What it Means to be 'Evangelical'

For that half of America who were wishing deep in their bones that President Bush would not be re-elected, there's no time to wallow in despair. It's time to get a grip on what election analysts have been telling us about how the "evangelical" vote put Bush over the top, citing exit poll data indicating "moral values" as being the determining factor at the ballot box last week.

While many, if not most, so-called evangelicals are conservative, it's not true of all evangelicals. The evangelical right doesn't have a monopoly on "moral values," nor do they have a monopoly on proper and rigorous biblical interpretation.

In fact, having been deeply steeped in a fundamentalist religious tradition my entire life, I'll go so far as to say that these Bible-thumpers are just that – people who thump on the Bible without bothering to open it up and wrestle with the prophetic tradition contained within.

Progressives, liberals and leftists can't engage them on this because they don't have the vocabulary. They've allowed their fear and ignorance of the Bible to prevent them from seeing that it contains some of the most radically egalitarian, progressive ideals in Western civilization.

Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian activist, editor of Sojourner's Magazine and author of the book The Soul of Politics points to what I'm talking about. It's worth quoting him at length.

"The word 'evangelical' is a good word, although it's got lots of baggage and people have all these images and fears," he said. "I understand all that, what people think it means, but the word harkens back to a wonderful biblical word, the 'evangel,' which means the good news. So it's supposed to be good news. The fact that evangelicals aren't often thought to be good news is part of the present problem," he says.

But what kind of good news? "Jesus, in his first sermon – his Nazareth manifesto, you might say – said, 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.' To be evangelical means to preach and live and act in a way that is good news to poor people."

This is the primary social issue in the Bible (not abortion or gay marriage) – what God says about those who are left out and left behind, whom Jesus calls "the least of these" (Matthew 25).

"We haven't been doing good Bible study," Wallis continues. "We have been ignoring the Bible, and we have been conformed to our culture. Romans 12:2 says, 'Don't be conformed to this world. Be transformed by the renewal of your minds'... Too many evangelical Christians are like affluent, upper-middle class suburban dwellers more than they are like those who love and cherish and follow the Bible."

But Wallis, even in his criticism of his Christian brothers and sisters, isn't criticizing in a self-righteous way.

"They love the Bible. But they're not paying attention to whole vast areas of biblical teaching that call for economic justice. You can't be evangelical and associate yourself with Jesus and what he says about the poor and just have no other domestic concerns than tax cuts for wealthy people."

"These are good people. But this is not biblical thinking. We are not the servant of the state. We are the conscience of the state. ... We're not just service providers. We are prophetic interrogators. Why are so many people hungry? ... Why do we have one of six of our children poor, and one of three of these are children of color? 'Why?' is the prophetic question."

"So I want the President to be more evangelical than his domestic policy shows so far in terms of fighting poverty. So I have no trouble with the faith. I want it to be applied. I want a faith that takes Jesus seriously in foreign policy. When Jesus says, 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' what does that mean? ... He doesn't say the 'peace lovers.' Blessed are the peacemakers."

"I think it's not credible to believe that Jesus' command to be peacemakers is best fulfilled by American military supremacy through the imposition of Pax Americana. Do we really think that's what Jesus meant by 'Blessed are the peacemakers?' I think that bears some evangelical reevaluation, in regard to our foreign policy."

Let the Great Evangelical Debate begin. Democrats better dust off their bibles and get in on the conversation – that is, if they want to sever the unholy alliance between free-market and religious fundamentalism.

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