Can American evangelicalism be saved?

Print More

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and editor of "Still Evangelical." Images courtesy of InterVarsity Press.

(RNS) — Shocked. Devastated. And most of all, worried about the future.

That’s how I’d describe the tone of the new book “Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning,” in which evangelical leaders grapple with the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, which galvanized an identity crisis for American evangelicals.

As contributor Shane Claiborne puts it in the book, when more than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for a man whose “actions and life choices contradict the core values of evangelicalism itself,” there’s a problem: Jesus and the GOP have been whirled up in a blender, and there may not be hope of separating them ever again.

What, then, happens to the term “evangelical”?

I spoke with Mark Labberton, who edited the volume at the request of InterVarsity Press, about the book and what it represents. Their goal, he says, was “to have an array of people from across the evangelical spectrum from left to the right, and also to have a diversity of voices with gender and race. It included people who were leaders of institutions or organizations, or people that are involved in movements, like Shane Claiborne or Lisa Sharon Harper.”

Harper, an African-American woman whose essay opens the collection, is a case study of how complicated the term “evangelical” is, because when the media use it, what they often mean is white evangelicals. Which would not include her. Yet she opens the book by revealing the come-to-Jesus moment she experienced as a young teenager in 1983, a conversion story that would be familiar to many evangelicals, replete as it is with memories of Amy Grant concerts, camp meetings and altar calls on a sawdust trail.

And she’s not alone. Many of the essayists are Christians of color, including InterVarsity President Tom Lin, seminary professor Soong-Chan Rah, and pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal, who contributes the book’s most arresting metaphor when she writes:

“My blood type is O-negative, so I am the universal donor—a blood bank’s dream. A universal donor can give to anyone, so hospital shelves are lined with O negative. The reverse is not true; the universal donor can receive only O negative blood. In seminary, I learned that the universal theological donor is a white evangelical. This donor is always translating books into other languages, planting churches in other countries, setting up seminaries on other continents, and sending professors to teach global Christians. And this donor never seems to receive from the global church.”

Part of the impetus for the book, says Labberton, is to challenge a narrative that equates “white” with “normative” by soliciting the voices of nonwhite Christian

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary and editor of “Still Evangelical?” book. Photo courtesy of InterVarsity Press

leaders. It’s a way of troubling the waters of what people mean when they say “evangelical,” which Labberton says has become “an almost unusable word … so indefinite that it’s difficult to determine what people mean when they use it.”

Labberton’s own weekend is a case in point. As the president of the evangelical flagship institution Fuller Theological Seminary, Labberton is deep in the thick of American evangelicalism. When I spoke to him on Thursday (March 1), he was heading to a speaking event in California, then getting on a plane to attend Billy Graham’s funeral on Friday. There he would be surrounded by various strands of evangelicalism, from the old-school Christian crusading of Billy himself to the relentless political crusading of Billy’s son Franklin.

READ: Billy Graham’s granddaughter sends a wise message to her famous uncle

And that’s just varieties of white evangelicalism. There are so many others, many of which have been uncentered, marginalized or ignored. One problem caused by people like Franklin Graham and other Trump supporters, according to several essayists in this book, is that they are actively alienating evangelical Christians of a rising generation who care about diversity, inclusion and having leaders who practice what they preach.

“The fundamental instinct of millennials about life is that it’s about authenticity and integrity, so the crisis of this election is that evangelicals appear to be willing to sell their birthright for political power, but surrender authenticity and integrity,” says Labberton. “They’re people who are longing, and who are disillusioned by an older generation who have sold themselves for influence, while compromising the gospel and its central character.”

But there’s hope for evangelicalism, if the essays in this book are any indication. There can be rebirth from the ashes of evangelicalism’s cultural captivity.

“Evangelicalism is far deeper, wider, and greater than its particular foibles born of particular times,” writes Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior, in an essay that Labberton holds up as his favorite in the book. She maintains that it was evangelicalism that catalyzed an “activist spirit” inside of her, “molding and refining a passion to do right politically, socially, personally.”

Evangelicalism can survive the damage done by its political enthrallment, but only if it embraces change and diverse voices.