Quite a few people think the answer to the title question is YES.
Alwyn Thomson makes the case with typical incisive analysis in a post at PS at Contemporary Christianity’s website
The word ‘evangelical’, he argues, is now theologically almost meaningless. Evangelicalism as a movement has undermined the church. And evangelicalism, especially in the USA, is fatally compromised by its alliance with political power.
Alwyn knows what he’s talking about. When research officer for Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI) he developed a lot of excellent material on evangelical identity, politics and theology, and now he lives in the USA.
In America, Christianity Today is asking the same question. Scot McKnight has argued that the word is so compromised politically that it is time to give it up.
The issue is politics; the presenting painful reality is Trump. The reality is 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. The word “evangelical” now means Trump-voter. The word “evangelical” is spoiled …
… Which now means evangelical=Republican=Conservative=populist=Trump …
… Today the term evangelical in the USA means (supposedly) conservative in politics, and hence “Votes Republican.” This definition is not going away. The political folks have won.
Let the political evangelicals have the term …
…. The one thing I despise about Christianity in the USA is its aligning with a political party. Mainliners have done it; they’re Democrats. Evangelicals have followed suit; they’re Republicans. Politicization is accomplished.
Let the rest of us call ourselves Christians.
Others, like Roger Olson, know well the difficulties associated with the word but refuse to let bad use take away right use.
Here in Ireland, evangelicals are so tiny that the vast majority of people have little or no idea what the word stands for. If they do, it is probably something like one of the following ..
- zealous for something: ‘She was almost evangelical in her enthusiasm for sushi.’
- fundamentalist: ‘ISIS are the evangelicals of the Muslim world’ (I heard this said by an Irish reporter on radio)
- Intolerant, obscurantist, right-wing, Trump supporters
- Conservative reactionaries against the emerging liberal new Ireland, particularly on sex and gender issues.
None of which are exactly complimentary definitions.
If the heartbeat of evangelicalism is an ethos that feels something like this then I don’t want to give up what it describes:
- A love for the Bible leading to personal transformation
- An emphasis on repentance and faith
- A focus on the cross as that which makes reconciliation with God possible
- Activism as living out faith in Christ with integrity and authenticity
- And a Christ-centered faith that issues in discipleship, obedience and good works empowered by the Spirit
And, as I’ve posted about before, this sort of evangelicalism alive and well in countless individuals’ lives across the globe.
But what to call it?
Is the word ‘evangelical’ necessary in order to describe such faith? Is it fatally compromised – mostly by an American fusion of religion and politics that has global consequences?
If we answer ‘no’ and ‘yes’ to these two questions then we need to find a different way of talking about who John Stott called ‘Bible people’ and ‘Gospel people’. Whether just ‘Christian’ or something else.
In my Irish context, it’s not a word that is very helpful. Trump and American Republican co-opting of the term plays a part, but there are other historical factors at play too. So I have no great objection to dropping it.
Or should the majority world evangelical movement – as defined by the Cape Town Commitment for example – resist being defined by the ugly politicization of what is only a relatively small sector of the global evangelical family? Can the word ‘evangelical’ be redeemed?
Comments, as ever, welcome.