Soul-Searching: Two Views on the Problem – and Power – of the Word “Evangelical”

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

by Tony Campolo and Terry Cooper

Evangelicals Have an Image Problem,
by Tony Campolo.

A year ago, while on Harvard’s campus, I asked one of the professors why the folks there were so negative toward evangelicals. The professor answered, “Imagine yourself at lunch. Seated at the table with you is the leader of the Gay-Lesbian task force, a feminist, and a neo-Marxist African American. You propose playing a word game wherein each of them should respond to whatever word you mention, with the first word that comes into their minds. Then the first word you say is ‘evangelical.’ How do you think each of them will respond?”

I said, given those three, I suppose I would hear them say things like ‘bigot,’ ‘homophobe,’ ‘male chauvinist,’ and ‘reactionary.’

The professor then asked, “Now, to these same three, you say the name, ‘Jesus!’ What reactions will you get to that?”

I paused a moment and then said softly, “Caring, understanding, forgiving, kind, empathetic…”

“Does it bother you, Tony,” he asked, “that the name of Jesus elicits a completely opposite reaction than the name evangelical?”

That does bother me. However, when I explained how bothered I was to a fellow evangelical he said, “I really don’t care what people like that think about us!”

Of course, that’s the point. While evangelical Christians should never compromise what they believe in order to gain the approval of the secular community, they should care if people out there see little, if anything, of Jesus in us. That being the case, we need to ask some very serious questions about ourselves.

A friend of mine is part of a support group for parents whose children have AIDS. As this circle of brokenhearted mothers and fathers shared their concerns, one mother said, “My other sons don’t know about their brother having AIDS. I’m not worried about the older one because he’s so kind and affirming. But my youngest son has become an evangelical Christian, and from what he’s already said about homosexuals I know he’ll be filled with contempt when he finds out about his brother.”

Last year, I had a debate with Gary Bauer on the campus of a leading evangelical college and, in the course of our exchanges, I happened to say that America should show as much concern for justice for Palestinian people as we do for the security of Israel. I lost the evangelical crowd on that one.

I try to point out to those critics of evangelicalism that a lot of us do not fit their stereotypes. While we tend to be overwhelmingly pro-life, on the other issues a great minority of us are not part of the Religious Right. We are critics of the Bush tax cuts, which we see as a bonanza for the rich while necessitating cutting services to the poor (i.e. ending after-school tutoring programs for 500,000 children). We want universal healthcare; advocate legal protection for homosexuals; oppose what we see as a growing militarism in America; and are appalled by this administration’s environmental policies. Unfortunately, the Religious Right controls the microphone. They own almost all of the thousands of religious radio stations across the country, and put on most of the religious television shows. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are the celebrities of evangelical broadcasting, and hence are primary definers to the rest of the world what it means to be evangelical. Those of us who do not buy into their agenda either have to find a way to tell the world that there is a broad spectrum of types of evangelicals, or we just may have to come up with a new name for ourselves if we don’t like what the word “evangelical” presently projects.

Dr. Tony Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. He is also the founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE), which supports programs for “at-risk” children in cities across the United States and Canada.

** ** ** ** **

Time to Reclaim our Name,
by Terry Cooper.

Some have suggested that ESA and other groups using the word “evangelical” in their names and public documents should cease doing so, since the word has become a liability for progressives seeking to influence policies and programs operating in the public square.

It’s time for us to cease attending to these anxieties. If many progressives working in the secular and sacred realms feel that “evangelical” is a code word for all that is anathema to the development of “enlightened” social action, then we must rewrite the code!

Instead, we must publicly reclaim and proclaim the root of the word: “good news.” We must proclaim that this good news is as relevant today to the health and welfare of society and individuals as it was 2,000 years ago. Unfortunately, in our struggle for sociocultural significance, we have often failed in public and private discourse to respond to the use of “evangelical” as a code word for everything secular progressives purport to disdain. In this code, “evangelical” stands for pallid, hair-sprayed, gated-community, gay-hating, fear-mongering, reactionary groups seeking to restore a mythical theocratic Good Old Days.

We cannot let allow this to continue.

Instead, we must reclaim and proclaim the core expression of our evangelical belief: the certain hope and knowledge that broken individuals and society can be transformed and restored by the presence and person of an incarnate Christ, whose transforming love penetrates and exceeds the boundaries of mere human capacity to impact the lives of the least, last, and lost.

If we forget this, if we abandon the word that most clearly defines who and what we are, then ESA and other evangelical groups will ultimately decline into marginal “faith-based” groups lacking the power to do much except posture and proclaim our good intentions. Thus the task of ESA is not to abandon its evangelical heritage and position, but to step up to the challenge of proclaiming the good news to whole populations that are alienated and isolated from mainstream expressions of faith. ESA’s proclamation of the two-sided (faith/works) gospel resonated at their 30th anniversary conference last summer. As one urban youth pastor pointed out at the conference, the need is not to retreat, but instead to press forward and develop tools and training that would help his youth – the youth of East L.A. – develop the tools and worldview that would enable them to understand, interact with, and transform the community around them that is based on the unique and irreplacable distinctives of evangelical Christianity.

If nothing else, we should be angry that the word evangelical has been hijacked by the digitally distributed messages of double-knit troglodytes of the faith-based media, who have in fact proclaimed messages of hate for marginalized people with sexual and cultural lifestyles lacking the Focus-On-the-Family seal of approval. We should be angry about this and strive to reclaim the word. We should strive to demonstrate to the world that just as Jesus spent his time with the poor, the maimed, the outcast, the diseased, and the sexually destroyed, he is today the first and the last at the bedside of the AIDS patient, or is present from the birth, through the life, and at the death of the most isolated dweller of the garbage slums of the world. How could we even think about giving up the most powerful form of identification with the hope and light of the world? How can we be so ready to give up the struggle to the hate-mongers and fear- promoters on both sides of the sociocultural divide?

How are we so ready to be captured by the boundary defining language codes of society?

I say it is time to reclaim our name. It is time to remind the world that the gospel is not an ethereal, gnostic message of suffering today leading to sainthood across the river, but that it is a cup of cold water and a slice of rich hearty bread, shared at a table at which all are welcome. ESA has spent 30 years hammering this message into the hearts and minds of the world. Now is not the time to stop identifying ourselves as evangelicals. Now is the time to equip the next generation of evangelicals with the tools that were so carefully hard-won over a generation of struggle. If right-wing power-mongers have cleared the table of all but those who look and act like them, then let’s do a Jesus-in-the-temple action, clear the table, and reset it for the gays and drag queens, for the illegal immigrant, for the nickel-and-dimed single parents, for the angry and alienated youth of America’s streets, and for all the others around the world who never appear at the podiums of the mighty. Let’s show the world how to break bread and read Scripture with the damned and the outcast of the world.

After all, according to my New Testament, it’s their table anyway.

Formerly of both ESA and Public/Private Ventures, Terry Cooper is currently the sole proprietor and operator of Barrelstave Consulting, Inc.

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