Evangelicals Struggle with Self-Identity

The National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement yesterday aimed at clarifying widespread misunderstanding of evangelical beliefs and practices.

Their longing for clarity arose out of the fact that a growing number of people consider “evangelicals” to be a political grouping rather than a religious one.

The NEA  statement is clear about how they see themselves, “We identify ourselves by our spiritual convictions in the authority of the Bible, salvation through Jesus Christ alone and living out our faith in everyday life, especially sharing the good news of Jesus with others.”

Unfortunately, the NEA is deluding itself if it thinks such statements are meaningful.

No matter whether it is fair or unfair, the vast majority of Americans do not know evangelicals by their spiritual convictions or actions. They do not see evangelicals doing the work of Jesus. They do not see evangelicals worshipping at church, leading foreign missions, feeding the hungry, etc.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. welcomes President Trump to Liberty University.

Instead, they know evangelicals primarily through their well-publicized association with President Trump and the Republican party.

They hear that white evangelicals are the most stable part of the Republican base. They read headlines about 80% white evangelical support of Trump. They see photographs of evangelical leaders clustered around Trump in the Oval Office. They hear about leading evangelical figures giving full-throated support to Trump.

Not surprisingly, they believe what they see and hear—that Trump trumps Jesus and politics trumps faith in the hearts and minds of most white evangelicals.

Evangelical claims of faith are not enough to overcome the overwhelming media coverage—much of it coming from evangelical sources—to the contrary.

God knows, even if evangelicals don’t, that this confusion about evangelical identity was foreseeable and predictable.

Jesus certainly lived his life differently. He did not seek standing with the prevailing powers of the day, he confronted them. He did not seek his own base of power, he gave his life for others. He did not subordinate the gospel to other purposes, he lived it. His priorities were clear and his identity remains clear thousands of years later.

However, white evangelicals chose not to follow Jesus’ path. Instead, they intentionally embarked on a path to gain political power and use it. They have followed that path for decades and show no changes of changing.

They formed the Moral Majority in the 1970’s with the avowed purpose of profoundly impacting public policy. They have given their time, work and money to this effort.

At first, their work resulted in most white evangelicals supporting Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Over the years, however, their movement slowly became more identified with Republican policies and the Republican party. By the 2016 presidential election, white evangelicalism was seen by most, even themselves, as being fused with rock-ribbed Republicanism.

And, they got what they wanted. They got political power. They got their Supreme Court nominee. They have the president’s ear and consider him to be their savior, at least in a political sense.

In the process, they have become who many people consider them to be—Republicans seeking and using political power and wanting even more.

White evangelicals should recognize that they have reaped what they have sowed. Any group or organization that lashes itself so completely to the policies, positions and practices of another group or organization loses its original identity. It literally becomes something else.

The NEA and their members may want to insist on their high-minded faith and devotion to Jesus, but no one will pay attention.

Instead of touting things that will be ignored, they might undergo a long needed self-assessment. Perhaps then, they return to the starting point of many Christian journeys  and become like the tax collector Jesus describes in a parable. In Luke 18, Jesus explains that the tax collector went to the Temple, beat his breast and prayed, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

After telling the parable, Jesus said that this man “went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One thing we Christians always can use is a bit more humility before God and humankind and a bit less lust for power, however alluring it may be.

 

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