far as the grandparents were concerned, that was that. I was in the church and going to heaven.

No that’s not at all what the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches. But that’s what cultural Catholics (i.e. the Catholic version of Christianism) believe and teach: If you’re baptized Catholic, you’re Catholic. Even if you never confirm your baptism, never go to mass, don’t even believe in God. Everyone in your family, everyone in your neighborhood, everyone in your country, is in the religion—and so are you.

Happens in Christian countries, in Muslim countries, in Hindu countries, in Buddhist countries. You don’t have a say. Try to switch religions, and in medieval Europe you could be prosecuted and killed for it. In some Muslim countries you still can. In India the state won’t go after you for not being Hindu, but the locals certainly will.

See, in medieval Europe the kings figured they were Christian. The world’s suckiest Christians, but they were taught God forgives all the gross violations of everything Jesus teaches, ’cause grace. But since they were Christian, the very least they could do for Jesus (sometimes the only thing they “did for Jesus”) was “evangelize” everyone in the nation and build ’em churches. The laziest way was by outlawing every other religion: Pagans and heretics were prosecuted. Subjects were required to participate in church functions. Taxes paid for church. Their kingdoms were considered outposts of God’s kingdom: Their subjects were born into God’s kingdom, born Christian just like an American is born American. True, Christians-by-birth usually sucked as Christians same as their kings. But there’s grace, remember?—so it didn’t really matter if they neither knew nor followed God: They lived in his kingdom. Right?

Then Calvin began to teach Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the whole world—scripture notwithstanding. 1Jn 2.2 Just the elect. Just the real Christians. And not everyone in a Christian country is a real Christian. So… how d’you know you’re a real Christian? Well there are a few ways; preferably fruit. But individual conversion is still considered a pretty good sign: You willingly choose Christ. (Calvin would have a giant problem with saying we choose Christ, ’cause he much preferred to emphasize God choosing us.) Your rulers don’t just declare the entire nation Christian: They can’t.

Spreading the kingdom.

There are two ways Christians try to get people around us to follow Jesus. The most popular method, the easiest, yet the one least likely to work, is free beer. But that’s more a Lutheran thing. (KIDDING. Lutherans will totally laugh at that one.)

But seriously, the most popular method has been enforced national piety. It’s the method used throughout the middle ages, and to this day people still think we oughta try it: Pass a bunch of Christian-supremacist laws, shun and discourage and drive out anyone and anything which isn’t religious enough, and people will naturally fall into Christianity. And if they don’t, badger them.

But enforced national piety doesn’t work. What you wind up with are hypocrites. You get a nation of people who fake their Christianity in public, and are pagans in private. You get the Bible Belt, the part of the U.S. where everybody certainly conforms to the standards of “bible-believing Christians,” but their church attendance sucks, and their church involvement sucks even harder: They don’t put in their time, don’t financially support it, and don’t follow Jesus the rest of the week… until it’s convenient for them to do so.

The proper way is evangelism: We share the good news of God’s kingdom with people, invite ’em to make individual decisions for Jesus, and find them fellow Christians who can instruct and encourage ’em to live like Jesus wants. It’s way harder than enforced national piety. ’Cause we have to provide these newbies with good examples… which means we need to legitimately follow Jesus. Can’t get away with faking it. (Not that many don’t try, but God keeps exposing our hypocrisy in embarrassing public ways. It’s like he hates it or something!)

It’s not easy to evangelize a nation which practices enforced national piety. It tends to get you prosecuted. In the 1630s Roger Williams, the guy who later founded Providence Plantation (now Rhode Island), tried it in the Seperatist-dominated colony of Plymouth. Of course they banished him; legalists hate competition. Evangelism is best practiced in a nation which permits a degree of religious freedom—where people can either join your group, or ignore you. Not banish or kill you. But in most of human history, there were no such nations.

