June 24, 2013
Is “evangelical” still a useful term?
Theologian and peace activist Michael Westmoreland-White talks about the way the meaning of the word evangelical has changed from the time he was a teenager in the 1970s. At that time, the word was proudly claimed by a progressive “evangelical left,” filled with leaders and organizations (our own EEWC among them) that sprang up with vision, dedication, and concern for social justice and peace. Time magazine called 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical.” But if that title were to appear on a magazine cover this year, it would mean something altogether different. What happened? Why the change? Westmoreland-White talks about the debates over biblical inerrancy and especially how the religious right took over the meaning of the term and made it virtually synonymous with conservative, reactionary, extremist politics. And the media went right along with the new definition. Further, Westmoreland-White says, “The Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons (and, later the Mohlers, Rick Warrens, etc.) didn’t just say, ‘Yes, we are also part of the Evangelical heritage—this term includes us.’ No, they laid claim to SOLE OWNERSHIP of the label and denied that those of us in the Evangelical Left were ‘true evangelicals’” (emphasis his). Especially interesting (and disturbing) is the long paragraph in which he lists the things that come to most people’s minds when they think about who evangelicals are— and what they stand for and stand against. He asks, “Is it any wonder that many of the Evangelical Left began to be ambivalent about identifying with the term ‘Evangelical’?”