Evangelical Typecasts

January 23, 2016

For God and Country

It is interesting. It is even more troubling.  CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke has posted an article to CNN Politics titled 7 Types of Evangelicals: And How They’ll Effect the Presidential Race.  The post is interesting in that it describes differences among those who label themselves “Evangelical”, and creates categories for each.  It is troubling, at least to me, because little to nothing in the post conveys what an actual Evangelical essentially is.

Burke begins with the tired old refrain:

It’s an axiom in American politics, duly repeated every four years: Evangelicals are the country’s biggest and most powerful religious voting bloc, especially during the GOP primaries.

But then he offers something that offers a hint of something fresh:

Like many political axioms, though, it papers over a complex reality.

It is true, Evangelicals are not monolithic.  Evangelicals are individuals who have different ideas about different candidates for office – from both parties.  Many of us are able to see positive characteristics even in candidates with whom we disagree.  Few of us are likely to find any candidate that represents everything we would prefer.  At least not those of us who think for ourselves – as God gifted us (and all humanity) to do. So I appreciate Burke’s explanation to those who do not understand Evangelicalism that we Evangelicals reflect a complex reality.  Our complexity should not be confusing, just diverse.

Evangelicals are diverse in may ways. Some among us believe more water should be used in a baptism than others of us do; and some believe a lower age for that baptism is appropriate (maybe even preferable) than others of us.  Some among us like a little wine or a few beers, others prefer to stick with Iced Tea. Some among us like the excitement and activity of a large church, others among us prefer the intimacy of a small family-like church; most among us are somewhere in between. Some of us prefer newer songs, others the hymns from ages past; some prefer cheerful music, others tunes that set a more reflective tone; most enjoy a mix of all of the above.  Some of us appreciate the connectivity of a denominational affiliation; others, aware that no denomination has the corner on the market of God’s favor, choose to remain organizationally independent.  There are all sorts of ways in which Evangelicals are diverse, different, complex.  But none of these differences has anything to do with what makes us Evangelicals in the first place. Nor does Burke in his attempt to analyze and categorize an Evangelical political landscape.

Burke’s categories are interesting, even somewhat amusing. They are as follows:

  1. Old Guard
  2. Institutional Evangelicals
  3. Entrepreneurial Evangelicals
  4. Arm’s Length Evangelicals
  5. Millennial Evangelicals
  6. Liberal Evangelicals
  7. Cultural Evangelicals

I will concede that there are those out there calling themselves “Evangelical” who fall into each of these categories.  The problem I have is that Burke is evaluating Evangelicalism as if it is a political bloc. Even more troubling to me is that many who call themselves Evangelicals also want to be seen this way.  Evangelicalism is NOT a Political Act Committee.  Evangelicalism is a description of something much greater – an expression of the Church, of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ! And I am chagrined that some are so willing to sell out the Church and our King so cheaply.

An Evangelical is, based upon the word itself, someone who embraces the message of the gospel – the good news of the life, death, resurrection, and promised return of Jesus Christ.  Of course there are other core beliefs – chiefly the authority of Scripture – but historically Evangelicals have been identified as such because they believe this Good News.  That’s what the root word actually means.  Taken from the Greek, Euangellion, which means “Good News”, the Greek has been Anglicized to Evangel, and Evangelical.  So the most appropriate description of an Evangelical is based upon this definiton. And based upon this definition, anyone who rejects, or who does not believe the premises of the Gospel cannot be rightly called an Evangelical.   While not familiar with everyone Burke lists within his categories, there are a few who would seem to be disqualified from being counted Evangelical based upon their own belief system. I am not suggesting they are not kind, moral, ethical, likable individuals, only that they don’t qualify as Evangelicals based upon their belief system.

