Let me brag for just a second: I was kicked out of the Bob Jones University library. I attended a different college in town and assumed reports about the environment there were all exaggerated. Then I visited and stepped over the line. I sat at the same table as a female student. Fundamentalism has dimmed many people’s view of historic, protestant Christianity for almost a century. Some people conflate it with evangelical. So let’s consider:
What’s an evangelical?
Three things evangelical is NOT.
Partisan. Evangelical is not the republican party at prayer. Evangelicalism is a very broad and diverse movement of Christianity. It is not represented by the fundamentalist celebs and bad actors often spotlighted in the news media. Fundamentalists are militant culture warriors who leverage political power for their own good. Evangelicals garner influence for the common good. For decades, fundamentalists considered Billy Graham a heretic. Graham was the face of American evangelicalism in the twentieth century. After endorsing Nixon, Graham was much more cautious of partisan politics. He became a trusted advisor to presidents democratic and republican alike.
Anti-intellectual. Harold J. Ockenga coined the term neo-evangelical. He sought to distinguish those who embraced both modern science and historic Christianity. Following the Scopes “Monkey” Trial, the country became divided between fundamentalism and modernism. For a short time, there seemed to be a false separation between faith and reason. Evangelicals remained both faithful and thoughtful. In the past hundred years, Evangelical thought has been shaped by public intellectuals such as C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Meanwhile, they hold a high view of the authority of scripture.
Escapist. Evangelicals pursue social justice. Ockenga for example started World Relief following WWII to help raise funds to reconstruct Europe. Since then, thousands of faith-based non-profits formed to help with everything from hunger to relocating refugees. Billy Graham supported Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. He once threatened to cancel a major event if organizers would not remove ropes segregating black and white attendees. This kind of activism is consistent with the wider historic movement, like the nineteenth-century Evangelicals who led the abolition of slavery.
What is an Evangelical?
The word simply means “good news” about the love of God. Evangelicals seek (however imperfectly) to love God and neighbor. They champion historic Christian faith, the life of the mind, and problem-solving around the world. Despite the fact that this movement of Christianity has been leveraged for power by partisans and preachers, most evangelicals value head, heart and hands. They want to be faithful, thoughtful, and helpful.
“He has shown you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)