True evangelical faith

The term has baggage, but we can still claim it

Jan 1, 2018 by

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The most important religion story of 2017, according to the Religion News Association, was “Trumpvangelicals.” Until a couple of years ago, no one could have imagined such a discordant blend. Yet now the word tops a chart of newsmakers — and, for more than a few Christians, ruins the second half by association with the first.

It’s not the word, specifically, that’s the problem but the fact that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and remain his most reliable base of support. To other evangelicals, that’s a profound embarrassment and enough to prompt a mass exodus from the label.

“The term feels irreversibly tainted, and those of us who don’t align with the currently understood description are distancing ourselves to preserve our consciences,” Jen Hatmaker, an author with a large evangelical following, told the Washington Post.

“Evangelical” used to mean someone who occupied a middle ground between mainline Protestantism and fundamentalism. But it has become synonymous with loyalty to the Republican Party and President Trump. Many of its adherents appear to value culture-war victories above all else, sacrificing their ethical credibility by rationalizing the sins of their own and abandoning the principle that character matters.

Is “evangelical” damaged beyond repair? Christian author David P. Gushee thinks so. “White evangelicalism and me? We’re through,” he writes in Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism.

Mennonite scholar Richard G. Kyle, an emeritus professor at Tabor College, critiques evangelicals in his new book, Popular Evangelicalism in American Culture. In his view, evangelicals may think they’ve influenced American culture, but in fact the opposite has happened. Rather than making America more Christian, they’ve let their faith become thoroughly Americanized. They worship American greatness and imagine a pre-1960s version of U.S. culture represents the ideal Christian life.

For all of these reasons, it’s tempting to join Gushee, Hatmaker and others on their way out the door of evangelicalism. But here’s another option: Take inspiration from Menno Simons.

“True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant,” the Dutch Anabaptist leader wrote in 1539. He went on to describe what an evangelist ought to do. The list included acts of mercy — feeding the hungry, consoling the oppressed — as well as teaching the Word of God, praying for persecutors, returning good for evil and seeking “that which is lost.”

Stripped of 21st-century baggage, “evangelical” means gospel, or good news. Menno was right to describe a good-news faith as one that feeds both body and soul. Works of love and words of truth are both evangelical. It’s a wonderful, inclusive term. Some Mennonites today claim it more avidly than ever, describing themselves as evangelical Anabaptists. The emerging Evana Network merges the two words in its name. Canada’s Evangelical Mennonite Conference embraces it.

Menno Simons claimed an evangelical identity. His spiritual descendants should, too, while making clear how we differ from current assumptions about it. Whether or not we like the word itself is unimportant compared to whether we live by Menno Simons’ definition. Mennonites should stand out as a different breed of evangelical and reaffirm what a true evangelical faith means to us.

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  • Walter Bergen

    Thank-you. Menno Simons is an excellent resource for seeking to navigate troubled waters. His double conversion, first to faith and then to obedience to the gospel has much to teach us. His meditation on the various stages of conviction, repentance and then faith has integrity even today. His discourse ‘contra jan mathjis’ also instructive on how to discern truth and heresy. Thank-you. Menno Simons is a great, common starting point to help us seek a path forward.

  • Rainer Moeller

    Well, in a struggle between “Trumpvangelicals” and “(Washington-)Post-vangelicals” I’ll always side wth the first.
    First reason: America in the Fifties was not so much “great” in a military sense, but it was indeed a basically Christian country. This is correlated with the fact that it was a country in which the masses had a rather good life and much more security than nowadays. There were no less acts of mercy than nowadays, but obviously mercy was more effective. So, America in the Fifties is neither an ideal nor an idol but a useful mark of orientation – how could we go down so much? And what can we learn from our fathers and grandfathers?
    Secondly, nobody believes that the Evangelicals have won any cultural war. They have obviously lost and now they need refuge from the vengefulness and ruthlessness of the victorious party. (Take the gay-wedding trials.) That’s why Trump is so important: He can prevent the anti-Evangelical leftists from taking over the SCOTUS.

  • Rainer Moeller

    But I will read with interest the book written by Prof. Kyle from Tabor College.
    After Truman, America didn’t take part in a war (it indeed finished one: the Suez war). More people than ever (industrial workers included) were middle class. The average worker could afford a house and a car and a family (even including decent education for his children). Crime rates were rather low (without the present level of incarceration). And drugs other than booze were nearly unknown.

    Never did the U.S. more liken a Mennonite colony.
    This is not who we are! This is un-Christian! We must march into the opposite direction!

  • Elwood Yoder

    Thank you for this excellent editorial on combining the best of evangelical and Anabaptist beliefs. It is refreshing to read this in the MWR, as it resonates with my beliefs that Mennonites will lose their way unless they clearly proclaim the good news of Jesus for changed lives, and the way of love, peace, and justice as so ably described by Menno Simons as “true evangelical faith.” This was a much appreciated editorial for me!

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