There is yet another aspect of Evangelicalism that goes beyond just the belief of the doctrines of the Gospel.  As essential as these beliefs are, all genuine Christians believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – as well as in Jesus’ dual nature as both divine and human.  An Evangelical does not merely believe these doctrines to be true, these truths are at the very center, the core, of our faith.  I have no desire to spark a separate debate, but I think I am safe to say that there are some traditions within the scope of Christianity that shares belief in the Gospel, but centers their faith on some other aspect or expression of the Christian faith.  It could be sacerdotalism; exercise of Spritual Giftings; Social Justice; etc.  My point is not to debate these emphases here, only to point out that there are groups within Christendom who may believe the truths of the Gospel, but are marked by other things.  An Evangelical is marked by the Gospel being the center, the identifying mark. At least that is the historic, traditional, and etymological understanding of an Evangelical.

With this in mind, I find it curious that Burke would include those he calls “Liberal Evangelicals” on this list.  While those he describes, and the examples he cites, may well be Christians, (it is not my place to make that judgment,) in what way are they Evangelical? The good news they proclaim is justice, not redemption. A noble cause, but a different camp. Not everyone in this camp even believes Jesus was a real person. They do not see this as important.  They see his example, and his teaching, to be what is important, not Jesus and his substitutionary atoning death for our redemption.  Still others listed here proclaim a “prosperity gospel“, which is a message different from the message of historic orthodoxy; a message the Apostle Paul would classify as “no gospel at all”.  (See Galatians 1.6-9)

I also find it curious that the likes of Tim Keller and John Piper are listed under the bizarre category of Arm’s Length Evangelicals.  What is an “Arm’s Length Evangelical”? What keeps them at Arm’s Length?  I suspect both Keller and Piper would be a bit bemused by this label.  Both engage many – as many as they can.  Neither is in hiding. Neither advocates any kind of isolation into Christian communes.  Burke offers a definition, and it is not entirely senseless, but it misses the mark.  Combined with the weird moniker he gives people like Keller and Piper, is the fact that what they represent is seen somehow to be a minority expression, when in fact they reflect the very definition of what it means to be an Evangelical.

Keller and Piper are not alone. Others listed in this piece most certainly reflect the defining elements of Evangelicalism.  I imagine Russell Moore and Al Mohler would be perplexed about being omitted from fellowship from Piper & Keller, and likened more to Rick Warren.  Not that Warren is outside the spectrum of Evangelicalism, but his emphasis is far more pragmatic than it is theological, while both Moore and Mohler are tremendously theologically rooted.

Burke’s list of Entreprenuer Evangelicals is also somewhat confounding.  Why is Rick Warren not listed here? He has been quite entrepreneurial in his approach to ministry.  So has Keller, with the plethora of ministries that have been launched through Redeemer Network.  James Dobson founded and built Focus on the Family.  I am far more impressed by that endeavor than by anything Jerry Falwell Jr has done. What is particularly entrepreneurial about having your daddy build multiple enterprises and handing you the keys to one of them? (Not to mention that Falwell, fawning all over Donald Trump at a recent convocation at Liberty University, defined the marks and essence of Christianity in terms that no Evangelical would approve.)

So what is my point, beyond the catharsis of writing a rant? My point is this: Evangelicalism is NOT a political entity. It is far greater than that, and those who are Evangelicals must take care to not allow our label to be hijacked. More important than that, we must take care to not allow ourselves to be hijacked for mere politics.

Burke has a right to write from whatever perspective he wishes.  And he is not entirely wrong in what he has written here, at least not if Evangelicals are defined sociologically. But my hope is that Evangelicals will insist that we be identified far more because of our theology than by sociology.

Evangelicals living in the USA would do well to consider again Jesus’ words from Luke 20: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” As citizens of the USA – as well as holding citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom – part of giving to “Caesar what belongs to Caesar” is to participate in the political process, as long as we are able.  But our hope is not in Caesar. Our faith is not in Casar. Our identity is not in or with Caesar.  Our hope, our faith, our identity are in Jesus Christ alone.

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