What's the easiest way to pick the think piece for any given weekend?
That's easy. All I have to do is look in my email files and note which non-news article (but an article that is directly linked to religion news) was sent to me over and over and over during the previous week. It that article was also all over Twitter, you know you have a winner.
It was easy to spot THAT ARTICLE this past week. It was the New Yorker essay by the Rev. Timothy Keller, the recently retired leader of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. The timely headline: "Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?"
Obviously, the next question that readers have to ask is this: "How do you define 'evangelicalism'?" I've been wrestling with that one for several decades -- all the way back to when I was, well, an evangelical.
There are many key passages in the Keller piece. Let's start with his own story:
When I became a Christian in college, in the early nineteen-seventies, the word “evangelical” still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism. Shortly thereafter, I went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. It was one of the many institutions that Graham, Harold Ockenga, and J. Howard Pew, and other neo-evangelicals, as they were sometimes called, established. In those years, there was such great energy in the movement that, by the mid-nineteen-nineties, it had eclipsed mainline Protestantism as the dominant branch of the Christian church in the U.S. When I moved to Manhattan to start a new church, in 1989, most people I met found the church and its ministry to be a curiosity in secular New York but not a threat. And, if they heard the word “evangelical” around the congregation, a name we seldom used, they usually asked what it meant.
You know what happened next. The word "evangelical" morphed into something else, something cultural and, yes, political. For some reason, Keller left mainstream journalism out of this mix.
The conservative leaders who have come to be most identified with the movement have largely driven this redefinition. But political pollsters have also helped, as they have sought to highlight a crucial voting bloc. When they survey people, there is no discussion of any theological beliefs, or other criteria. The great majority of them simply ask people, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” And those who answer ‘yes’ are counted. More than eighty per cent of such people 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.
The fury and incredulity of many in the larger population at this constituency has mounted.
Now, if you know anything about church history -- even in the modern context -- you know where this is going.
Yes, there is "Evangelicalism" as defined in public life, with a Big "E," which basically means "white Republicans at prayer." In one of my recent "On Religion" columns, one well known evangelical scribe David French noted that "evangelical" should be a word with doctrinal content and doctrinal boundaries.
It would be hard, during these bitterly politicized times, to convince pollsters, journalists and political activists to embrace that kind of definition, said David French, a Harvard Law School graduate known for his National Review columns on politics and religious liberty.
In the public square, everyone thinks they know what "evangelical" means.
"The easy answer, which also has the virtue of being true, is that 'evangelical' has become the tribal marker used to describe white Christians who vote Republican," said French, who was an Internet lightning rod during 2016 because of his opposition to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
So how does Keller handle this?
Keller is a popular preacher, but he still cares about the facts of history. Thus, he turns to one -- repeat "one" -- common set of doctrinal standards used by "evangelicals."
This is long, but essential. Someone needs to distribute this passage at the political desks of the Associated Press and other major newsrooms.
This non-political definition of evangelicalism has been presented in many places. The most well known is by the historian David Bebbington, whose “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s” has become standard. He distinguishes evangelicals from other religions and Christians by a core set of beliefs. Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete, according to Bebbington. They also see it as the ultimate authority, unlike Catholics, who make church tradition equal to it. In addition, the ancient creedal formulations of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as others, are taken at face value, without reservation. And, again, unlike many in mainline Protestantism, 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.
Under Bebbington’s formulation, another defining evangelical quality is the belief in the necessity of conversion, the conviction that everyone needs a profound, life-changing encounter with God. This conversion, however, comes not merely through church attendance or general morality, but only through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death for sin. A lyric from Charles Wesley’s famous hymn captures the evangelical experience of conversion through saving faith in Christ alone: “My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” Finally, contemporary evangelicals feel bound by both desire and duty to share their faith with others in both word and deeds of service. In this, they seek to resemble, as well as to obey, their Lord, Jesus, who is described as mighty in word and deed.
Do the self-identified white “big-E Evangelicals” of the pollsters hold to these beliefs? Recent studies indicate that many do not.
So what is more important, the doctrinal content or the political label? That's the debate that has been raging for several years now.