The first group to really emphasize evangelism was the Methodists, founded in England in the 1730s by John and Charles Wesley. They helped spur the Great Awakening, an Evangelical revival which took off in North America in the 1730s and ’40s. The Wesleys—plus Puritan revivalists Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield and others—began to proclaim Jesus to the American colonists, warning them their ancestors’ Christianity wouldn’t cut it; your culture won’t save you. Americans individually, personally had to choose Jesus: He couldn’t just be everybody’s generic Lord and Master, but their own personal Jesus; someone to hear their prayers, someone who cares. You know the song.

The Great Awakening helped spread Williams’s idea of separation of church and state: Enforced national piety saves no one, and Christians have no business whatsoever using government to make this “a Christian nation.” Sad to say many Baptists, who consider Williams one of their forefathers, go the opposite direction: They want the government to enforce piety. They fight any separation of church and state. It’s such a tempting shortcut.

From North America, Evangelicalism spread back to Europe, then the rest of the world. The old medieval tactic of converting the king, then using the king to forcibly convert his kingdom, was out. Christian missionaries called individuals to a relationship with Christ, regardless of what their culture taught or government mandated. Sometimes this produced persecution and underground churches. But it also produced national revivals, as pagan countries embraced Christ. And it makes no difference what their governments believe, for Christ didn’t come into the world to save corporations, but humans.

In the U.S. today.

Both pagans and Christians don’t know the history of Evangelicalism—where it came from, or even what it is. As usual, people don’t look these things up on their own, and learn their own history.

Many assume Evangelicalism and conservative Protestantism are the same thing. Particularly conservatives, who can’t fathom Jesus thinks any different than they do. Whenever I mention the Christian Left to them, they dismiss them immediately: “Oh those people aren’t Christian. Because they’re liberal.” Apparently we’re not saved by grace, but politics.

Or they assume Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism are the same thing. (Fundamentalism is a different Protestant movement, started in the early 1900s to battle modernism.) Or they assume Evangelicalism started in the 1940s when the National Association of Evangelicals was founded, and what makes your church “evangelical” is NAE membership.

In the United States we still get outbreaks of Plymouth-style enforced piety. But many conservative Christians, who don’t realize all the problems it creates, want it everywhere. They wanna turn biblical commands into law (well, the convenient ones; good luck getting them to ban loans which charge interest Ex 22.24, Lv 25.37, Dt 23.20). They wanna officially discourage paganism and other religions, and “return us to our Christian roots” and “the faith of our founding fathers.”

Well not exactly the faith of our founding fathers. ’Cause slavery. And racism and sexism. (Well, depending on your conservatives.) Most of those founder-invoking conservatives really just mean their values, which they assume the founders shared. Like I said, they don’t know history.

On the other side of the coin there’s a “post-Evangelical” movement. I’m in dialogue with a few folks who lead post-Evangelical churches. In a nutshell, they’ve ditched popular Protestant Christianity as too religiously shallow and too political, and wanna return to the old traditions. Well, selectively return to those traditions; they’re not gonna become Roman Catholic or Orthodox. But they want authentic religion; they wanna take Jesus seriously. They figure the way to do that is to look back instead of look around.

And of course the more shallow among them simply don’t wanna be what they percieve Evangelicals are:

  • No theologically weak pop songs. They want old-timey, theologically deep hymns.
  • No contemporary liturgies, written to suit us. We’re the ones who need to adapt ourselves to suit God, not vice-versa.
  • None of this fascination Evangelicals have with wealth and prosperity.
  • No charismatic fads; no trying to get the Holy Spirit to show off.
  • No blindly following the Republican party. (Nor the Democratic party.) Christians are supposed to question everything, and that especially includes those who seek power.
  • No shallowness, no hypocrisy, no legalism… and none of the practices they fell into back when they were Evangelical.

And so on. They believe they’ve rejected popular Christianism in favor of authentic Christianity.

I say good for them… provided they aren’t just replacing popular Christianity with nostalgic Christianity. Old-time religion is only any good when it actually draws us closer to Jesus. Otherwise it’s just as dead and empty as the new stuff can be.

But really they’re as Evangelical as anyone: They fervently believe in a personal relationship with Jesus—and his atonement, his scriptures, and the active Christian lifestyle. That’s what defines the movement. Certainly not the politics.