Saturday, March 31, 2012

Evangelical Eludes Explanation

When you hear the term “evangelical”, you probably get a meaning based on stereotypes associated with the term as it’s invoked in political discourse. The problem that arises from our conceptions of evangelical being derived from politics is that they don’t speak as genuinely as from a religious perspective. I don’t hold this position, and wouldn’t probably even if I was a Christian of any flavor. The Barna Group, which I’ve referenced a few times, is a Christian group that has their own very specific definition that relates to Gallup poll definitions. Gallup’s has three qualifications: 1) Are you “born-again” 2) Do you encourage others to believe in Jesus and 3) Do you believe the Bible is the “Word of God”? Barna, on the other hand, has 9 points that they have derived based on statements from evangelical organizations, including: having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today, believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, saying their religious faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Gallup’s alternative method of discerning evangelical demographics was to ask based on whether one considers oneself an evangelical, regardless of agreed upon definitions within Christianity. To be fair, there is no explicit definition of an evangelical in Christianity to begin with. There is a fivefold ministry in some Christian circles, that lists apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers and evangelists, but these are more roles that a person can take on in the church, though most of the time, if not entirely, this is by God’s decree and plan for one’s life. You can’t just choose to be a prophet or apostle, you have to be called to it. The vague nature of what an evangelical is and the fact that it has only been used to refer to a specific type of Protestant Christianity for about 200 years means that it has had time to develop in many ways, the most obvious of which is the political angle used to characterize certain Christian voters in their positions on social issues and methods of motivating people to vote. As little as I believe in the truth or validity of Christian beliefs or using them to make political decisions, it still intrigues me as a student of religion and compels me to understand and speculate about what might be a third way to understand evangelicals alongside the political and theological ideas already historically developed.

With political evangelicalism, one seems to get an idea of campaigns utilizing evangelical’s social connections through church networks in order to galvanize the voters into action. To say evangelical voters are influenced by their faith is probably not inaccurate, but not to the extent a fundamentalist voter might be. There is a sort of spectrum of Christians, fundamentalism being on the far extreme of one end, liberalism on the other extreme and evangelicalism in the center. Fundamentalism differs from evangelicalism in being more polemic, attacking their opponents, while liberalism differs in that it welcomes its opponents into a dialogue, ecumenical in nature almost. Evangelicalism does not try to demonize its opponents, but it does not fundamentally find anything more than incidental agreement with them, still attempting to convert them. With politics, it seems that evangelicals and fundamentalists overlap uncomfortably in their activism against such things like gay marriage and abortion as the worst social ills in the world and also against their religious convictions and consciences. This is why the older notion of evangelicalism is less familiar to people in general, since politics is more immediate and appealing to us, as it affects the entire country, not merely the area of concern to believers that theological squabbles tend to be. People care more about those things rooted in money and social progress than when they speak of piety and devotion. Perhaps it’s an association with monastics and such, people who take religion more seriously in affirming sacred vows, but if you believe something is relevant to eternity, I would think you should be a bit more concerned about whether you’re right about it or not. I think Pascal put it best in saying we are prone to distract ourselves with various temporary things in order to avoid the responsibility that is pertinent to the eternal. I’m trying to look at this from a more general Christian perspective and according to a survey by the Pew Forum, people want less religious discourse in politics and for good reason. With all this association of religious politicians, religion can get a bad reputation for being too forceful. Evangelicals in particular probably don’t want the label they hold dear used for people that more often than not, reflect fundamentalist ideals in mudslinging opponents and otherwise denigrating detractors on the basis of not being “Christian” enough. People might be justified to try to return to evangelicalism’s roots.

There are four major aspects of religious evangelicalism 1)The need for personal conversion (or being "born again"); 2) A high regard for biblical authority; 3) An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ; and 4) Actively expressing and sharing the gospel. The fourth is what aligns well with political activism and spreading a message through a form of proselytism. The other three are much more religious and based in the traditional movement. Of course, they’re still a bit vague. Being born-again seems to imply some sort of conversion experience, not unlike what one hears about and sees in Pentecostal churches, for example. Biblical authority tends to be divided into two camps: infallibility and inerrancy. The former are more reasonable than the latter, saying the bible is infallible; that is, it will not fail in spiritual matters. This is not to say it might not be wrong as human knowledge increases elsewhere, which is said to be fundamentally irrelevant to matters of salvation. Inerrantists, on the other hand, have a much steeper curve and say the bible is correct in all things, probably taking a cue from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 in part, which says scripture is good in all things, though it specifies that it’s good for righteousness, which is pertinent to salvation, not to education about science or the like. Some claim infallibility is actually the more extreme claim, saying the bible cannot err as opposed to claiming it simply has no errors. The major understanding of infallibility appears to be the former idea, that the Bible will not be false on manners of faith and practice. Regardless, the authority of the bible is of such priority that people regard it as something for moral guidance, which is where much of the opposition to various perceived social ills arises from. If it conflicts with the Bible, then it should be opposed.  The relation of Jesus Christ and salvation is also a very contentious issue within Christianity, divided into several camps, the most prominent of which are four variations on substitutionary atonement. The general idea is that Jesus was a sacrifice, a substitute for human sin. The reasons behind the need for this vary in two major areas. The first is Jesus serving as a release of humanity from either Satan’s alleged grasp on humanity because of the Fall being caused by it in snake form or just humanity having original sin for other reasons. The second is Jesus as a sacrifice for one of two reasons, either specifically being punished for humanity’s sins or Jesus’ death serving as restitution to humanity through a sacrifice of a fusion of God and human. If nothing else, Jesus’ death, according to evangelicals, is not to be regarded as anything less than the only mode for salvation, taking the cue from John 14:6, where Jesus says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light and no one comes to the Father but through me,” That claim of uniqueness is definitely reflective with missionary work and speaking to people who have never heard the good news, which is where the term evangelical and evangelism originate from. Eu, meaning good in Greek and angelos, meaning messenger, combine together and Anglicize to replace the u with a v.  As academic and boring as this seems, the importance cannot be overstated. These two vastly different, yet somewhat related, ideas of what an evangelical is still have a strong effect on both political and religious discourse. Once we start to make these distinctions, we can be clearer about what we mean and even find better ways to express those concepts without creating extra qualifications for each.

I was going to suggest a third way to look at it, but it’s more an analysis of the etymology, which I admittedly already did at least partly. There might be a better distinction between evangelical as a quality and evangelist as a title one takes on. The former is simply evangelical in anything, religious or otherwise, so we can apply it to politics as much as missionary work. Evangelists are those spreading a specifically religious message of Jesus Christ and all that. Suffice to say, a simpler idea of what constitutes an evangelical Christian would be actively trying to convert people through proselytizing. But this might not be the best overall method, even if there are moments in the Gospels where Jesus tells his disciples to go from town to town. It is also said in Matthew 7 that you will know true Christians by their fruits, how they behave and what they teach. Perhaps it’s too simplistic to judge a Christian by behavior, but if you are basing your behavior on what is generally and correctly understood to be Jesus’ teachings, you could conceivably influence people to see it as better. I can see good ideas in Jesus’ words as communicated by his disciples, but not so much that I see a need to emulate him for the purposes of saving my soul, which I’ve really never thought we had, even when exposed to imagery in cartoons from a young age in one form or another that suggests such a thing. If evangelicals want people to take them seriously as a religious group and not a political demographic, it would require either a change of their name or an emphasis on what separates them from the political pundits that make such a big storm about politics on a religious basis instead of also considering political philosophy as a basis for their policies and platforms. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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