Sometime in the 1960s, a pre-teen boy named Randy “witnessed” to his playmate, as he had been taught in the Evangelical Free Church where his dad was pastor.
“Stanley,” he began, “are you a Christian?”
None of Randy’s Sunday school lessons and youth-group role-playing exercises had prepared him for Stanley’s response: “Yes.”
Stanley, he knew, was Roman Catholic. Randy had been taught, in church and at Bible camp, that only certain believers could rightfully call themselves Christians — and that didn’t include Catholics, or for that matter, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians ...
Religion scholar Randall Balmer told this personal story in the introduction of his book “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” At its 1989 publication, the book was hailed as a definitive and heartfelt scholarly exploration into the world of evangelical Christianity — a world-view that had come, by then, to dominate Republican politics.
More than a half-century has gone by since the encounter between young Randy and Stanley, and we’re still wrestling with what it means to be an evangelical Christian.
Weighing in on the issue in the Jan. 24 “Sojourners” newsletter is none other than Randall Balmer, now the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N. H.
By aligning themselves with right-wing politics, Balmer said, evangelicals “began systematically to disregard the teachings of Jesus as well as the noble legacy of 19th century evangelicals, who advocated for those on the margins of society: The poor, prisoners, minorities and women.”
He even suggests ceding the name “evangelical” to the right-wingers, and adopting the name “sojourner Christians” for people who profess belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but not adhesion to right-wingers’ political and personal philosophies.
Some members of my denomination — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — also have suggested jettisoning the name “evangelical” because of its political connotations.
I’m not there yet. I don’t think I ever will be.
Evangelical — meaning “of or according to the Gospel (Good News)” — is who I am, and who I always will be, the Holy Spirit willing.
I would say, as Balmer and others have said, that a political agenda focused on guns, science denial and enriching the rich — with seeming indifference to the poor and refugees, and outright hatred for anyone who does not embrace traditional gender roles — is not the agenda to which I sense the Spirit’s calling.
Although some evangelicals might exclude me from the subset of those who have the right to call themselves “evangelical” or “Christian,” simply because my politics are not theirs, I do not do the same to them.
While I disagree with those whose faith is expressed in right-wing politics, they are, as far as I’m concerned, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
The name “evangelical” is too powerful and too holy to cede. The word is meant to unite. I won’t use it to divide.
I know, I know. The words “evangelical” and “Christian” have become to some, triggers, which will cause them to shut their ears.
I confess my sin, and ask forgiveness, for not being more forthright in conveying what those words mean to me.
They mean Good News. The Creator loves you. Christ lives among you, and died for you. Your life matters.