Has ‘Evangelical’ Become Toxic?

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University of Pennsylvania law professor David Skeel has a sensible editorial at the Wall Street Journal pleading with evangelicals not to give up on their movement. Here’s his conclusion:

I believe that Christianity is self-correcting. And because evangelicalism is a faithful understanding of Christianity’s essence, I believe it is self-correcting, too.

Rarely have evangelicals been so divided and uncertain of the way forward. But the problem is with us, not with evangelicalism or the Christian principles it represents. The label and the history are important. For those who have recently renounced evangelicalism, I have a simple plea: Please reconsider.

Skeel bases his plea on the biblical value of the term “evangelical,” and the historic value of the evangelical movement. I agree with this point. The strongest argument for continuing to identify as an evangelical is because the concept of “good news” from God is the heart of the gospel. The evangelical movement has also done a great deal of good in the past, and we have a great cloud of evangelical witnesses, from Jonathan Edwards to Phillis Wheatley, to admire in history.

So far, so good with Skeel’s argument. The problem is that the term “evangelical” itself has become deeply corrupted by its association with white Republican politics, culminating in the election of Donald Trump. We can cite David Bebbington’s quadrilateral (as Skeel does) of historic evangelical characteristics until we’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t change much about the common cultural perception of who an evangelical is. An “evangelical” in the pervasive pop stereotype today is a white Republican who watches Fox News and who considers himself/herself religious.

So if the question is whether I remain devoted to the biblical and historical meaning of “evangelical,” the answer is “yes.” I’m just not prepared to be committed to the amorphous, politicized movement that gets called “evangelical” by the media and pollsters today. As I have argued before, we don’t have a good sense for how many of the people who identify as evangelical to pollsters are actually evangelical in any useful sense. We do know that some of these so-called evangelicals rarely go to church, and that many do not hold to basic evangelical beliefs.

What if it turns out that millions—or even tens of millions—of those who say they’re evangelicals don’t meet basic historic criteria for what it means to be an evangelical? Should we keep identifying with the “evangelical” label when the most visible “evangelical” spokesmen defend Donald Trump no matter what he does? What lines have to be crossed before the term becomes too toxic to use anymore?

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