Why are many once proud evangelicals now ambivalent about the term?

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’?”

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.